in Density, Urban Density


Human cognitive mapping abilities are well documented. The addition of GPS devices to this research yield maps of everything that moves in the urban world among the stuff that doesn’t move. Adding urban spatial knowledge from multiple sources to private or individual navigations demands the anticipation of synchronicities that will lead to the design of higher quality urban densities.

Networks are Organic & Non-Linear

The members of 21st c. communities gain a unique spatial knowledge of the earth. They were a long-term minority until recently, but today share an enormous responsibility. Why? New, high-quality urban densities will connect to various larger urban systems. Urban dwellers carry sophisticated cognitive mapping abilities and recognize the importance of connecting to larger urban systems using multiple mobility services.

Learning the patterns of our solar system, or knowing the feel of heightened winds or the sight of darkening clouds, allows us to grasp ideas about a possible weather future. Of course, the human brain makes sense of the world with increased sophistication. Still, in evolutionary terms, space/time pattern recognition and the creation of new patterns combine as perceptive elements that yield unending knowledge.

With prediction comes a sense of hope and security, comfort, and ultimately, the idea that we cannot only design worlds where everything works together, but the inclusion of unexpected, surprising events also offers a promise of imminent insight. This joyful, frightening novelty of human space knowledge leads to human changes’ main issues. Following is a rock-solid, case in point example:

Union Square – The “L” Train Williamsburg

Williamsburg’s new apartment towers developed in the late 90s along the East River. The towers provide enough density to support a waterborne transit across the East River. However, the “L” Train offers transit for thousands of commuters accesses to a vast network of urban places through a tunnel below the river to a considerable transit hub at Union Square. In Williamsburg, the Bedford Avenue Station trip is 10 minutes, and from the Greenpoint Station, seven minutes. Thousands of people can arrive at these destinations per hour with these headways. Over 200,000 use it daily, and it has the potential to double that volume.

As the tunnel reaches its 100th year, the call for an 18 month shut down to prevent the possibility of catastrophic failure brought chaos and eventual capitulation to that possibility.  The neighborhood’s housing rents and prices dropped, some businesses moved to more stable locations during months of public hearings, and MTA stimulated anxiety.

The public mandate is to run the subway system based on about $6.2 billion commuter fares.  It costs 15 billion to run NYC’s 24/7/365 transit system in fat round numbers. The gap comprises a complex arrangement of dedicated taxes drawn from a 12 county metro-region fund and relatively small combinations of gas, mortgage recording, and payroll mobility taxes, along with a portion of the fees paid in tolls taxi fares, and vehicle registrations. A growing list of revenue opportunities is constantly explored. The details expose the recognition of a far broader responsibility for this system’s health among all people moving through the region to access its many advantages.

When Columbia and Cornell’s engineering departments developed an engineering alternative to an 18-month repair shutdown, two issues were shown. Aside from revealing a wealth of urban university brainpower, the first reaction was a sigh of relief with trepidation followed by vast criticism of the MTA’s inept rollout of the issue for public review.  There are many reasons for significant capital development planning, as if agencies were in a “running from the bulls” contest.  In 2018, the MTA:

  1. …operates at a deficit larger than manly nations — $32 billion projected to climb indefinitely. 
  2. …has a century-old system, with a “fix when broken” $350 million track/signal repair plan and a long term need for $6 billion in major repairs.
  3. …its strategy to upgrade all 468 stations only has 51 left, but line failures continue to threaten passenger’s sense of well-being. (Twitter search #fucktheMTA for proof)
  4. …has many masters with controls over a revenue stream embedded in a quagmire of bureaucratic decision making.

Finally, there are many more reasons for community development and transit planners to dissect system improvements. Still, the central reason for this chaos rests squarely on the lack of vision about what America is today at the Federal level. The United States is a metropolitan nation. It is not well-defined by the 50 states. Its power comprises over 380 multi-state regions that represent most of its economic capacity.

The United States has developed complex urban systems that must be looked at in the same way scientists examine the heavens, discover the earth. For example, science continues to measure to study the dynamics of the earth’s atmosphere to predict its weather. The dense urban regions of the planet deserve a similar level of knowledge, but this time it is about human dynamics. I have questions that need answers:

  1. How do we acquire specific kinds of spatial knowledge as individuals in communities and use these abilities to make creative, but undamaging spaces?

The spatial knowledge expressed by an athlete’s skills is a good example.  If these abilities are specialized in a community of athletes, a team is created. In this context, high levels of spatial control will occur in a prescribed space such as a “field of play” with a boundary of some kind and rules for interaction.

  1. What happens when urban designers, planners, and architects face the task of rebuilding and restoring a place for a community?

The skills acquired and deployed in connecting design professionals to this ‘field of play” require many specialized abilities and a wide range of teams. So, indeed, something more than laying out the dimensions of the field of play is needed.

To begin a brief exploration of these two questions, an idea expressed by William Wordsworth (1770–1850) in “The Prelude — Book Seventh” is helpful.  In this long poem, he reflects on his residence in London and midway comes to the following extraordinary observation of urban life.

How often in the overflowing streets,
Have I gone forward with the crowd and said
Unto myself, ‘The face of every one
That passes by me is a mystery!
Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed
By thoughts of what and whither, when and how,
Until the shapes before my eyes became
A second-sight procession, such as glides
Over still mountains, or appears in dreams;

It is about vision.

Just over a century after William Wordsworth wrote of London, Arthur C. Clark’s first novel described human potential and the city as inseparable in The City and the Stars (1956).  After a billion years, the earth had two cities, one of Nature (Lys) and technology (Diaspar). At about the same time, J.G. Ballard’s Billennium (1962) saw “…ninety-five percent of the population trapped in vast urban conurbations. The countryside, and such, no longer existed. Every square foot of ground sprouted a crop of one type or another. The one-time fields and meadows of the world were in effect, factory floors.”

In the center of the century bracketed by Wordsworth and Clark, we find Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Their popularity rests on an American ideal wherein the preeminence of the individual spirit may require a collective vision. Yet, in trying to accomplish this, the individual is weakened, even destroyed. We are reminded by many at the end of this century to remember that the earth cannot “know” of such desolation, but if it did, it could smell regeneration in the moist breath of decay as its source of renewal.

The city is a historical exaggeration made contemporary. The old image is a complex of high buildings surrounded by a broad white apron of single-family, tree-filled towns. The smell of carelessness spills out of day-to-day business affairs, and workers grow more downtrodden and ever more desperate in their daily travels. The city, defined by vast lunatic growth, managed by torrents of savagery, disguises a flimsy gentility, the criminalities of wealth, and the wastefulness of a cancer budding from a few wild cells. It is not the cancer cell’s fault. It is the nature of the beast.

A more contemporary view of the urban world is to see stop, take stock of itself and end its spillage of waste and poisons into land, sea, and air. Once encapsulated, teams of influential individuals will build, restore and develop the city. They will not be part of the massive social collective much feared in the past, but they will share a common goal, to create a way for the wild to be forever wild, one that glides over still mountains and appears in dreams.

The idea of creating a Lys, Diaspar, or something else, cannot be accomplished by an organization or groups of them. First, a network is better at defining the complex layers of urban life. Second, a network can discover and establish the values essential to successful change. Third, networks improve access to primary resources, essentially people with information, ideas, advice, and connections. Fourth, networks influence decision-makers on policy questions in time with sophisticated combinations of analysis and advocacy. Finally, networks are a lasting, self-renewing driver of their theory of change.

The network I am a part of seeks a more extensive system focused on one issue and one word. The core of it is the catastrophe of urbanization as it stands today, and the one word forward is “density.”

Being in the Network on Density

Networks have multiple scopes of work and thinking that produce new “linked scopes” with considerable ease. The overall rapidity of these actions creates the capacity for evaluations that advance the goals of dimension leaders. The linked-scope form of structure yields a direct measure of energy. Each connection represents a flow of information that had an enabling property through the exhibit of a real-world example as the desired effect in the moment or the creation of a specific component.

Standing alone, objects such as the tunnel from Brooklyn to Manhattan for the “L-Train” become digital objects of the urban core.  They can be added to as “tags and categories” of a network as objects. Each tag becomes part of an exponential encouragement for similar levels of change. The connections from one to many align to form pathways built on community adaptations that respect cultural differences and sensitivities. 

Whether a change is in a language or a material thing, a law or a professional practice, networks respond to social change agents capable of shaping active social systems. A booklet from a nonprofit network group included in a presentation entitled Net Gains is available here:

Have a look if you want to have your team (or just you) become part of a network on the question of urbanization and Density, leave a reply to suggest a role.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.