Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Patterns of Human Trajectories, the Essence of Cities, Jacobs vs. Mumford

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 7, 2008

Via JP Rangaswami (Confused of Calcutta) this link to an article on the website of Nature Magazine, entitled Mobile phones demystify commuter rat race: Tracking study proves that humans are creatures of habit. The essence of the story:

“By monitoring the signals from 100,000 mobile-phone users sending and receiving calls and text messages, a team from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, has worked out some apparently universal laws of human motion.

The results could help epidemiologists to predict how viruses will spread through populations, and help urban planners and traffic forecasters to allocate resources.

Albert-László Barabási and his colleagues show that most people, perhaps unsurprisingly, are creatures of habit. They make regular trips to the same few destinations such as work and home, and pepper these with occasional longer forays such as vacations.”

The article was especially interesting to me — in small part because I am a similar creature of habit, satisfied by, but also mildly embarrassed about, clinging to comfortable routine trajectories between and within New York, Sofia, and Istanbul, the three cities amongst which I divide my time — and in large part because of my interests in examining and clarifying the nature of cities and of the infrastructure of the exchange of knowledge.

As the decades pass, I continue to examine and debate the dichotomy best expressed by the polarity between Lewis Mumford’s epic “The City in History” and Jane Jacobs’s 1960s urban manifesto “The Life and Death of Great American Cities.” In essence: Are cities composed of great monuments and the products of ambitious physical plans or are they more a function of the aggregated trajectories, intentionality, and intersections of their inhabitants? To express this in terms of New York’s ambiguous struggle with the legacies of master builder and politico Robert Moses: Which view will triumph, the critiques of the displacements and damage to the human fabric of the city Moses’s grandiose road-building projects caused, this as expressed in Robert Caro’s epic biography of Moses “The Power Broker,” or the admiration for the art deco industrial styling of the great bridges and other infrastructural monuments Moses pushed through to realization, this as per the series of “revisionist” museum exhibitions and academic publications on Moses’s achievements that surfaced in New York two years ago?

At present, I am involved in writing and photography on the changing nature of the city of Istanbul and the bifurcation over the centuries between that city’s great monuments and the trajectories of its inhabitants. More on this if/when the project is authorized to proceed. In the meanwhile, though, in the context of Istanbul, I include this link back to a past posting the second half of which treats an Istanbul photocopy shop and how its function as a node of knowledge exchange is shaped by its location and the physical trajectories and intentionality of its patrons.

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