When I tell my friends from college that I moved to Los Angeles, most of them ask why in the world I choose to stay in L.A.
Coming off the East coast, an attraction to Los Angeles is not only unfashionable but also misunderstood. I've tried to touch on it before, and here I'll crowdsource some help.
It is difficult to capture the Los Angeles ethos in a photograph without falling to tropes or banality. Another strip mall? The mountains with palm trees in the foreground? The phenomenology of Los Angeles is woven from threads of of experience, rather than a patchwork of moments. It is the opposite of photogenic.
In my eyes, New York City is an amazing city to visit. Take the subway, eat a bagel, go to a museum, see a friend (or five). But it can suck to live in New York between the demanding social scene and fewer and fewer square feet per person. Conversely, Los Angeles is lovely to live in—regular sunshine, diverse topography, cheap food—but it sucks to visit. Half of your visit will be spent on the freeway, going between urban cores. It's tough for a visit to have any cohesion; the moments are banal.
No matter what you do in L.A., your behavior is appropriate for the city. Los Angeles has no assumed correct mode of use. You can have fake breasts and drive a Ford Mustang – or you can grow a beard, weigh 300 pounds, and read Christian science fiction novels. Either way, you’re fine: that’s just how it works.
Los Angeles, the Improbably Sustainable City, makes no sense. I always felt like in the East Coast cities I know, the temperament of the city informs the stage on which you act. L.A. doesn't so much assert its own personality as much as it wears it with a wink while sitting in the seat next to you as you both watch the slow-motion apocalypse of Southern California.
A lot of people think L.A. is just eyesore after eyesore. Full of mini-malls, palm trees, and billboards. So what?
So says Ice Cube in this short on L.A. and the Eames. He's right—so what?
"One man's eyesore is another man's paradise."
The individualism of the defining characters of Los Angeles—the creation of one's own paradise—cannot last. The ability for the city to act as a partner in finding one's own, glinting in the sunlight, might persist.
In a simple, unweighted network, I immediately think of the traditional density metric: ratio of realized edges over possible edges. We can also entertain more nuanced values, like number of nodes in cliques over the total number of nodes. Even median path length is a decent measure of density. When we have edge weights that represent "length" or some such, possibilities expand.
These graph-theoretic networks can exist happily without worrying about spatial embedding. (Unless you want to get into that in a very precise way.) The whole point of graph isomorphism is that we want to think of graphs as isomorphic regardless of how they are drawn.
I now spend some time each week at Civic Projects, a planning consulting firm. We're working on a project that is all about overlapping networks in urban space. How does the network of bike paths commingle with the network of car-centric streets? How do networks of wayfinding systems intertwine with networks of lighting infrastructure?
These networks are much different from ones I was used to in college. They are inherently spatially embedded and human-centric. Isomorphism doesn't matter: these are networks with anecdotal, instantiated importance.
Urban infrastructure networks also range widely in type. If we want to talk about the "network" of parking infrastructure, raw count of parking spots per unit area is a decently descriptive metric. Node-based metrics aren't very good at representing the density of, say, a bicycle path network, because these metrics can collapse travel distances. Instead, we want something that captures the travel times and interconnectedness. In lighting, if we treat each source of light as a node in the network, some measure of bulk distance between elements helps grasp and what needs to be measured for best human use.
I'm coming around to three major types of urban networks. (Nothing novel here, just useful for classification.)
Each of these necessitates a different strategy for density.
Context-dependent answers are necessary to make effective, well-reasoned, and responsible metrics for these types. And sometimes, a particular street feature doesn't fit neatly into one category. Trash cans, for instance—we want to consider both an areal density, but also think carefully about the causes for litter—maybe line-of-sight to a receptacle—which falls more into a path density representation. We might need to explore metrics of both forms to make an intelligent decision regarding a proposed system.
Why is any of this useful?
Lots of planners want rules-of-thumb when pitching concepts and making cost estimations. Infrastructure network statistics can also help codify best practices for urban design.
Lots more research required in this area.
(colophon: I am now at SIAM CSE 2017 to run a workshop on social systems modeling, through the Broader Engagement program. Brain getting back into math mode.)
The Rampant Wave playground.
I've started using the phrase "infrastructural moments" to label certain human experiences in the landscape. Infrastructure is all around us but is designed to go unnoticed; infrastructure shouldn't have "moments" as much as it enables timelines. But
There are specific instances of friction in systems which cause "moments" and reveal the infrastructure underneath. Is most often a negative friction—an annoyance, or something that doesn't happen as expected—but can range towards neutral or joyful too.
We expect our roads to be smooth, our streetlamps to function, our water to come out of the faucet. When we encounter an unanticipated road hazard, a dark street, and a gap in our water service, these are infrastructural moments that can trigger deep engagement with our infrastructure space.
I have collected some instantiations of "guerilla urbanism," which are very much examples of infrastructural moments. When individuals take the agency to seed-bomb an otherwise untended highway divider, it is a moment of recognition of the structures that are designed to maintain that space. Graffiti artists quickly learn the processes by which graffiti is erased or left.
Skateboarders are constantly mining urban infrastructure towards repurposing. Can this ADA-compliant ramp become my launching point? Can I get a ride in between police beat cycles? Skateboarding becomes a continuum of infrastructural moments, which informs an overhaul in outlook. Walk around a city with a skateboarder, and you won't see curbs as just curbs any more. Skateboarding is an entire approach to the built environment.
I walk West on Beverly Boulevard to work downtown. After a bridge over Glendale, Beverly becomes 1st St. On the Eastern side of the bridge, there's an on-ramp squeezed between some low-lying office buildings and the road. You can only access the ramp from an awkward turn at the intersection underneath the bridge. It's a very high-visibility place, but hard to access. In my 2+ months of doing this walk, there's been an old corvette with a flat tire on this ramp. Despite the parking spots along this ramp are labeled as 2-hour parking, the corvette has never had a ticket. Whether intentional or not, the owner seems to have found a gap in parking enforcement patterns. This is an infrastructural moment.
Another example: the ramp between the 110 South and 105 going West has a rate-limiting light. I approached the light one evening and saw it on at a distance, but no cars in the queue. As I neared, the light turned off completely; the flow was sparse enough that the light was no longer necessary. Did the power go out? Did I trigger something? What conditions turn the light off (it can't be manual, I would think)? I was present at the moment of an infrastructural adjustment—this is an infrastructural moment.
What other forms do infrastructural moments take? In what other contexts to they inform dispositions (ala the skateboarder)? Are there fundamental differences in moments of sublimity, frustration, and utility? How beneficial is it for these moments to be more common, more reflective?
We launched the Learning Gardens Kickstarter a week and a half ago and immediately blew through our goal. Floored to be a part of such an exciting project. Read some campaign updates on our little blog.
The Kickstarter money is building towards Learning Gardens microgrants—monetary support for groups and self-initiated non-institutional education experiments. Basically, the grants I wish I could apply for.
I'll be seeking ways to give more time to Learning Gardens in the future. There is so much research we could do—into effective group organization, online community management, pedagogy in the age of the web—and so little time I can give when I'm only scraping by as-is. Perhaps we can find a supportive residency or such.
I've been stewing on infrastructure and abstraction. This is probably because I spent a few lovely, long days in Providence with my friend Nic around the holidays and these are the two broad topics we talk most about. In this post I'll try to untangle some thoughts.
Both infrastructure and abstraction are afforded by systems. That is, when dealing only with anecdotes or one-offs, they are not necessary. Both work only at scale.
I'm with Saul Griffith in thinking that infrastructural change is humankind's surest bet for establishing a new baseline in the midst of climate change. Physical infrastructure is one of the few touchpoints we have in building more intention and visibility into massive-scale patterns of consumption and use. Infrastructure is always engaged with entropy, stupidity, and necessity. Awareness of infrastructures, its mechanisms, and its interfaces with individuals is increasingly necessary to avoid or subvert exploitation and stagnation.
Monica Smith in Infrastructure as Dialogue:
Nobody builds their own infrastructure. You don’t build your own highway, train line, water pipe, your own sewer. Those are things that connect you and your household to everybody else sequentially in your neighborhood, in your region, from the city out into the broader hinterlands. Infrastructure as that physical connective tissue is what I’ve called a materialized dialogue between people in authority who organize the development of infrastructure and people who are the end users of infrastructure.
People talk back through infrastructures—in repurposing, desecrating, celebrating, or otherwise—and interpret them far beyond imagined use of their designers. Construction of personal infrastructures and modification of existing systems are instances of what Nic calls subjunctive architectures within infrastructure: structures that can reflect use patterns and user desires.
Ostensibly, public infrastructure is civil in nature and use. But, increasingly, publicly-owned services may not be the default, and technological alternatives or subjunctive architectures appear necessary to return ownership to human-scale stakeholders.
Whether run by co-op or monopoly, infrastructure is necessarily an abstraction. Our intuitive end-user interfaces at the faucet, electricity meter, and sidewalk are only peep-holes into networks of scale, but they are peep-holes at a scale we can empathize with. Those working in infrastructure at a high-level talk about network upkeep and integrity and my hunch is, though I am very possibly wrong, that the activity at this level generally keeps action at an arm's length of abstraction away. This is to avoid getting overwhelmed; the details go to middle management. Abstraction is a tool for compressing complexity into templated forms that make use of economies of scale in thought.
(Mathematics notation is an amazing success story of abstraction: our symbols—while far from perfect—allow us to teach bleeding-edge 17th-century mathematics to 15-year-olds. This symbology has condensed logical patterns and modes of use and meaning into easy-to-use objects and ideas. Calculus notation is a control panel designed to do calculus.)
The power of abstraction comes with risk too. We are shocked, often, when large organizations make dehumanizing decisions, when algorithms consider only populations rather than individuals, and when systems crush individuality. Humans get abstracted away. It is easier to fire the Content Marketing Team than it is to fire Lisa, your friend down the hall.
Infrastructure is a crucial component of development and one that inherently lies at the intersection of humanity (who use it) and abstraction (which governs it).
I absolutely devoured Keller Easterling's Extrastatecraft in 2015, which is the stem of many of these thoughts.
(Tangentially, the abstraction in this book is crucial; another conversation with Nic settled that we didn't feel Extrastatecraft was an argument to be taken as raw fact, but rather one to read almost as prose, analogously to watching Adam Curtis' films.)
A major component of Smith and Easterling's arguments is the recognition of cultural norms and use as infrastructure—just one in flow rather than fixed as with physical infrastructure.
"Cultural Infrastructure"—yep, it's Ideology
Something I'm curious about is how to consider nomadic civilizations and their relationships with infrastructure. At first pass nomadism might seem "infrastructure-free," but of course traveling people need traversable landscapes, and patterns of use necessarily embed themselves in the land (often through livestock).
I linked to this article on landscape in the anthropocene in an earlier post, but the relevant takeaway here is viewing land as the ur-infrastructure; it is the infrastructure on which other infrastructures build, and it is indestructible. Ecologies might die, but in their ruins the land beneath will be exposed. Thank goodness for geography.
I know next to nothing about nomadic civilization historically or in present-day, but I wonder if some research could yield interesting reflections on their approaches to infrastructure. Toby wrote a great article on homeownership and "digital nomads" to tackle that sphere.