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December 13, 2016  |  permalink

The Experimental City: Serendipity in the City


(Gabriella Gómez-Mont, director of Mexico City’s Laboratory for the City, asked me to elaborate on the idea of cities-as-serendipity-engines ahead of the World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders in Bogota in October. Interview by Zoe Mendelson.)

What is “serendipity” in the context of cities?

The original definition described “discoveries, by accidents and sagacity,” of things we are not in search of. Today, everyone remembers the happy accidents and forgets the sagacity, i.e. the latent knowhow and expertise necessary to capitalize on these accidents. Cities are serendipity machines in two ways. One is through the juxtaposition of so many people, elements, and sensations — their tumult naturally increases the chances of a happy accident. The second is social — you are more likely to discover an unsought connection at the fringes of your network, through a friend of a friend or a familiar stranger. There’s a reason young people flock to cities — for serendipitous encounters in life and love!

Why do cities need serendipity?

A decade ago, the physicists Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West discovered an unusual property of cities — they seem to get better as they get bigger. You can measure “better” in any number of ways, including higher wages and productivity. To explain why this happens, Bettencourt (who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Big Bang) argues that cities are neither machines nor natural ecosystems, but stars — “social reactors” compressing dense social networks together in space and time until they fuse at the edges, producing new ideas and relationships instead of light and heat. This meshes well with Jane Jacobs and most economists about why cities exist and why they perform so well. And I would argue the mechanism is serendipity.

Are there certain things cities do that block serendipity?

Anything preventing diverse groups of people and ideas from mixing — racism, intolerance, segregation, concentrated poverty, crime, and so on. How we use and traverse the city matters too: a lack of public and private spaces in which people can meet, converse, and linger; investing in cars and freeways that isolate drivers and then trap them in congestion, and urban districts that lack both texture and a variety of uses. It’s difficult to experience serendipity when there is no one to see, nothing to do, and your very presence is unwanted, if not outright criminalized. For example, the Department of Justice’s scathing report on the Baltimore Police Department highlighted instance after instance of “zero tolerance” policing amounting to clearing the streets of all bystanders. Less egregious (although more insidious) are practices such as spatially discriminatory retail redlining, which starves neighborhoods of places that are neither home nor work for serendipitous encounters with neighbors form ad hoc communities.

How can cities engineer serendipity?

Through encouraging unplanned uses and encounters in public and private space. For example, why are streets given over entirely to cars? Why aren’t we trying to maximize the number of people and activities who can use them? Whether it’s banning cars from city centers, building better blocks through testing different uses, or transforming parking spaces into “parklets,” there are any number of ways to increase their potential for serendipity. In a similar vein, why do we fill the cores of our cities with skyscrapers that are never more than half full at any given moment? We need to blur the line between the office and the street, just as Londoners once did the same by doing business in its pubs, coffeehouses, and “gentlemen’s clubs. In practice, that means propelling work out of the hermetically-sealed office into shared workspaces and other semi-public places, and it also means bringing a variety of new uses into skyscrapers — just as Hong Kong and Singapore have done with great success. We also need fundamental re-investment in public transport to maximize the number of people who can be brought to experience these places.  Cities can engineer serendipity through the diversity of their people, the heterogeneity of their places, and the intensity of their uses.

The Las Vegas Downtown Project tried to engineer serendipity. What did they get right and what did they get wrong?

The Las Vegas Downtown Project consciously tried to engineer what its backers call “casual collisions.” But they did several things wrong. First, they gentrified the areas, displacing long-term residents, small business, and people of color to attract young, mostly white people with an interest or background in technology. Then, they began acquiring or controlling land in order to carefully curate the mix of businesses and uses they wanted to see downtown — which increased property values, but discouraged a real neighborhood from forming. What do you expect when literally one man hand-picks the bars, the restaurants, the co-working spaces, and even the grocery store? Where are the surprises in that? Finally, the layout of downtown Vegas worked against them — long, empty streets with destinations few and far between. It’s not a failure, but after having committed $350 million to the project, it’s not a success, either. They had the right ideas, but botched the execution.

Who or what projects are getting it right?

My favorite example is Renew Newcastle, which started in a depressed downtown city in Australia. Instead of buying properties or deciding what the area needed, its creator — an arts festival organizer named Marcus Westbury — borrowed spaces temporarily and invited residents to use them. The project acted quickly and cheaply to use vacant storefronts as intensely as possible, without prescribing how people should use them. The result is a revitalized downtown for a hundredth of the price of the Downtown Project. Instead of remaking itself for an itinerant “creative class” as dozens, if not hundreds of cities have done, Westbury sought to catalyze Newcastle’s latent energy and talent by creating places where people could pursue their passions in public, thus generating a host of new activity around them. There wasn’t a plan or a desired outcome — the project unfolded organically.

This is what I mean by “engineering serendipity.” Cities don’t need to attract outside talent or capital or coffee bars — they need to do a better job of unlocking the buried potential of their places and through them, their people. Platforms like Renew handle the engineering. That particular project isn’t a panacea, but it is the lightest, cheapest, most successful model I’ve seen to date.

We like to roll our eyes at the ideas of the Modern City. What will urbanists be rolling their eyes about two generations from now?

That we ever spent so much time staring at Facebook and Twitter. Social networks will still be with us — in fact, they’ll matter more than ever — but the success of Pokemon Go points toward a future in which our social networks are overlaid and enhanced by the city. A game encouraging us to go outside and meet our neighbors and strangers is a good start.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow at NewCities and the director of strategy of its offshoot LA CoMotion — an annual urban mobility festival in the Arts District of Los Angeles. He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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