The last decade brought surprising new economic, social, and physical contexts for our cities. During the recession, we experienced a pervasive movement away from the powerful, central agent to one of informal agglomeration—the action or process of collecting in a mass. Used here, we see agglomeration as a shift toward informality (versus luxury) and collective agents (versus singular). This shift is evident across a number of systems— the rise of informal economy, the growth of social media, and the reinvention of public open spaces.
Agglomeration and Economy
"When the formal economy begins to shudder, stagger, or crash, the theory goes, the informal economy can act as a cushion, breaking its fall." —Robert O'Neill
"It's actually percentage-wise small but dollars-wise huge in the United States. It's all over the place, from the guys you see waiting around for construction jobs at Home Depot and Lowe's, to folks selling food on the street, to swap meets where people are selling goods from kiosks. ... It's an incubator. Many of the major businesses in the United States started out [this way.] ... This has always been the case in the United States, and we have to look at it as a kind of incubator sector in our economy."
A single street merchant alone holds little economic power, but, by some measures, when taken in aggregate, informal street services are roughly the equivalent of the world's second most significant economy, after the United States. As another example, Neuwirth points to Proctor and Gamble. Although Walmart remains their single largest distributor, their biggest sales (and only growing marketplace) is in "high frequency stores," i.e., millions of small-scale operations strategically located in cities. As the national economy struggled in the last decade, both economists and consumers have paid more attention to this informal "undercurrent" economy.
Agglomeration and Social Media
Social media entered the scene just before the crash, and saw its meteoric rise in direct opposition to the economy's decline. Twitter, for example, launch only five years ago. In this time, it has grown from 5,000 tweets per day to nearly 400 million.
Fueled also by the power of agglomeration, nearly every dimension of traditional American commerce was reinvented by the rise of trustworthy digital exchange. Digital exchange has transformed:
• The classified into Craigslist.com
• Shopping into Amazon.com
• Dating into Match.com
• Health into WebMD.com
• Art exchange into Etsy.com
• Funding into Kickstarter.com
• Transportation into Sidecar.com
• Television into Hulu.com
• Reporting into Twitter.com
• Friendship into Facebook.com
These new digital networking platforms, coupled with "trust architecture" (i.e., mechanisms to increase user comfort in buying from a stranger) enabled the vast expansion of the informal economy into every aspect of everyday life and commerce.
Agglomeration and the Urban Landscape
There has been an equally potent and visible shift in the creation of urban open space. The public realm buzz in the mid-2000s was around megaprojects like Millenium Park in Chicago, Discovery Green in Houston, and CityGarden in St. Louis. These projects were well-defined investments in city centers, meant to be destinations that could provide a focus to new economic redevelopment.
By contrast, the late 2000s brought a fundamental shift in project type, delivery, and agents. Open space investment started focusing on two corresponding types of space: the tactical and the connective.
Small-scale interventions—soon to be labeled "tactical urbanism"—swept the country. Often informed by a quasi-political agenda, tactical urbanism can be best understood through two volumes of research by Street Plan Collaborative's Mike Lydon. These volumes catalogue hundreds of projects across the country, including Park[ing] Day, a now national festival that re-appropriates parking spaces as parks, and Building a Better Block, a temporary occupation of underperforming streetscapes to demonstrate higher, and typically more mobility-friendly, use. The tenets of these projects are typically inexpensive materials, temporary construction, and community participation. The goal, as Nate Berg describes on The Atlantic Cities, is to transcend the temporary:
"The goal is not to simply do a cool project that will get cleaned up by the city or thrown away, but to make something—even something temporary—that will change how a place works and is perceived. And once that change has been made, to figure out how it can be made again or made permanent."
In tandem with tactical urbanism, linear open space systems have taken hold across the country, often at a regional scale. And nearly every example displays three common characteristics. First is an emphasis on connectivity—a physical or analog expression of the digital network. The second is adaptation—the creative re-use of underutilized or under-performing spaces. Lastly—like the informal economy—is agglomeration, or a focus on crowd-sourced, guerilla or grassroots change rather than traditional, top-down planning.
This emerging body of work, from Chicago's Bloomingdale Trail to New York's the High Line to Atlanta's Beltline and beyond, provides an exceptional breadth of diverse strategies and a glimpse of a new understanding of the future of city form. And each began as an idea held by a few individuals that gained collective momentum over time.
And Back Again...
Though the pendulum swung toward the informal in the last decade, it has reached the apex and is presently swinging back toward the luxury. As the economy shows signs of improvement, civic and private institutions are once again investing in open space improvements. With this comes two different responses to informality: backlash and appropriation.
The recent Economist article "After the Fine" illustrates the backlash. There have been attempts to penalize informal companies like AirBnB (the hotel alternative website that, by some accounts, provides nearly as many global nightly stays as Hilton) and Uber (the black car internet service). Though some chock the backlash up to the cost of disruptive innovation, others see these enterprises as tax-evaders that are undermining the potential public good.
Regardless, this new "sharing economy" will undoubtedly continue to change the urban landscape in ways we can't even imagine now. In this way, designers of cities should take note. What is the next system to be deformalized?
Alaskan Way Viaduct demolition event
On the other end of the response spectrum is appropriation. A series of significant open space investments in recent years are commandeering the tactics of the informal, while serving a well-funded, single agent. For example, the Seattle Waterfront is a public realm project that is being designed in parallel with a multi-billion dollar series of transportation and infrastructure improvements. The process has included a series of tactical strategies, from reclamation of waterfront by "chair bombing" to public meetings with food trucks and impromptu photo booths.
Similarly, Harvard University's new plaza—an $8 million project to revitalize and resurface a roadway tunnel adjacent to the historic Harvard Yard—mixes the language of luxury (meticulously detailed and elegantly crafted benches, walls, and paving systems) with the informal (food trucks, movable furnishings, and ping-pong tables).
It is yet to be seen whether a new luxury economy will destroy the informal one—or just try to look more like it. Either way, it raises interesting questions about the goals of different forms of investment, the authenticity and quality of the resulting outcomes, and how the public will ultimately respond.