Urban Ontology: Rethinking Urban Design

A small crowd assembles in Eyebeam’s mainspace. Rows of red, metal chairs have been hastily arranged facing an elevated stage upon which perches a pair of welcoming armchairs. Two artists will soon be dialog, Eyebeam fellow Mark Shepard and honorary resident Jordan Crandall. For many years, both artists have been engaged with problems of data and urbanism, an interest that has inflected their respective works at Eyebeam. Mark and Jordan have organized this evening’s dialogue to discuss the following prompt: What constitutes the urban today? Or, perhaps more precisely: how might we think about the constitution of the urban today? It is a conversation that has been incubating for several months in Eyebeam’s Urban Research Group.


The time has come: the assembled crowd takes their seats; introductions are made; the speakers settle into their soft, red armchairs. Mark and Jordan adjust the settings on their shared microphone and begin. The influence of complex urban systems on our everyday experiences in modern cities, they note, has become a popular topic of discussion among contemporary architects, technologists, designers, and artists. Yet, despite this profusion of discourse, there has been little clarity on what is meant by the term ‘urban system’. Most formulations, they argue, are premised on an ontology of ‘the overlay.’ Imagine, for a moment, a transparency laid across a map of urban space. In this scenario, mobile information networks are superimposed over a static, preexisting city. It is a model that presupposes a primacy of the built environment—a world where wood, brick, and concrete carry a disproportional ontological weight. Such a framing posits that information cannot fundamentally effect the shape of urban space. While data may tint our experiences of urban environments, it does not substantially constitute those experiences.


This model of urban systems poses a problem. It does not allow for the kind of complex human-, non-human-, and information-based interactions that we know constitute today’s urban systems. This is the problem on which the evening’s discussions revolve. Mark taps his phone; a projector flashes on. Beyond the stage, an image appears on the large presentation screen: an ATM machine buried among crates of fresh fruit on a bustling, New York City street. Mark describes his research into the technical and political dynamics of these ubiquitous machines. They serve as a familiar and convenient emblem for urban ontologies more generally. ATM machines take form dynamically in urban locales as a contingent response to financial networks, city zoning regulations, private commercial interests, and the needs of urban consumers. City regulators and bodega owners, for example, have been at a kind of evolutionary arms race, redesigning storefront architecture, ATM technologies, and municipal policy in a struggle to outpace the other’s perceived incursion on urban space. These ubiquitous machines are not overlaid on top of a preexisting environment, they become mutually co-constituting with the milieus they inhabit.


The microphone passes hands and the projected image changes. Jordan continues the discussion. We know urban systems are composed of complex interactions, but the components and dynamics of these networks are not always readily apparent. How can we disassemble such unseen networks into objects and interactions that can be made readily visible? Towering behind the presenters is a scene of disruption: traffic is congested on a busy thoroughfare as a maintenance worker descends below the city street to repair a breakdown in the system. Consider this momentary disjunction, the way it reveals the workings of the city. Jordan proposes investigating such moments of failure as opportunities to witness the conditions under which urban systems normally operate. As a system begins to stutter, fumble, and collapse, its previously unnoticed components begin to disassemble, its intricate dance spirals apart. A burst water main is harder to ignore after it has lost its ubiquitous, quiet flow. In order to understand urban systems, we need techniques for visualizing their constituents and the ways those constituents interact. Jordan proposes moments of disruption as a possible window for witnessing such occurrences. Perhaps there are others.


The character of these urban ontologies has been that of assemblage, process, and interaction; nothing is bounded, stable, or isolated for very long. It can be hard to think this ontology of becoming. I find the physiology of vision to be instructive when immersing in this assemblage-oriented mindset. Human sight is the accomplishment of a series of multiform, interacting components: our lenses relax or contract to focus light onto our retina, exciting rods and cones that transmit pulses of information to complex neural clusters which parse these signals for configurations of significance. Occasionally, we expand the capacities of these components with supplementary technologies (contact lenses, spectacles, microscopes, telescopes). When we weary of such routines, we are driven to modify the operation of our body’s components: sometimes permanently (laser sculpting the surface of the eye), sometimes transitorily (using psychoactive substances to transform what becomes neurologically parsed as significant phenomenon). Sometimes what we want to see has no apparent form, in those cases we conjure algorithms to render the invisible visible—through visualization techniques, we create objects and images to stand in for what cannot be sensed.


As architects, technologists, designers, and artists continue to experiment with the assemblage of urban systems, it is important to consider the ways those systems are made visible, recognizable, sensible, and hackable. A certain kind of politics lies behind the incorporation of these concerns with visibility and interactivity. In fact, I pose a challenge to such urban engineers: how do we democratize participation, engagement, and creation of urban systems? That is, how do we move beyond merely recognizing the complex unfolding of urban systems? How might we begin to more substantially participate in their continued unfolding?