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The City, Its Algorithms and Public Space

Martijn de Waal


A year or two ago, when I was researching the use of public space on the Arena Boulevard in Amsterdam together with my colleagues from the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, we stumbled upon a remarkable phenomenon. We noticed groups of tourists with trolleys and backpacks wandering around the Bijlmer Arena station, looking around a bit lost. After consulting their smartphone screen, they would continue on their way to a nearby budget hotel. However, rather than take the obvious route along the wide boulevard, past the shops, cinema and concert hall, they disappeared into the dark, winding backstreets around the stadium.

It transpired they had asked Google Maps to guide them to the hotel, and the Silicon Valley tech giant had calculated the shortest route from A to B was through these alleys. The algorithm did not factor in that this route was less aesthetically pleasing or could elicit eeriness or feeling unsafe.

What we have here is an example of ‘platform urbanism’. Digital platforms, from Airbnb, Uber and Tripadvisor to Google Maps and Facebook, help us orientate and move through the city. Though apps will guide us with recommendations and routes, they track our behaviour and use the accumulated data to adjust suggestions and directions accordingly.

Urban sociologist Richard Sennett’s book Building and Dwelling offers a good starting point to understand this development’s implications for public space. He distinguishes between the ville, the city’s built environment and infrastructure, and the cité, the shared stories, memories, and symbolic meanings associated with different places in the city. The latter is essential because, as well as providing personal support and purpose, it constitutes the bedrock of the cultural and political community that a city represents. Public spaces, a recurring theme in Sennett’s oeuvre, fulfil an essential role as the places where an urban community of citizens can develop. Since public spaces allow us to meet one another and gain common understandings in the form of everyday routines or rituals that mark annual highlights, we can develop mutual trust and create collective meanings and experiences.

From a more individual perspective, the city is also a place to experience all those different stories, histories, and possible futures. For many of us, the city’s appeal is not getting from A to B most efficiently, but rather that it offers a place for spectacle and wonder where you can wander and be inspired and where vibrant public spaces have considerable appeal.

But what does the rise of platform urbanism mean for the relationship between the ville and cité? Are we increasingly guided by the ville and the algorithms that focus on efficiency or personal preference? Is it the platforms that make the cité accessible via pop-ups on the online map or, as soon will be the case, through augmented reality? And are there still places where all the city’s different worlds converge?

As early as 2001, Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin’s book Splintering Urbanism warned the emergence of big data, technology and algorithms in the city could lead to far-reaching spatial and social fragmentation in a very market-driven society. Platforms will adapt access to all manner of places, services and experiences in the city to the profiles of their users. Just as Facebook adjusts its advertisements and the newsfeed of users to their preferences and click behaviour, these services also recommend specific places and experiences, possibly resulting in spatial and social filter bubbles. The expectation is this will give rise to a variety of ‘premium services’. Specific routes or access to certain places will become more expensive or cheaper according to supply and demand or specific privileges or reputations that users accumulate over time.

The Street View exhibition offers a fitting counterpoint to these developments. On the one hand, it features works by artists who critique the datafication of urban life, in which everything we do is recorded as a data point via our mobile phone or by the cameras in public space. Above all, though, it articulates what makes cities and their public spaces so attractive. Many of the exhibited works demonstrate a fascination for the everyday routines and rituals that take place in public spaces, or they briefly disrupt daily life to startle us and make us look around in wonder. This seems all the more critical in an era when our eyes are constantly drawn to the tiny blue notification dot on the mobile phone