Cell Structure: From Green to Brown

This post is a part of the Mammoth Book Club. This excellent essay has generated a varied reading and thoughtful posts by DPR-Barcelona, Polis, and F.A.D., each with a different focus. Please check them out when you get the chance.

[“next nature” by balmori associates is a superficial but intriguing glimps into
cellular park design]

“Cell Structure: Mobile Phones” by Ted Kane and Rick Miller is an excellent breakdown of the spatial and socio-political implications of the rise of privately controlled telecommunications infrastructures, especially cell phone towers. But it should be placed into context a bit better. Early on they state:

“the rise of privately funded infrastructure and subsequent decline of public control represents a new corporate model of urban planning, with implications for the future development of the city.”

This is misleading. In fact many of our great urban and regional infrastructures have begun as private ventures. The railroads were originally private enterprises, the New York City subway/interborough rapid transit system was privately funded, and the electric grid in much of the northeastern US is under the auspices of the private-but-heavily regulated Con Edison. But we live in a decade when all design writing is hyperbolic and rather than building on the past, seeks to break with it and launch the world into the future based solely on the brilliance of this or that practitioner/theorist. Whatever. (It’s been hot here in NYC and the stifling conditions here at FASLANYC headquarters make one cantankerous).

Anyways, it seems there may be some maturing mechanism that operates in major network infrastructures. That is, they begin as private ventures, but as they becomes fully integrated and necessary in quotidian life of the citizenry (such as electricity or mass transit), they tend to come under public control. Of course, this may not happen with telecommunications technology, as they have maintained something of a competitive marketplace. Without the threat of monopolization of a critical network, public control may be unnecessary. We digress.

[the interborough rapid transit, the precursor to NYC’s subway system, was
originally made of separate, competing private companies]

In reading The Infrastructural City it becomes apparent that there is some fundamental difference in telecommunications infrastructures and the historical network infrastructures. And that difference is the negation of the importance of embodiment (which Varnelis argues for and I have had to ashamedly admit). Because of this difference, urban and regional patterns of logistics, communication, and occupation are being altered; new forms of territorialization and occupation are engendered, and these have socio-political and economic ramifications. These are similar to the ways that interstates suddenly enabled one to speed through an entire region on a generic mobius strip, bypassing downtowns and viewing the landscape only as an image.

But F.A.D. and Polis do a great job of delving into that stuff. What I’m interested in is the way that the ideas behind cell structure can be applied to other innovative initiatives. And for that it is helpful to jump over to SEED magazine, where a series of articles is going on regarding the finalists for this year’s “Buckminster Fuller Challenge”.

Over there we read about an initiative called “Operation Hope”, in which cows and educated human labor are reintroduced to grasslands to improve agricultural yield. In the article, they even go so far as to posit “a new Brown Revolution based on the regeneration of covered, organically rich, biologically thriving soil, and brought to fruition via millions of human beings returning to the land and the production of food.” A provocative statement indeed.

[getting down and dirty in the brown revolution]

When pairing that with the urban agricultural movement and the innovations in that field over the last 20 years, and beginning to consider how we can design for and with labor, and not just capital, one could begin to imagine the appropriateness of a Brown Revolution (a phrase being popularized by Mike Rowe of the Discovery Channel) and how it might influence the spatial patterns and embodied experience of urban living. As noted by DPR-Barcelona, Matsys has proposed a new urbanism for Nevada founded on the concept of water-banking (though based on today’s NY Times article, perhaps this is more critical in Australia). This is formal bio-mimicry at the scale of urbanism and, as is typical of Matsys, the project is beautiful and thought-provoking. However, we are less interested in the wholesale re-formalizing of urbanism and more intrigued by the opportunities and patterns that might arise when cellular infrastructures are overlaid on top of existing cities which are weighed down by labyrinthine bureaucratic processes and intractable disconnects between people, places, and methods of intervention.

[Paley Park in NYC, one of the most successful examples of the Open Space System]

The power in cellular urbanism, something well-recognized by the telecom corporations highlighted in “Cell Structures”, is its ability to “flourish in this vacuum of myopic jurisdictions, taking advantage of gaps in oversight to create new, [sic] realms…” Telecom companies, with their small-capital infrastructures and incision-like interventions that create great effects through the networked capabilities offer a great model for urbanism (whether they look like honeycombs or not). Each region could create its own molecular urbanism to whatever end, be it lowering temperatures, increasing biodiversity, or simply creating seating.

This molecular urbanism, overlaid on existing suburban, ex-urban, hyper-urban, and uber-urban contexts would be building on the “Open Space System” theory of park design as laid out by Galen Cranz in her comprehensive and badass study of urban parks. It is a concept that has been further explored by Balmori Associates in their “Next Nature- the 21st Century Park”. But there is one critical difference- the Open Space System theory of parks was largely capitalized, constructed, and maintained as if it were a major urban park such as Central Park. That is, they are conceived and administered under the auspices of a major city agency and with massive capital investments. Cellular/Molecular Urbanism should be funded, built, and grown according to a different model, one that focuses on education and experimentation through engagement with local residents and operates with relatively small capital investment and bureaucratic involvement. “Cell Structures” offers a good model.

Hester Street Collaborative, and many like them, has been working hard at the margins of the landscape/architecture professions to do just this type of work and figure out new model going forward. We imagine that this is where most of the new work lies, if only one can figure out how to build a business model from it.

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