Monday, March 29, 2010

Picture Pages: Cities, Convergence, and Waterfronts

In the Valencia, Spain case study post, I stated that one "crowd-sourced" data point I like is the geotagged uploaded photos into Google Earth filed under a page called Panoramio. They're also a favorite treasure trove of photos for the Free Beer Friday Guess the Cities. What they show is cherished or sacred places of a community.

**note: for later in this post be aware that Google Earth changed the symbol for geo-tagged photos from a glowing light blue star as seen below to a more regular (and bland) blue square that is a bit less conspicuous unfortunately.

Of this map of Valencia I said:
As for the organization of the city, my favorite little cheat sheet, the blue dots of uploaded photographs shows what we're looking for, following the curve of the river with a North-South axis of the heart of the city intersecting it. This is the oldest part of the city with the two most important plazas, culturally, spatially, architecturally, historically, you name it: Plaza de la Reina and Plaza de Ayunamiento
Now brought to you by the computer science department from Cornell University is a mapping study of 35 million pictures uploaded to flickr. They then organized a database counting and comparing pictures by popular location or landmark and by overall city. If you were to take a wild stab at the three most popular cities, you'd guess what? NYC, Paris, and London. Maybe Tokyo, if you're feeling a touch 'Asiatic.' If that was your guess, congratulations! You only matched my guess, which was actually a touch off from accurate:
The top 25 most photographed cities in the Flickr data are: (1) New York City (2) London (3) San Francisco (4) Paris (5) Los Angeles (6) Chicago (7) Washington, DC (8) Seattle (9) Rome (10) Amsterdam (11) Boston (12) Barcelona (13) San Diego (14) Berlin (15) Las Vegas (16) Florence (17) Toronto (18) Milan (19) Vancouver (20) Madrid (21) Venice (22) Philadelphia (23) Austin (24) Dublin (25) Portland.

If you accept that the places we photograph most are places we love, then it is probably safe to assume that the cities we photograph the most are the cities we love the most. If you are to put together some common traits of the cities floating towards the top of the list is interesting, educated, fun, and in most cases livable or outrageous cities. And, in fact, because Dubai doesn't make the list and Las Vegas does (as does Disney World for the place specific list), but I would suggest these are outliers because Vegas is what it is and Disney World is unfairly competing as a huge place with multiple photogenic or not spots competing with singular monuments, parks, or places.

Then, where it really starts to get fascinating is marking the movements of photographers, if by only charting where their pictures were taken. If you analyze the places, you begin to see areas of livable, lovable concentrated points or nodes, typically occurring at areas of convergence. The Manhattan map is probably the most interesting given how few photos are of or near the waterfronts. I think it is safe to say that we can attribute that to Mr. Moses' riverfront highways and associated deterioration and degradation of the public realm adjacent.

The one outlier is the Brooklyn Bridge, adding 'convergence' in that it is both monument and connector. It hit me today that there needs to be a 1-dimensional convergence to go with my other three versions, 2-D (Plan view), 3-D (Mix of use and density), and 4-D (multiple modes of transit/time of day). And it is actually the simplest one of all as it should be, demand driver. There has to be a reason for me (or you) to go from point A to point B in the first place. It can be economic, it can be social, it can be spiritual, but it has to exist.

I think this also gets at another point, and that is that waterfronts can actually be tremendously overvalued in terms of dollars and in the collective conscience of a community. Views can be nice residential demand drivers, but are really only suitable for more single-use development or iconic elements to be viewed. The more vibrant social and economic hubs, as the NYC map shows happen internal to a city, in its neighborhood centers, its areas of convergence where we meet, greet, and celebrate.

If we look at two cities ranking on the list with more engaged urban waterfronts you'll see the sparse assortment of only a handful of pictures.

Along the Willamette River in Portland where they removed a freeway mirrored on the opposite side to create a riverfront park.

New waterfront park in Vancouver, BC.

What is an outlier for waterfronts that ranks high in the Cornell study for individual places? The Santa Monica Pier, because it creates its own convergence by extending destination space out into the water so that the boardwalk/beach is no longer an edge but a crossroads of sorts... the very essence of convergence.