Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Emergence: The True Value of Bustling Sidewalks

A critical passage from Stephen Johnson's Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, as he parses Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of the Great American City, while pointing out the common misinterpretations of her seminal work (which seems to have spawned the entire field of complexity science -- cities informed mathematics which informed natural sciences which informed computer sciences which now, full circle, inform study of cities), that unfortunately so many people make:
"...sidewalks are important not because they provide an environmentally sound alternative to freeways (though that is also the case) nor because walking is better exercise than driving (though that too is the case) nor because there's something quaintly old-fashioned about pedestrian-centered towns (that is more a matter of fashion than empirical evidence).  In fact, there's nothing about the physical existence of sidewalks that matters to Jacobs.  What matters is that they are the primary conduit for the flow of information between residents."
Which brings to mind Tom Vanderbilt's theory in Traffic, that we behave better when traffic signals are out, and in turn the intersection is safer when the engineering device malfunctions, because we are forced to make eye contact, to exchange information that is otherwise not going to happen because the red light green light is the only information exchange and we're following the orders of a robot.  We're not cooperating.

I think it goes without saying that body language and eye contact are a critical component of information exchange.  And when you apply that to our city streets you see the importance of pedestrian-friendly societies and their contribution to civilization.  The amount of information exchanged between countless pedestrians on a busy sidewalk is infinitely greater than the amount of information exchanged between drivers (who you may not even notice as you stare at the bumper of the car immediately in front of you, gleaning only what the personalized license plate and god-awful bumper stickers have to express) on a busy road or highway.

Information exchange.  Don't leave home without it.