For some of us living in cities (and that is a lot of us in 2012), many of our interactions with our urban surroundings have the peril of becoming coldly automated—a walk from home to the office; a repetitive commute in the subway; a drive in a traffic jam. Efficiency and speed rule the rational decisions that drive our urban navigations—and that navigating is not merely getting from point A to point B, but also how we navigate around and with people, how we relate to our community, how we build friendships and trust. While the rational part of our urban interactions has us on autopilot for many of our daily comings and goings, what has become of the seemingly softer (yet undoubtedly powerful) emotional aspect of our daily interactions in cities?
In a climate of rapid urbanization and uncertainty with tendencies towards social fragmentation, there seems to be an increasing need for new connectivity in urban environments that can be achieved through the strengthening of personal relationships and social interaction within cities as a vehicle towards community cohesiveness.
It’s nothing new: society has thrived in cooperation for centuries. We wouldn’t be where we are today if we didn’t have, as human beings, a need to do things together. We’ve seen it in recent headlines this past year—talk to any Madrilenian or Cairo resident, or New Yorker, for that matter. The recent global uprisings have prompted a sincere reflection on the part of all of us on the sustainability and efficiency of current practices. From politics to education to urban planning—there is a large-scale questioning of existing forms and a need to establish new typologies. Among designers, city planners, and architects the struggles that have unfolded in Spain, Greece, Egypt, and elsewhere have prompted a debate about whether we should rethink the way public space is organized and used, as well as the nature of our collaborative relationships within cities.
There is a newfound sensitivity in citizens, expressed through an ability to self-regulate and socially organize, that has ultimately created a new brand of citizen, one who is armed with the ability to connect, access, and broadcast. But is this overconnectedness beneficial? Social fragmentation and alienation are evermore pervasive in all aspects of our lives as we become more dependent on technology. The insidiousness of this assimilation and dependence on technology has invaded all forms of life and social contract. The technology that is sold to us as a way to connect or make friends is the precise tool that increases our isolation. We need to turn this paradox around, say, to create something as obvious, but as lacking, as real face-to-face relationships.
Our current situation is the result of a long process of transformation. Whereas over the past half-century we have witnessed the dissolution of the family unit and an increased focus on individuality, the value of communication, politeness, and respectful and happy conviviality is not to be underestimated.
The built environment has become a metaphoric and literal way of supporting or hindering these ideals. How can urban space be designed in a way that facilitates interaction? How can buildings be more responsive to people’s needs and emotions, and can they really do that without becoming a meaningless gimmick of overused technological fanciness?
After all, cities were built around us to serve OUR needs as social, cooperative, and emotional beings, not the other way around. A better, nonrigid understanding of these necessities (rational, practical, and largely emotional) should, through time, help us better shape our cities to match who we really are.
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Image: Francesco Jodice, What We Want, Sao Paulo, T39, 2006, 150x190cm, inkjet print on cotton paper. Courtesy Galerìa Marta Cervera, Madrid.
Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the second is the Need to Promote Emotional Cityness.