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Airbnb San Francisco coverage 2008 and 2012
Infographic by Kelli Anderson http://www.kellianderson.com

As Anand Giridharadas wrote in the New York Times on Friday we are experiencing a resurgence in the informal economy in the developed world facilitated by online platforms that digitally organise informal jobs, house stays or car rentals. I’m not sure if I agree that these jobs can really be called informal as they are facilitated by state registered tax-paying entities, but taskrabbit, airbnb and relayrides are certainly creating jobs in a decentralized and on-demand way that wasn’t possible before internet 2.0. Whilst Giridharadas in his article considers the potentially regressive effect this type of job may have on the labour market- we have been considering what it might mean for city life –  engaging latent value through social organisation generates an increased urban  intensity that Jacobs describes, so we got thinking what it might mean for city public life.

We have observed and documented public space and public life in Chennai, located in the South Eastern state of Tamil Nadu,  India. The unmistakeable street-life in our research has shown is at the very least very well supported by if not generated by the informal economy. In a study of the T Nagar district in Chennai we measured the numbers of people in a street occupied by informal vendors had an average level of staying activity was eighteen times higher in the street than that in the nearby parks. In total it was found that the numbers of people along this street with few formalized shops were equivalent to those found on London’s Oxford street. Whilst these levels of intensity in India are created by the enormous populations, as well as large populations of street dwellers – there is also a strong social culture of it.

Social life in the T Nagar District

Whitechapel high street in London has served as a local informal market place for over 150 years.  First a Jewish market, and now a Bangladeshi market, it continues to attract diverse street life particularly for the newest British immigrants. The culture of the informal economy here has remained long after many other places in the city were formalised and the wide spaces of Whitechapel road and the more intimate space of Brick lane have given lasting form for to this.

In contrast, stands Strøget, Copenhagen’s one mile long pedestrianized shopping street, completely formalised yet also alive with a not dissimilar level of public life. Can the same spatial parameters contribute to the likelihood of either a formal or informal economy arising in the street and providing fertile ground for public life and social exchange.  Both Whitechapel and Strøget are lined with a fine grain building network, with several entrances and a robust building stock that has accommodated a evolving change of uses over time.  Strøget is a 1.5 km route accentuated with public spaces and interrupted only twice by cross streets as it is meanders between 2 key public spaces. While Whitechapel is a traditional high street interrupted regularly by cross-streets and lacks a series of public spaces adjacent to it.

So how do these new types of virtual companies impact and affect the physical manifestation of micro economies, formal and informal in the city? Airbnb lets-out spare rooms to those travelling through the city or working temporarily creating increased densities and variety of people. Relay rides decreases the number of dormant vehicles and makes increased use existing cars in the city. All of these arrangements require a level social interaction and trust between fellow citizens that has been somewhat lacking in our formal economies, but always present in the street and spaces of our cities.  Perhaps we should be looking more broadly, more intelligently at our social condition for ways to generate a ‘healthy city’.  Such a city according to Richard Sennett’s is ‘a city can embrace and make productive use of the differences of class, ethnicity, and lifestyles it contains, while a sick city cannot’ – and in this vain perhaps we need to leave room for informality and explore how it affects public life. We must do more to understand this relationship between the virtual and the physical, between the formal and the informal and work to create spatial frameworks and social conditions that allow this relationship to flourish and mutually reinforce each other.

Strøget, Copenhagen

Whitechapel high street, London
Photo credit, Diamond Geezer

Urban decision makers need to understand not just how and why people walk, bike or take transit, but how mobility choices can improve the quality of everyday life and promote human flourishing.

High quality public space is only worthwhile if it invites for a mix of user and diverse user groups

Human behavior, people’s preferences, local culture, and other types of ‘software’ can vary widely and are therefore difficult to measure and predict.  Subsequently, many design professionals, and the local authorities or private investors that employ them, typically shift their attention to ‘hardware’ that they can better control and measure, such as technology and infrastructure.

The built environment can promote physical well-being only if streets are safe and accessible and people choose to walk and bike to work and school every day.

But the infrastructure and technology to develop low-carbon transit solutions, green energy alternatives and other sustainable initiatives can only succeed if people CHOOSE to utilize it.  The built environment can promote physical well-being only if streets are safe and accessible and people choose to walk and bike to work and school every day. Investing in high-quality public space is only worthwhile if it invites for a mix of use and more importantly diverse users and thus provides opportunities to meet and interact and promotes cultural tolerance.

This shift from ‘hardware’ to ‘software’ is complex and difficult and requires that design professionals learn more about human behavior.   This requires a multi-disciplinary, joined-up and integrated approach that marries empirical analysis with design know-how. This type of approach addresses the interaction between the cities that we BUILD and the cities that we LIVE in.

Jeff Risom discusses this topic in a recent podcast on the Cisco Smart Connected Communities Institute website here.  The topic is further expanded as it pertains to cycling and public transit in the current September issue of Bicycling Mobility.

When I visited New York in January I was worried.  Central Park had just recorded another record snow and the life in the city seemed to resemble that of pre-2007 – the only cyclists were delivery men, and the hordes of pedestrians on the City’s lively streets were only moving from A to B rather than spending time in the dozens of new city plazas created over the past 4 years . Few people were taking the time to soak up the atmosphere of the city and few women and office workers were seen on their bikes. Despite widespread support for the Department of Transportation’s Green Light for Midtown and ReNEWable Times Square projects, the pressure was on city leaders to defend the changing face of New York’s public realm.  The issues of bicycle lanes had become especially contentious – being widely discussed and debated.

Yet when I visited NYC again in May – spring had truly made an impact.  The streets were filled with diverse cyclists –

young, old, women, men, tapered jeans and dockers, as well as locals and tourists were meeting and socializing in the new public spaces of the city. Tattooed hipsters were sharing the same spaces as top-sider wearing yuppies, mid-western tourists and lifelong New Yorkers were both glued to their ipads sitting in the free tables and chairs.

Quick business meetings and office tasks have moved out into the public realm

Alone together, hordes of New Yorkers were enjoying time in the City.  City life had transformed from a lifestyle of ‘A to B as quickly as possible’ to a more relaxed ‘enjoy the journey’ . The outdoor café life of Gansevoort had spread to the rest of the Meat Packing district – and beyond.  The streets of New York have begun to rival the City’s fantastic park’s as places to spend time in the city.

City life is unfolding from inside shops and cafes and out into streets and spaces

All forms of non-motorized transport are utilizing the new bicycle lanes

All forms of non-motorized transport are utilizing the new bicycle lanes

Why check e-mail inside when comfortable free seating is available along Broadway?

Rather your grabbing lunch, or just relaxing Mad. Sq. Eats Mark't is a great way to enjoy city life

From highly visible and meticulously designed projects like the High Line, to newly created temporary Madison Square Park Eats, the economic benefits of investing in the public realm and prioritizing the needs of people in the city are beginning to be understood.  In fact, the High Line is heralded as an Economic Dynamo – creating thousands of jobs, boosting real estate values and spurring private investment.

The newly created food market at Worth Square showcases independent food artisans. With fantastic views, great subway access and close proximity to Madison Square Park, it is surprising that Worth Square was never utilized before.

As I noticed that the number of baby carriages had begun to compete with the number of leashed dogs, I realized that the city was again re-inventing itself.  This time not only as a place to get rich, inspire the next Jay-Z, and visit as a tourist -  but also a place to spend free time, feel healthy, and raise a family.   The culture of New York City is changing.

New York City has always been a great place to raise a family, but it seems that even more young families are spending time in the city's streets as well as parks.

After years of smaller west coast cities leading the charge toward high quality  urban living, the Big Apple is back.  NYC is again leading the charge of American cities into the second decade of the 21st century.  It’s about quality of life, mobility, and happiness. It’s about a sustainable future, but also a livable today.   New Yorkers get it and now they have the platform to again lead the charge.

Old and young, male and female, the profile of the New York Cyclist is expanding.

Old and young, male and female, the profile of the New York Cyclist is expanding.

Part of the reason more and different types of people are biking has to do with new amenities that improve the comfort and convenience of cycling in NYC

…. Now if that bikes on the subway issue can just be simplified
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