🏙 Taking digital public spaces literally
The problem, and promise, of trying to replicate city life on the internet
🌈 Cities are amazing, but they aren’t utopias
🧑🏼🔧 The best social infrastructure is shaped by activism
👋🏽 We need a movement for digital urbanists
We hear it all the time. Musk says it. So has Zuckerberg. Even the Supreme Court Justices have ruled that social media is something like a “public square.”
In his 2019 TED Talk, New_ Public Co-director Eli Pariser leaned into this metaphor, arguing that “Cities are the source of some of our best ideas” about how to build thriving digital communities. He continued:
Sometimes it feels like this whole project of wiring up a civilization and getting billions of people to come into contact with each other, is just impossible. But modern cities tell us that it’s possible for millions of people who are really different, sometimes living right on top of each other, not just to not kill each other, but to actually build things together, find new experiences, create beautiful and important infrastructure. And we cannot give up on that promise.
Using the metaphor of urban space to understand digital space is central to our mission at New_ Public, and we’ve written about it here in the newsletter many times. But there is a complication with that metaphor that I’d like to examine in greater detail this week.
Cities aren’t utopias
There is a lot to recommend about city life. In many ways, density is a miracle, and besides making it easy to find a great meal within walking distance, many people “living right on top of each other” has real benefits in terms of efficiency and, according to this excellent recent Bloomberg analysis, safety.
But we don’t do panaceas around here, and I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that cities — especially American cities — have deeply entrenched racism, inequality and long term problems like chronic homelessness.
But are these problems caused by cities, or are they simply more concentrated and visible in them? Your answer to that question may be shaped by your politics. And while some cities are certainly more effective than others at fighting issues like homelessness, it’s difficult to combat nationwide problems without nationwide solutions. New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, in writing about Houston’s commitment to a housing-first strategy, notes that:
Eradicating homelessness would involve tackling systemic racism, reconstituting the nation’s mental health, family support and substance abuse systems, raising wages, expanding the federal housing voucher program and building millions more subsidized homes.
So what does this mean for our metaphor? What can we learn from cities if there are serious problems that can’t be completely fixed on a local level?
A movement of activists and neighbors, not just builders
I think there are at least three important takeaways from real life cities: First, all the amazing social infrastructure we take for granted now had to be invented. The modern city park, for example, has been shaped by New York’s Central Park, a triumph that has been copied around the world. But as Bill Bryson writes in his book At Home: A Short History of Private Life…
It is easy to suppose that park making consists essentially of just planting trees, laying paths, setting out benches, and digging the odd pond. In fact, Central Park was an enormous engineering project. Over twenty thousand barrels of dynamite were needed to reconfigure the terrain to Olmsted and Vaux’s specifications, and over half a million cubic yards of fresh topsoil had to be brought in to make the earth rich enough for planting. At the peak of construction in 1859, Central Park had a workforce of thirty-six hundred men.
Another important takeaway is that it’s essential to center communities that are affected by what you’re building. The story of Central Park’s construction is stained by the destruction of Seneca Village, a thriving Black community that was dismissed as “shantytowns” and cleared to make way for the park. This pattern repeated over and over throughout the 20th century, perpetuated by builders like Robert Moses, politicians at all levels, and many architects and planners.
Finally, we must remember that our best social infrastructure is continuously sustained and shaped by activism and engagement. In researching Andrew Carnegie’s library-building system, I learned that motivated women were very often the secret weapon for getting library grants in communities around the country. As I mentioned in February, women’s clubs often built support for public libraries and raised money to sustain them. Women also showed up to work as librarians in large numbers.
It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the exception to these last two points is NIMBY activism. In my opinion, modern NIMBYism holds progress hostage with exclusionary, preservationist zeal and perpetuates inequity.
So what does this mean for the internet?
We’re interested in building internet equivalents of libraries, museums, town halls, and parks. But this time, we must avoid our own versions of mistakes like demolishing Seneca Village and building highways through the middle of neighborhoods. We’ll engage both Carnegie-like philanthropists and the equivalent of library-fundraising women’s clubs.
Here’s how Eli put it in his TED Talk:
If we want to solve the big important problems in front of us, we need digital urban planners, new Jane Jacobs’ who are going to build the parks and park benches of the online world, and we need digital public-friendly architects who are going to build “palaces for the people” — libraries and museums and town halls.
The specifics of what makes an “urbanist” are well established: Activists like Jane Jacobs lit that fire over half a century ago, and you can see it alive and well in groups like New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens (NUMTOTS) on Facebook, which has over 225,000 members, most of whom are Gen Z. They are fierce (and often quite funny) advocates for buses, bikes, housing, transit, and a lot more.
But what exactly are the tenets of “digital urbanism?” There are many laudable and useful manifestos and guides aimed at creating a better, more livable internet, including our own Signals research. And now, the digital urban planners and architects that Eli called for are starting to emerge!
We’re excited to introduce you to Angelica Quicksey, the newest member of our team, and the first person I’ve met who actually might qualify for the title of “digital urban planner.” Angelica not only has training in planning, but also has experience building Civic Tech digital products. Read on for her introduction to the community, and please join me in welcoming her.
Leave a comment: What does digital urbanism mean to you?
I’m joining New_ Public to design healthier online spaces
I recently joined New_ Public as Head of the Public Spaces Incubator. I’m becoming an urban planner for the internet age.
New_ Public is dedicated to designing and building healthy, flourishing digital public spaces. We aim to create platforms that counter the worst impulses of today’s internet and channel and amplify the best facets of online life. Though I’ve spent the last decade helping to make government services simple, effective, accessible, and digital, I am also a formally trained urban planner with a commitment to public interest technology. So I feel like I’m stepping into an adjacent, complimentary field, and one that is more important than ever.
Designing public-friendly online spaces requires us to investigate why and how people gather online, re-imagine business models that go beyond ad-supported social media, and apply what we know about well-designed IRL spaces that facilitate community to the digital sphere.
I’m excited to take on this work because I will need the full breadth of my skills in designing and delivering digital products, assessing and meeting user needs, building teams, and serving the public interest.
Moving out of client services and into a product-focused org presents a new challenge for me. As does embracing a zero-to-one mindset, relative to the incremental digital transformation of government digital services. As I prototype and try new things, fail and pivot, I plan to be transparent and scrappy and co-creative wherever possible. I expect to learn a lot along the way.
Come join me! We're growing our team, and need more digital urban planners and digital urbanists who care about building a new generation of flourishing digital public spaces.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @angelquicksey if you want to connect.
– Angelica Quicksey
Community Cork Board
Newsletter: We recommend The Connector, written by writer, editor and organizer (as well as New_ Public Advisory Board member) Micah L. Sifry. In The Connector, Micah focuses on “news and analysis at the intersection of politics, movements, organizing and tech and [tries] to connect the dots (and people) on what it will take to keep democracy alive.” Micah’s background in Civic Hall, the Sunlight Foundation, the Personal Democracy Forum and the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science make The Connector a must-subscribe.
Newsletter: You may remember journalist Ben Whitelaw’s Everything in Moderation, from when they partnered with us at the beginning of the year with Lookout for 2022. EiM is a weekly newsletter about how content moderation is shaping the future of the web. Many of their subscribers are in the online safety space, working for social media platforms, think tanks, NGOs, media and research institutions. Plus they have a streamlined new design that looks great. We recommend subscribing!
Workshops: Here’s a reminder to sign up for our special, invite-only workshops that will be exploring some of the issues in the magazine. We've reserved some space for newsletter readers, so please use this form to sign up.
Head of Product position: We have a number of excellent job postings still open, including for Head of Product. Do you have the chops to build zero-to-one products but believe we shouldn’t only optimize for growth and engagement? Come build for the public interest!
Making every digital bus stop a digital bus shelter with at least one seat,
Central Park map and postcard from New York Public Library. Meme screenshot from New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens on Facebook. Text screenshot from Newpublic.org.
New_ Public is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.