“A city that speaks in numbers”, or a new language for cities

Street art of the Baltimore Love Project, found on the streetutopia website

Figure 1: Street Art by the Baltimore Love Project,
found on the streetutopia website

On communication between cities and people.

I tweeted about it, I wrote about it, I discussed it with many people around me, but, after two months, the words of Eric Brelsford are still stuck in my head: the toolkit to measure the value of urban gardening « is helping gardeners be able to speak in numbers to a city that speaks in numbers ». In order to maintain their activity, urban gardeners are urged to use the only language that cities now understand: numbers. What looks like a good initiative reveals the pressure of quantification upon classic urban activities. By using this disturbing expression, “a city that speaks in numbers”, Brelsford highlights the fact that numbers constitute now the major basis of urban policies. At the Center of Advanced Spatial Analysis, in London, despite groundbreaking research, the ipad wall – a London dashboard -, is the initiative that drew the most attention and reached politicians the most efficiently.


Figure 2: London Dashboard at CASA, UCL

Why has a 3*4 numbers wall gained the biggest fame? Why must urban gardeners provide yield value summary? Has the language of city been transformed indeed? How does the urban environment speak to us?

The language of cities does not solely mean the language that people speak in it, although there is an interesting spatial component to the languages spoken, as showed recently in a nice visualization of Oliver O’Brien. His map displays high dissimilarities between London neighborhoods regarding the second language used after English. Obviously, the language spoken by individuals are then transposed in the built environment, through signs and boards for example. The streets are full of writings on the walls themselves, in the shop windows, on touristic milestones, etc. Sometimes the signs are translated in three or four languages, and the texture of walls can encrypt Braille language. Street art is developing fast as it conveys a more suggestive form of language, causing thoughts and emotions, and playing with many elements of our environment.

Street Art by Oakoak

Figure 3: Street art by Oakoak

Many argue that the built environment has also a language in itself: the maze of streets, avenues and dead ends, the hills, the high buildings and the bushes of flowers, the topography of the city, its physicality symbolize the alphabet of the city. The order and disorder of the urban spaces are the modulation of the language. The poetic work of Armelle Caron builds on the idea that the graphic design of the urban form is a discourse offered to its citizen. Cities translate languages in the built environment and also disclose a specific material language.

Paris Workshop, by Armelle Caron

Figure 4: Paris workshop, by Armelle Caron

The language of the city, however, should go beyond this twofold definition stemming from the materiality of cities, especially in a world blurring the frontiers between the material and immaterial spaces. The city speaks to all our senses and our interaction with it are fundamentally polymorph. We feel cities through sound; “L’atelier du bruit” of Paris mapped a ‘musical’ visit of the city.

Figure 5: Paris sounds, by L’atelier du bruit

The sounds relate to activities and, therefore, listening to your city is a great indicator of its rhythm and events. Cities talk through smells, and you can easily recognize places and events by their characteristic scent. In my case, the ‘smell of vomit’ used to indicate that I was getting close to my apartment because I was then living in a street bordered by Gingko trees. In the case of Jason Logan, urine, diesel and chips would tell him that he is entering the district of Washington Heights.

Interactive illustration of Jason Logan, scents and the city

Figure 6: Interactive illustration by Jason Logan,
Scents and the city

Finally, cities can be listened to by touching their ‘skin’, as different layers of architecture and material produce different textures.

Where do the numbers stand among all of these dimensions of language? In fact, numbers encapsulate more and more of them. Pollution sensors, noise measurements, urban garden productivity, number of bikes available, trees census, etc. Most of those data have emerged in the past decade and the measurements will increase even more in the next one. It is truly a great thing that we have so many new metrics to listen to our city, but it should not make us forget the nature of language. The beauty of language is that, no matter how accurate our transcripts of the discourse are, we will never be able to tell how this discourse is interpreted by the people listening. It is one thing to understand what the city tells, it is another to infer how it is interpreted and felt by people. Language emerges from this much personal interaction. Therefore, in my view, the greatest danger of data and of “numbers speaking” is a reduction of the definition of urban language. Numbers tend to get rid of the polymorph interactions of people with their environment. They can produce a quantitative measurement of what we see, hear or smell, but they can’t round the impact of these smells, sceneries and sounds on someone taking a stroll in the streets. At best, they can draft the “emotional state of the city” in a poetic vision, as did the artists presented in the exhibits of Sensity.

Project Sensicity

Figure 7: Project Sensity

In the case of the urban gardeners, which was our starting point, everybody understands that they can get annoyed. What they do for social interactions, for the love of nature, for the appreciation of a flower’s smell, for the indescribable calm of working the soil, cannot be interpreted in terms of productivity and numbers. A “city that speaks in number” should not forget that numbers only encapsulate a tiny fraction of what we expect from our relationships with the city and its components. We shouldn’t stop our polymorph and cryptic chat with the city. In the same manner that Slavoj Zizek says that algorithms are stupid because one can’t at all understand an individual mind from a numeric trace, a city that speaks in numbers – i.e. a city that justifies its policies and studies the relation of citizen with their environment from quantified metrics – is a dumb one.

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