The City Is A Prototyping Engine

The best cities – usually also the largest – are prototyping engines that use the abundance of their density to ceaselessly test new ideas for material accumulations (buildings, vehicles, things), abstract systems (laws, regulations, even languages), and ways of life. This, I argue, is the source of the effervescence that any good city exhibits. The city is exciting because it’s always new in a million little ways. In a similar way the non-city, the rural, is exciting because its vaccuum presents persistant challenges. If the mode of the city is becoming, the mode of the rural is a constant overcoming.

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The thing about prototypes is that they are by definition a temporary condition to be replaced by subsequent iterations. Prototypes turn into products and those products get deployed. While 80% of the US may now reside in places nominally deemed “cities,” this is not an undifferentiated term. Amongst the country’s places there are cities which consistently prototype new things, systems, and ways of life and those cities that deploy post-prototype “products.” You’ll have to excuse the brutishness of this line of reasoning, but suffice it to say there are places which tend to prototype new ideas and others which tend to adopt pre-tested ideas from other places. New York City: prototyping engine. Paso Robles, CA: consumption engine.

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This came into striking clarity for me as I joined some dear old friends amongst a group of happy Paso Robles residents at a finish line party for the 5th Stage of the Amgen Tour of California. For a few hours the streets of this small town were alive with people – excited people. Jumbotrons and bleachers were erected along the route, television helicopters buzzed overhead, some even awkwardly donned VIP badges. These various control structures all hailed from somewhere else, though: the route fencing was trucked in from Boulder, CO; the helicopter up from LA; the Jumbotron from whoknowswhere.

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While Amgen was clearly an economic and cultural triumph for the town, it came pre-tested, deployable, and was temporary. The problem with the prototype/product model of cities is that those places which tend more towards consumption than production become the handmaidens of their bigger brothers and sisters, dependent upon distant places to deliver the equipment and expertise needed to put events in to motion.

If the largest cities are able to churn over constant ptototypes it’s because the abundance of density yields disproportionately large opportunities in the form of financing, know how, and other limited resources. The rural, on the other hand, typically has ample supplies of raw material and time. The rural ethos is to assemble what you have in the best way that you can and this kind of improvisation is is what was missing from Paso Robles. As a place that now thinks of itself as a city, Paso Robles looked to other, larger cities for its missing expertise and equipment rather than taking the imperative of the event to test something new. This opportunity for civitas was treated as a chance to consume.

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The glimmer of excitement that came from converting the street into a stage – that old but wonderful architectural cliche – disappeared with the crowd as soon as the race was over. Where was the street food? The hoe down? Anything to prolong the civic moment beyond the bracketed few hours of commercially-sponsored airtime would have given Paso Robles a chance to test out its own ideas for how to be a city. Before you may hope to use the city, you must first create it.

Consider these thoughts half baked, but I continue to feel some responsibility to represent (!!!) the non-urban. This sort of elseplace, as it could be called, makes up a large part of the country’s territory and is a fertile land of opportunity should we decide to change the
fundamentals of the american way of life (like, say, SUVs, obesity, McMansions, et al) These places, too distant from urban centers to be suburbs and too developed to be called rural, are what we need to be prototyping.

Without the warm fuzzies of a humanitarian crisis or the imperative of environmental collapse, when the buzzword of “urban” is nowhere to be found and life seems to be pretty OK, how do we escape the apathy of the comfortable? If the rule of thumb is that 80% of interest comes from 20% of sources, how do we motivate ourselves to work on that 80% that is neither upper echelon nor bottom bin?

2 Comments so far

  1. Brian (with an "i") on April 10th, 2009

    Kudos for an interesting examination of Paso. Not easily done with such eloquence- that place is consistently an enigma to me.

  2. Bill Seitz on March 2nd, 2011

    Could it be that the problem isn’t the mid-scale of the “city” so much as the scale of its neighborhoods and the inter-neighborhood human-traffic levels?

    I suspect that most prototyping happens not at the city level but at the more-local level. In NYC, a neighborhood-level event (a) has enough local mass to get off the ground (oops contradictory metaphors), and (b) there’s enough constant not-for-the-event flow going on that people from other neighborhoods *experience* the prototype and can then spread/adjust it in their own locales….

    Just a brain-fart…

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