In Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 masterpiece Understanding Media, McLuhan establishes a framework for the relationship of different media and their native content sources: Thought is the content of speech, speech is the content of the written word, and so on.
Cover image of Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media”
When trying to assess what the source of content is for a city, an understandable confusion arises. Some strong contenders might be history, economy and the resources of the available hinterland, politics, or event programming around the city. As trite as it sounds, the most defensible and possibly the most interesting relationship to examine is people as content of the city or vice versa.
Let’s define some terms: the form of a city in this case is the structures, systems, and patterns that guide and channel the actions, motions, or whatever “content” takes place. Content then is the outcome of a driving active force that may but not necessarily include the creative act, interaction between two or more persons, systems, or organizations, or the sensory output of a city (sounds, smells, sights, et cetera). Were this a more formal setting, I’d include some Baudrillard citations, but for now let’s keep moving.
In the case of people as content for a city an optimistic and perhaps even positivistic view arises. The motions of the people – the cars we drive, the bars we frequent, the color of feather most often adorning our hats – influence the character, culture, and nature of the city through individual determinations. The city exists as a framework, aesthetic but meaningless, without the people to bring life and activity to its streets, coffee shops, and museums. The artificial islands in Doha, Qatar and Japan, where the land (form) of the city is literally built, are the most extreme example of people as city content. Without people, not only are the systems flaccid, but they literally would not exist. Similarly, any part of a city that generates any sort of energy (power plants and electricity, concert halls and sounds waves) are minimized to noise without a) people to activate and manage them and b) consumers to demand their presence.
It is more elusive and more intuitively tenuous to examine the people of a city as forms of that city. The core assertion here is that the city exudes (in histrionics, inflicts) its structural will upon the denizens within. Cities planned using the cosmic city model exist as monuments to the heavens to to a higher power. With or without citizens, the structures continue their service (content), their raison d’etre regardless of human interaction.
Cosmic city plan. Stolen from archined.nl/en/news/cosmic-and-theatrical/
Perhaps such structures become even more like content after they become obsolete. The great pyramids are no longer the form of luxurious burial, hopes for the afterlife, and high level investments to convince the gods to give continued prosperity. Now, the pyramids are the content of vacations, exoticism, and history. Vacations, exoticism, and the narrative threads of history (i.e. our retelling) are all human made forms and structures. Clarity: vacations might the form of relaxation, exoticism might be the form of sexual desire plus travel, and history is the form of memory. This could (might) be a whole other article; for now I’ll leave it that in the case of the pyramids the forms created are human endeavors and the pyramids inhabit these forms. There may be more straightforward examples of city as content.
Let’s talk about Red Hook, Brooklyn. Red Hook is a medium sized neighborhood on the west side of Brooklyn facing the harbor. It is not as prominent as neighborhoods like Dumbo and it is not as vast as neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy. What Red Hook accomplished (relevant to this rambling) is establish a pattern of behavior where the structure of a city where people became form. Transportation is the end form: motion is the content of transportation, and feet, bikes, automobiles, or ferries are the content of motion. Recently, Ikea built a store in Red Hook and began a ferry service to Manhattan. In order to seduce customers to the store, they made the ferry free; this service was relatively quicker than the subway (if memory serves the ferry took around 30 minutes or so, versus a 45-60 minute subway ride) and absolutely cheaper (at the time a 2 way subway ride would be roughly $5).
What Ikea didn’t anticipate was an influx of population to Red Hook for residence. The new population used the ferry as a primary means of transportation daily, and eventually lead to a $5 ticket fee on the ferry; however, the movement of people to Red Hook as a result Ikea’s location is form. Without the larger scale content (the building, the ferry), the system of movement would be broken. People are the form for Ikea’s new store. Many transportation systems can be posited in the same way, but this example is the most unique and straightforward.
To be functional as an urbanist, one must assert that people are the content of a city (and that content is king). To be exceptional as an urbanist, one must understand that the determinations people have are always informed by the will of the environment; it is not always clear whether city or civis deserve or need the designer’s attention.