The observation deck won’t be finished for a few years yet. If you want to see the future of New York, walk north along the High Line, round the curve at the rail yards, and turn your back to the river. Amid the highway ramps and industrial hash of far-west Manhattan, a herd of cranes hoists I-beams into the sky. This is Hudson Yards, the largest private real-estate development in United States history and the test ground for the world’s most ambitious experiment in “smart city” urbanism. 1
Hudson Yards will be the nation’s first ‘quantified community,’ a testing ground for applied urban data science.
Over the next decade, the $20 billion project — spanning seven blocks from 30th to 34th Street, between 10th and 12th Avenues — will add 17 million square feet of commercial, residential, and civic space, much of it housed in signature architecture by the likes of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Diller Scofidio + Renfro; and Bjarke Ingels Group. 2 But you don’t have to wait that long to see where this is headed. The first office tower, Kohn Pedersen Fox’s 10 Hudson Yards, opens next month, with direct access to the High Line. The new subway stop is already in business (and has already sprung a few leaks); an extension of the 7 train line connects the diverse, middle-class neighborhood of Flushing, Queens, with this emerging island of oligarchs.
It’s a major transformation for the grim streetscape of the Far West Side. A decade ago, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy described the neighborhood’s “notable architectural features”:
The Port Authority Bus Terminal, the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, the cavernous Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, which blocks access to the river … and the Manhattan tow pound. … The M.T.A. rail yard, which is hidden behind concrete walls. … a Greyhound-bus parking depot, a Sanitation Department refueling station, and several vacant lots. 3
The terminals and tunnels and tracks are still there, but now someone has flipped a switch, and a whole new section of the city is coming online. (Stick with me for a few thousand words, and you’ll understand that’s not a metaphor.) New Yorkers haven’t seen anything like this since the construction of Rockefeller Center transformed Midtown in the 1930s. Hudson Yards is even more impressive, as it rises atop two massive steel-and-concrete platforms that span a working rail yard. [PDF]
It’s also rising on a bed of data. 4 Reports say it will be the nation’s first “quantified community,” a “fully instrumented” testing ground for applied urban data science. If you’ve read my work for Places, you know I’m not about to let that claim pass unnoticed. To understand what Hudson Yards portends for smart cities and smart urban citizens around the world, it is crucial that we examine the ground on which this experiment is taking place — the people and powers that converge here, and the epistemologies and methodologies and urban fantasies they are enacting.
The Long-Unprogrammable Terrain
For nearly a century, this forlorn if frenetic infrastructural terrain has invited — and impeded — repair. The 1929 Regional Plan proposed to relocate New York City’s shipping facilities to Newark and open the waterfront to improvement. A generation later, the John Lindsay administration had a go at it, but developers were stymied by the tracks and tunnels and blocked by opponents in Hells Kitchen, who won “Special District” status that preserved the neighborhood’s “low-rise, residential, affordable character.” Lindsay’s allies pushed through only one major project on their punchlist, the Javits Center, and concessions left little room for future development on the Far West Side. 5
Yet real estate always finds a way. In the early 1970s, Richard Ravitch, developer and head of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, demonstrated the untapped potential of the MTA’s Caemmerer Hudson Rail Yards — 26 below-grade acres that served as parking for Long Island Railroad trains — by ordering the construction of columns that could support a deck above the tracks. “Once it was possible to build over the yards without disrupting their transportation functions,” writes anthropologist Julian Brash, “development proposals quickly emerged.” 6 In the mid-’80s, Olympia and York, a Canadian development firm that had worked on the London Docklands, offered to raze Madison Square Garden (itself a symbol of destruction, standing on the rubble of McKim, Mead and White’s glorious Penn Station) and build a new arena, office towers, and retail complex atop the rail yards.
Here our story crashes into Daniel Doctoroff, the man who gave Hudson Yards its name. He heads a startup company owned by Alphabet that wants to build a futuristic city from scratch.
Those plans were killed by the 1987 stock market crash, but a half mile south, organic growth was happening among the warehouses, garages, fringe nightclubs, and auto-repair shops of West Chelsea. The Kitchen, a legendary performance-art venue, had relocated from SoHo to West 19th in 1986, followed by the Dia Art Foundation, and then by trailblazing gallerists like Matthew Marks, Barbara Gladstone, Andrea Rosen, and Lawrence Luhring. 7 As Chelsea emerged as the city’s new contemporary art hub, entrepreneurs toyed with the idea of building a new Yankee stadium above the rail yards. Then came the economic boom of the 1990s and the growth of the Silicon Alley tech corridor. A collective of business, labor, and academic leaders known as the Group of 35 saw a need for more office space in Midtown and planned to annex the Far West Side.
Here our story crashes into Daniel Doctoroff, the man who gave Hudson Yards its name. You’ll be seeing a lot of him in 2016. He’s now the head of Sidewalk Labs, a startup company owned by Alphabet (née Google) that reportedly wants to build a futuristic city from scratch, as a test ground for experimental technologies. Back in the ’90s, he was a private equity investor who pitched the idea of rebuilding far-west Manhattan around a “Stadium of Dreams” that could attract the Olympic Games and later house the Jets football team. Incoming mayor Michael Bloomberg recruited Doctoroff as his deputy for economic development, 8 and the two pushed the sports complex and surrounding development as “probably the single most important economic project that New York City has undertaken in decades.” 9
That dream burst in 2004, when the Regional Plan Association and local community board rejected the stadium. New York lost the Olympics bid to London, and concurrent proposals to expand the Javits Center and relocate Penn Station also failed. Yet the core vision of a redeveloped waterfront survived. As New York City weathered the Great Recession and its popular mayor was elected to a third term, Bloombergian urbanism was ascendant from Times Square to the White House. Hudson Yards was, Brash observes, “the capstone of the Bloomberg administration’s urban and economic development strategy and a microcosm of the strategy itself.” Setting aside the Olympics stadium, the mayor promised to build “the city’s next great high-end office district.” 10
Bloombergian urbanism was ascendant from Times Square to the White House.
Many of the same people have been committed to the redevelopment of the rail yards, in one form or another, since the Lindsay years. Despite the obstinacy of the site, the failed projects blazed the way for future development, as first the eastern blocks and then the western blocks were rezoned from manufacturing to commercial and residential use. In 2008, after yet another development deal fell through, the MTA awarded a contract to the partners who now control the site, Related Companies and Oxford Properties. 11 They invested $400 million to build platforms over the tracks, and, in late 2010, broke ground on the first building: 10 Hudson Yards, the 52-story commercial office tower now ready to open its doors at 30th Street and 10th Avenue.
Throughout the decades of negotiations, the urban context has changed dramatically, with the flourishing of Hudson River Park, the renovation of the Javits Center, and the transformation of an elevated rail line into the wildly popular High Line Park. Early developers sought to demolish the northern section of the elevated track to make way for their own interventions, but the Friends of the High Line lobbied to save it, and we all know what happened next. 12 When 10 Hudson Yards opens next month, it will be filled with tenants who see the park as an essential amenity. The tower was built directly on top of the High Line and designed to accommodate it, with a grand pedestrian passageway running through the base.
Embedded Smart Systems
Kohn Pedersen Fox, the architecture firm that master-planned the development and designed the towers at 10 & 30 Hudson Yards, has worked with Related and Oxford to incorporate multiple “intelligences” in the project. The plan itself reflects a calculus that balances profit with physics and geology. Because the complex topology of tracks and tunnels limits where engineers can embed caissons into the bedrock, only 38 percent of the site can support construction, so developers have to maximize the usable area by building as high-density, and high-profit, as possible. 13
Circuits are the new topology of this terrain, once dominated by tunnels and tracks.
That calculus also includes public responsibility. One fourth of the residential units are designated for affordable housing (although skeptics fret that “affordable” means studios and other housing unsuitable for families). Sustainable features include an efficient, on-site, cogeneration plant; energy management systems that calibrate use across the grid; household meters that provide real-time readings; and a thermal loop that ties together each building’s central plant, enabling them to exchange heat and chilled water. Environmental righteousness brings cost savings, too. The power plant is supposed to “keep building services running through any disruption,” whether brownout or superstorm. 14
Circuits are the new topology of this terrain, once dominated by tunnels and tracks. Yet another mechanical loop — a pneumatic-tube trash removal system by the Swedish company Envac — will have separate circuits for recyclables, food waste (converted to fertilizer), and trash (fed into a central dehydrator). While such systems are environmentally “smart” — they eliminate noisy, polluting garbage trucks; minimize landfill waste; and reduce offensive smells — they also cultivate an out-of-sight, out-of-mind public consciousness. With disposal chutes on each floor of every building, garbage becomes more of a domestic aesthetic problem than an ecological concern. 15 Perhaps the designers could provide a peek into the trash-collection system so that visitors can both marvel at its efficiency and reflect on their own contributions to the challenges of waste management.
The master plan also calls for a contextual intelligence that acknowledges Hudson Yards’s relation to the city. The site, while marginal, should feel connected to the rest of Manhattan, and the buildings, while monolithic, should be “deferential.” The project’s “enormous physical presence … will feel threatening,” explained KPF principal William Pedersen, “unless it is sculpted and creates responses that are very specific to context.” 16 Some of the buildings taper as they ascend; some lean toward one another; some, with lopped-off crowns, seem to tip their hats; some smooth their envelopes’ sharp angles into soft curves. 17 Yet the renderings still demonstrate a great deal of luminous bravado.
On this artificial ground, even the soil is engineered — it’s ‘the smartest soil in town.’
Rather than pursuing a singular architectural vision, Related recruited a team of prominent designers, each charged with infusing his or her sensibility. As architecture critic Justin Davidson wrote in 2012, “That approach emulates a sped-up version of New York’s gradual, lot-by-lot evolution; the danger is that it can produce a jumble.” 18 Landscape designer Thomas Woltz faces an extraordinary challenge: his Public Square, the central plaza for the Eastern Yards, must knit together the buildings and negotiate vast disparities in scale. “In an open space next to 1,000-foot-towers, our tallest tree is going to be like an ant next to a tall man’s shoe,” Woltz said. 19 Public Square will feature an entry garden, a canopying Pavilion Grove, a water feature, a massive interactive artwork by Thomas Heatherwick, and, according to the developers, a “stonework installation recalling Manhattan geology” — the schist foundation upon which the complex floats, and into which its caissons are anchored. 20 On this artificial ground, even the soil is engineered. The “smartest soil in town” is designed to drain efficiently and collect stormwater in a 60,000-gallon storage tank, which will be protected from the heat of subterranean trains by a network of tubes that circulate chilled liquid. Public Square is thus charged with calibrating a proper climate for plants, people, and buildings. As Davidson put it: it’s “the node where the site’s conflicting forces reveal themselves: the tension between public and private, between city and campus, between democratic space and commercial real estate.”
Yet another mediating structure sits just south of the Square, adjacent to the High Line. Culture Shed, a 200,000-square-foot venue by DS+R and Rockwell Group, will serve as a Kunsthalle for public and private exhibits, concerts, screenings, fashion shows, and trade events. The signature design element is a “telescoping outer shell” that can be extended over the adjacent lot, doubling the venue’s footprint for larger events. When the building is compacted, the side lot will be free for open-air programming and public use. Architect Elizabeth Diller has called it “an open infrastructure that could take on any form of creative expression, at any time, at any scale.” 21 Its flexibility and openness and readiness to accommodate an array of electro-mechanical demands, Diller says, constitute myriad forms of “intelligence.” In that respect, it was inspired by Cedric Price’s hypothetical Fun Palace (1961), a data-driven architectural machine that would calculate its users’ preferences and reconfigure itself to accommodate them. Though never built, Price’s Palace, like the Shed, represents an experimental platform where data determines form.
New York in the Age of Informatics
Hudson Yards is thus marked by intersections: merging infrastructures, political-economic interests, operational logics, publics (ideally) — and urban imaginaries. According to Brash, the “Bloomberg Way” embraced two distinct imaginaries: a corporate city, with the mayor as CEO and the city as a “unified corporate entity,” a brand; and the city as a “luxury product,” an elite, meritocratic realm. 22 The Yards embodies both.
Other stakeholders have different hopes for the development: they see it as the northern anchor of a vibrant cultural district (moored at the south by the new Whitney Museum); as a workshop for smart, sustainable construction methods; as a mixed-use neighborhood drawing diverse publics to its offices, residences, shops, restaurants, and cultural facilities. The metaphors begin to pile up. Hudson Yards is conceived as an interface, as a mixing chamber, a test-bed. 23 How will these competing visions be reconciled on the ground? Not easily is my guess, since they are born of different ideologies and epistemologies.
Hudson Yards is conceived as an interface, as a mixing chamber, a test-bed. How will these competing visions be reconciled on the ground?
In a recent article, Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid identified three “urban age discourses” that shape our current episteme. 24 Urban triumphalism, as championed by economists like Edward Glaeser, regards the city as an engine of innovation and civilization and prosperity. Sustainable urbanism imagines cities as hotbeds of resilience and environmental consciousness. Finally, technoscientific urbanism reflects a neopositivist return to postwar systems thinking and centralized planning; it is especially visible in the discourse around “smart cities,” which regards the intelligence generated from spatial sensing and data analysis as a “fix” for perennial urban problems.
Bloombergianism draws from all three discourses; in fact, it represents their greatest synthesis. As Brash explains, the mayor’s “so-called pragmatism redefined complex urban issues as a set of ‘problems’ to be ‘solved’ via the application of technical knowledge and evaluated via quantitative measurement.” 25 He liked policies with measurable outcomes. Yet while Bloomberg’s advocacy for Hudson Yards depended on numbers — cost/benefit analyses, revenue projections, square-footage counts — Brash argues that it was also rooted in fantasy. In selling a vision of the future city, the mayor asked developers, and New Yorkers at large, to take a leap of faith.
Bloomberg’s belief in the power of data shaped his initiatives. In 2010, he launched the Applied Sciences NYC program, inviting top research institutions to submit proposals to build new applied science and engineering campuses in New York, with funding and land provided by the city. The program was designed not only to enhance educational offerings but also to generate “innovative ideas that can be commercialized, catalyzing hundreds of spinoff companies and increasing the probability that the next high-growth company — a Google, Amazon, or Facebook — will emerge in New York City.” 26 The city had already spawned Esty, Tumblr, and Foursquare, but to fully exploit its established industries — finance, media, advertising, real estate — it would need to expand its science and engineering sector. 27
The first award, in 2012, went to Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology for a joint campus on Roosevelt Island. 28 A few months later, the mayor announced a second award, for New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, a research center in Downtown Brooklyn. Since then, CUSP has become the hub in a large network of international collaborators that includes universities (Carnegie Mellon, CUNY, University of Toronto, University of Warwick, and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay); tech, design, utility, and defense companies (IBM, Microsoft, Xerox, Cisco, Consolidated Edison, Lutron, National Grid, Siemens, AECOM, Arup, IDEO, and Lockheed Martin, all of whom provide financial support); and city agencies (departments of city planning, design and construction, buildings, environmental production, parks and recreation, and transportation; the MTA; the Port Authority; fire and police).
CUSP wants to ‘instrument New York City’ and ‘transform the city into a living laboratory and classroom.’
Call it the academy-industry-government complex. CUSP’s intermodal teams use city data — “urban informatics” — to address challenges related to infrastructure, energy use, pollution, noise, transportation, public safety, public health, and so on, and thereby “help cities around the world become more productive, livable, equitable, and resilient.” They start by focusing on problems close to home and then seek to scale up solutions that can be applied globally: “CUSP will instrument New York City and use existing data from network agencies to transform the city into a living laboratory and classroom.” 29 Instrument. What a remarkable verb.
I first wrote about CUSP’s methods for Places in 2013. 30 Earlier that year, director Steven Koonin had written, “it is now not a fantasy to ask ‘if you could know anything about a city, what do you want to know’ and to ponder what could be done with that information.” 31 In the era of Big Data, nearly everything can be measured, and that data can probably be used to optimize something. More recently, deputy director Constantine Kontokosta has insisted that CUSP does not put the data before the horse. Whereas some scientists adopt the attitude, “We have so much data, let’s just correlate it all, analyze it all, and see what interesting patterns we find and respond to them,” he says that CUSP researchers take the opposite approach: “Let’s think of the important, interesting questions and then find the data we need.” 32 Those important questions, according to Kontokosta, are shaped by collaborations with social scientists who focus on issues such as social equity and justice. On its website, CUSP claims that its work is ultimately about people, i.e. “the customers and operators of urban systems,” and that its mission is to understand “them and their behavior.” 33 In this universe, citizens relate to their city by consuming and administering its systems, and by serving as sources of measurable behavioral data. 34
Hudson Yards as Open-Air Urban Lab
As the Bloomberg administration cultivated these centers of innovation — on Roosevelt Island, in Downtown Brooklyn, and later at Columbia University and the Brooklyn Navy Yard 35 — it was easy to see a role for Hudson Yards. Here was an unprecedented opportunity to rewire a large plot of land, to create, tabula rasa, a test-bed of urban intelligence that would align the city’s new data science industry with its expertise in finance, real estate, design, and structural and civil engineering. In April 2014, CUSP announced that it would partner with Related and Oxford to develop Hudson Yards as a “unique experimental environment” for testing “new physical and informatics technologies and analytics capabilities.” Kontokosta would lead the initiative. 36
Hudson Yards was an unprecedented opportunity to rewire a large plot of land, aligning the city’s new data science industry with its expertise in finance, real estate, design, and structural and civil engineering.
There are many other U.S. cities — Austin, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago among them — that are integrating “smart” technologies into existing architectures in order to improve efficiency, safety, health, and resilience. 37 New York has other programs, too: a network of sensors, video cameras, and EZ Pass readers that monitor traffic congestion in Midtown; water meters that wirelessly report leaks; solar-powered trash compactors that alert sanitation workers when they are full; rooftop noise sensors that detect the acoustic signature of gunshots and help agents geolocate their origins. And they’re making money. The NYPD’s Domain Awareness System, which links surveillance cameras, license plate readers, radiation and chemical monitors, and police files, has been sold to other law enforcement agencies and has yielded profit for both New York and its partner Microsoft. 38 The federal government’s Smart Cities Initiative, launched last fall, aims to fund new programs in the areas of civic technology, cybersecurity, transportation, broadband infrastructure, and more. 39
And while other sites around the world —Songdo, South Korea; Masdar, United Arab Emirates; Lavasa, India — have purportedly built “smart” from the start, Hudson Yards offers the first opportunity in the United States to build, from the ground up, “the most connected, measured, and technologically advanced digital district in the nation.” 40 Its new steel and concrete structures will serve as scaffolding for the installation of a “future-proofed” fiber-optic loop, as well as rooftop satellite, digital antennae, and wireless responders that provide tenants with super-fast connectivity without dead zones. The massive platforms and sidewalks and building facades offer seemingly boundless surface-area for embedded technology such as environmental sensors, sub-metering and building data-capture systems, and devices linked to the Internet of Things. Modeling software will process data on pedestrian flow, traffic, indoor and outdoor air quality, energy production and consumption, waste streams, and citizens’ health and activity levels. Residents and workers equipped with tracking apps and smartphone sensors will enjoy an “interactive, data-driven experience,” and developers can use the harvested data to improve “operational efficiencies, productivity, and quality of life” — to build a community that’s more “livable, equitable, and resilient.” 41 So the story goes.
The Politics of Numbers
But how to “operationalize” — and then quantify and optimize — such fuzzy qualities? What constitutes livability or equity? Why the unquestioned supremacy of efficiency? Are all things better when they’re quick and easy? “Sustainability” (that buzzword-of-yore supplanted in some circles by the more gritty resilience) “has really been a measurement problem,” according to Kontokosta. 42 The solution is to capture a “broader array of measurements,” a richer assemblage of data streams — data from the environment, data from physical systems, data about human behavior — in order to better understand urban ecosystems. 43 CUSP is particularly interested in how physical spaces and environmental conditions shape human activity. 44 How, for example, do noise, air quality, and social interactions correlate with educational achievement? At a granular level, how does the use of Public Square relate to measures of health? Koonin predicts that all this cross-referencing and collation will produce new “disciplines.” We’ll see the rise of “human-centered civil engineering” and wider applications of “quantitative design.” 45
The trouble with modern theories of behaviorism, Hannah Arendt warned, is not that they are wrong but that they could become true.
While data science itself is an interdisciplinary practice, the translation of data into built form requires collaboration among an even larger field of actors, many of whom bring wildly disparate values and preconceptions. Think of all the earthmoving that has to happen, or the negotiation with labor unions. These are not activities that can be easily data-fied. And not everyone in this larger field of actors shares Kontokosta’s concern with putting “important questions” before data collection and analysis. Real-estate developers and governments focus on measurable outcomes. They need numbers to inspire confidence in potentially risky investments, and to systematically guide their planning and implementation. “I don’t know what the applications might be,” admits Related’s Jay Cross, “but I do know that you can’t do it without the data.” 46 That’s a dangerous approach, argues sociologist Will Davies, as “theoretical presuppositions and hypotheses can allegedly be abandoned, along with notions of causality, in favor of blanket surveillance of everyday life.” 47 Then it’s all about data-capture and pattern-spotting and behaviorist explanations. Built environments and technical systems are presumed to inform human behavior, and data about that behavior is fed back into the environment to alter future human behavior. 48 It’s B. F. Skinner with sensors.
Within this model, people do possess agency, but their actions are framed by their roles as consumers and generators of data. What about human activities that cannot be observed? What about all those potential behaviors that are never enacted, and thus never measured, because the physical space or its regulation prohibits them — or because one’s subjectivity proscribes a repertoire of possible behaviors? What about other modes of action, other means by which people perform their urban citizenship? How will the new methods of measurement and planning inform what it means to be a citizen in a quantitative community?
“The trouble with modern theories of behaviorism,” Hannah Arendt warned in 1958, is “not that they are wrong but that they could become true” — that the very instruments used to measure behavior are indicative of, and constitutive of, societies of automatism and “sterile passivity.” 49 The data we generate, based on determinist assumptions and imperfect methodologies, could end up shaping populations and building worlds in their own image.
Sustainability is a common value in smart urbanism and a selling point for residents hoping to live “mindfully” and ethically in their LEED Gold apartment buildings. But what does that really mean? Media scholar Jennifer Gabrys argues that people enact their citizenship — or empirically “behave” like citizens — by installing smart thermostats in their homes, depositing trash in the appropriate chutes, monitoring air quality and noise levels while they walk the dog, and FitBitting their way to good health. Through this self-monitoring (and the voluntary provision of personal data to some central repository), they presumably learn to make informed and responsible choices, to alter their behavior when necessary, and to contribute to the collective sustainability effort. Smart citizenship, Gabrys says, is thus equated with monitoring and managing one’s relationship to the urban environment — “operationalizing the cybernetic functions of the smart city” — rather than with “exercising rights and responsibilities” or “advancing democratic engagement through dialogue and debate,” as Arendt would prefer. 50
People ‘behave’ like citizens by installing smart thermostats in their homes, depositing trash in the appropriate chutes, and FitBitting their way to good health.
If we were to measure the behavior of these citizen-sensors as an index of their engagement with the city, we’d find that their actions are limited, as Arendt foretold, by the instruments that render those actions visible and worth accounting for. The result is a passive, somewhat egocentric notion of citizenship — even an automated performance of citizenship, wherein self-managing environmental technologies can “override citizens if they do not perform” in accordance with the rules — which restricts people’s ideas about civic action, delimits the “rights to the city” to which they feel entitled, and shapes their imagination about what a city is and can be. 51
What’s more, Gabrys says, “the very responsiveness that enables citizens to gather data” often doesn’t let them “meaningfully act upon the data gathered, since this would require changing the urban ‘system’ in which they have become effective operators.” While some models of smart urbanism embrace the tools of “e-government” — report-a-pothole apps, for example, or community planning software — they typically lack any means of accommodating user input that challenges the underlying principles and ideologies of the tools. 52 Civic engagement platforms, in their promotion of “transparency” and efficiency, tend to obscure the politics of pervasive surveillance and offer no means for citizens to question the goals of “growth” and “progress” (i.e., neoliberalism), or to trace the spread of what Shoshanna Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” 53 Jathan Sadowski and Frank Pasquale follow this logic to its conclusion: “Anybody who wishes to ask critical questions about the future, let alone actually constrain and slow down technological development, is de facto extinguishing an exploding economy and standing in the way of a (supposedly) democratizing force.” 54
You cannot ‘coshape’ a painstakingly engineered, shrewdly financed, algorithmically-tuned, master-planned environment designed to prevent you from influencing it.
Proponents of “values-driven design” advocate that citizens be involved in co-designing the technology that shapes the environments they live in and structures their everyday lives. Yet, as The New Republic’s Christine Rosen notes, “You cannot ‘coshape’ an environment” — particularly a painstakingly engineered, shrewdly financed, algorithmically-tuned, master-planned environment — “designed by others to prevent you from influencing it.” 55 Are there opportunities for meaningful citizen participation in creating the smart technologies that will define Hudson Yards? And what about the visitors? What about the conscientious objectors? What about the residents who lack the tools for participation — “smart” devices or technological “smarts” — and who are thus subjected to the city’s monitoring without being able to monitor back?
I posed these questions to Related and CUSP. Representatives from both organizations indicated that they’re still in the planning phases for the “quantified community,” and they can’t share concrete details.
Data Streams as Urban Infrastructure
While much of the data at Hudson Yards will be drawn from building systems and connected devices, people themselves constitute another valuable data source. CUSP has repeatedly stated that residents and visitors will not be tracked unless they opt in to the anonymous collection of personal data from home sensors and smartphone apps. 56 In 2014, a senior official at Related proposed that residents might be incented to “opt-in” in exchange for “services,” 57 but when I reached out last month, the company declined to comment on how that might work. It’s not exactly reassuring to hear CUSP researchers tell The New York Times that “the conditions under which people will feel comfortable sharing their personal information … will be another subject for experiment.” 58 For most researchers working with human subjects, consent, privacy, and confidentiality are critical values. It’s not clear that the rules of the game are the same at Hudson Yards. Kontokosta told Fast Company that today’s urbanites have come to “demand” services and conveniences that require they get comfortable with greater surveillance and instrumentalization. 59
If data collected at Hudson Yards is subject to loosely regulated mining, what about the data as a physical resource, which will require a material infrastructure for its storage and management? It seems that’s another test bed. As Kontokosta recently explained to Bisnow:
We haven’t seen this type of comprehensive data effort in an urban development before. … There will be a lot of challenges dealing with the fire hose of data this is going to unleash, but we’re hoping this will eventually become a model for how cities think about this type of informatics infrastructure going forward. 60
That’s not much clearer than what we heard two years ago from Related’s senior vice president of operations. Thad Sheely surmised that the data would be stored in the cloud (where?) and managed by an outside information technology company (perhaps Hudson Yards tenant SAP?):
Basically, we’ll be the funnel and collect the data so they can put [the information] though their spin cycle in the cloud, and then provide an interface for us to be able to access the information. … That way, we won’t need to have a big server farm on campus. 61
Again, neither Related nor CUSP would confirm speculations about that spin cycle in the cloud. But if an off-site model is realized, the physical systems that make the development “smart” — its tubes and cables and servers — will presumably be hidden away like all the other circuits. What’s left? A deceptively clean, shallow interface to the Hudson Yards operating system, whose physical architecture, algorithmic operation, and security we know very little about.
The conditions under which people will feel comfortable sharing their personal information … will be another subject for experiment.
Geographer Rob Kitchin has identified issues that governments and developers must address in order to ensure the privacy, protection, and security of data, which he takes to be critical rights in the smart city — not subjects for experimentation. New Yorkers would do well to familiarize themselves with these recommendations, which include building “privacy-by-design” into technologies; offering education about data security; forming a smart-city oversight committee to monitor governance, ethics, privacy, and security; empowering a compliance team that works across city departments and contractor companies; and charging a cybersecurity emergency response team. Implementing Kitchin’s recommendations in New York could “enable the benefits of smart cities and urban big data to be realized,” while promoting fairness and equity, and protecting citizens (and the city itself) from harm. 62
I’ll go a step further than that. The politics of data, and the materiality of its infrastructure, could be made legible — or senseable — within the landscape. Just as I suggested earlier that Hudson Yards designers might offer a peek into mechanical systems like the trash chute, there could also be civic education to inform residents and visitors about what makes the community so “smart” — and about their own potential for managing the uses of the data they generate. 63 A public library would be an ideal venue for such public pedagogy, and for providing an interface to — and guiding patrons’ use of — open data provided by Hudson Yards and the city government. Further, we need to ensure that public institutions and repositories have the resources to commit to the long-term maintenance of open, secure information infrastructures. That is especially important in cities powered by commercial IT and dependent on proprietary platforms. History shows that commercial partners tend to value innovation-driven obsolescence, exclusive contracts, and the monetization of user data; rather than resilience, interoperability, equitability, and discretion. 64
From Penthouse to Sidewalk (Labs)
Let’s pause now to consider what we know about the community forming on the Far West Side. At 10 Hudson Yards, opening soon, tenants will include the luxury fashion retailer Coach, cosmetics company L’Oreal, digital marketers VaynerMedia, Boston Consulting Group, and the software and data analytics company SAP. 65 Next year, a second tower opens at 55 Hudson Yards, designed by KPF/Kevin Roche; the first confirmed tenant is the law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner. Opening in 2018 are a 70-story apartment building by DS+R/Rockwell Group and a retail center by Elkus Manfredi that will feature more than one hundred shops, including New York’s first Neiman Marcus store, and restaurants “curated” by celebrity chef Thomas Keller. By 2019, Culture Shed will begin hosting events. David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill will unveil a mixed-used building anchored by an Equinox hotel and fitness club. And KPF will open a 90-story tower with tenants who are moving from the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, including HBO, CNN, Oxford Properties, and Related Companies; as well as the investment bank Wells Fargo Securities and at least one private equity firm. The year 2020 will bring the highly symbolic “regime change” of a 62-story office tower replacing the McDonald’s at 34th Street and 10th Avenue. After that comes a second phase of development, at the Western Yards, which will emphasize residential use; among its seven apartment buildings and one public school, there is one office building.
This is a land of luxury and logistics, fitness and finance, marketing and media, couture and curation, fine-dining and data — all situated amidst abundant open space.
What does that tell us? This is a land of luxury and logistics, fitness and finance, marketing and media, couture and curation, fine-dining and data — all situated amidst abundant open space, including not only Public Square and Culture Shed, but also Hudson Park & Boulevard, a four-acre green space that will extend past the northern border up to 39th Street. While some early boosters imagined Hudson Yards as an annex of the Midtown business district, the current developers have a more specific image in mind: Silicon Alley West. Related’s agents have aggressively pursued tech start-ups, figuring that the resilient micro-grid and frontier location will be a draw. There is even interest in growing a full-time tech incubator on site. 66
Any day now, Sidewalk Labs — an urban innovation “accelerator” — will move into the 26th and 27th floors of 10 Hudson Yards. Perhaps they are already there. Right beside them will be Intersection, a Sidewalk subsidiary formed last year after the acquisition of Control Group, a tech and design firm, and Titan, an outdoor advertising company. Intersection has already made its presence felt around the city by transforming New York’s 8,000-plus payphones into “Links,” ad-supported pylons that feature super-fast WiFi, free calls, and charging stations. (Among the crucial questions for privacy and security: will the Links become nodes in the NYPD’s Domain Awareness System?) 67
Sidewalk Labs, remember, has a deep connection to the once-unprogrammable terrain of the Far West Side. Chief executive Daniel Doctoroff is the Bloomberg ally who recoded the territory as Hudson Yards. Given the neighborhood’s many evolutionary phases, whose histories are carved into the landscape here, it is fitting that Sidewalk now positions itself as an ambassador of the new infrastructural age. The company tells its own version of urban history: After the steam revolution, the electricity revolution, and the automobile revolution, all of which made their marks here, comes a digital revolution characterized by “ubiquitous connectivity, sensors, location-based services, social networks, advanced computing power, the ability to analyze data, and new design and fabrication technologies like 3-D printing and robotics” that promise to “solve” our pressing urban problems, to promote efficiency and adaptability, to build urban community and “give people a greater sense of personalization.” 68 Is that what we’ve been missing all this time? A greater sense of personalization?
Sidewalk Labs aims to bridge the gap that typically divides urbanists and technologists, embracing a set of principles and urban imaginaries that extend beyond the Bloomberg consensus.
While established smart-city players like Cisco and IBM peddle top-down, master-planned solutions, Sidewalk Labs presents itself as a fresh alternative, offering “platforms” (there’s that ubiquitous, seemingly innocuous metaphor) that users can “plug into.” 69 Undergirding those platforms is the entire Alphabet apparatus: the “largest pool of capital in the world focused on urban innovation”; a “deep knowledge” of how cities work, informed by the company’s vast store of urban data, particularly regarding urban mobility; a commitment to privacy and “world-class security”; the leaders’ “trust-based” relationships with city governments and major companies; and their confidence to work “with, through, and sometimes around existing institutions and regulatory structures” in order to bring its products to market (italics mine). That foundation — rivaling the Yards’s two massive platforms in the concentration of funding, deal-making, and engineering required for its construction — equips Alphabet and Sidewalk Labs to “build, deploy, and service any digital technology in the physical world,” which they can then test “at scale” and offer on a subscription, fee, or commission model to private parties or governments anywhere. 70 Are you worried yet? Or thrilled?
Such a wealth of resources, and such hubris, might imply a narrowly technocratic approach to urban betterment, but Sidewalk Labs aims to bridge the gap that typically divides urbanists and technologists (a chestnut roasted often in company presentations). It embraces a set of principles and urban imaginaries that overlap with and extend beyond the Bloomberg consensus. While Sidewalk, like Bloomberg, recognizes cities as “engines of opportunity” and actively seeks “business opportunities,” it also, like CUSP, asserts that cities are ultimately “about people,” and that cities must adapt to the needs (and behaviors) of their citizens. Further, Sidewalk explicitly addresses the ethical dimensions of urban living and urban design. Its website highlights the importance of fostering interactions, planned and spontaneous, among urban citizens; cultivating shared values and promoting equity, inclusion, and diversity; and accepting the critical responsibility to facilitate “coordination without control.” 71 That last bullet is especially tricky in this new world of ubiquitous surveillance and algorithmic governance. Doctoroff has spoken about the need to “keep the virtuous cycle going” (remember: don’t be evil; do the right thing!) — to “maintain quality of life, protect our privacy, keep us safe, and address equity” — while still maximizing profit. 72
Although committed to a code of ethics that emphasizes local concerns and citizen empowerment, Sidewalk Labs aims big. Working at an ambitious scale enables the team to model the interrelationships among seemingly disparate urban challenges. For example: “the availability of transportation affects where people choose to live, which affects housing prices, which affects quality of life.” 73 Data-capture and pattern-spotting show potentially “actionable” correlations. Solving problems is then a matter of building the right relationships with partners and stakeholders, and developing the right technologies.
What urban realities could those technologies effect? Sidewalk talks in the present tense, as if the goals have already been realized:
Modern, affordable housing is enabled by performance-based code, advanced materials, and new and ownership models.
Digital mobility systems can manage limited road space to improve transportation equity and air quality.
Personalized social services can deliver measurable health outcomes while maintaining individual privacy.
Distributed energy management uses new business models, renewable energy, and smarter storage to improve sustainability. 74
After Doctoroff’s own battles with zoning and building codes, it’s no surprise that he emphasizes the potential of performance-based codes. “In a world in which we can monitor things like noise or vibrations,” he wonders, “why do we need to have these very prescriptive building codes that only change once every several decades? It inhibits the transfer of land so we end up having very restrictive uses.” 75 He holds that owners and residents should be allowed to behave as they please in their apartments and neighborhoods, so long as they don’t exceed certain thresholds, and that a regulatory system built on sensors and automatic monitoring would produce more vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods and “enhance the free flow of property, which lowers costs.” Of course, such models presume that the key variables that codes and zoning are designed to regulate — people’s health, safety, and welfare; property value, orderly development, and community character — are objectively measurable and enforceable. “Neighborly” behavior has a number.
Such models presume that the key variables that codes and zoning are designed to regulate are objectively measurable and enforceable. ‘Neighborly’ behavior has a number.
And given Alphabet’s investment in self-driving cars, it’s no surprise, either, that Doctoroff is focusing on urban transportation. Last month, the Department of Transportation announced that the seven finalist cities in its $40-million Smart City Challenge will partner with Sidewalk Labs to develop a traffic management system called Flow, which will use anonymized data from mobile apps like Google Maps and Waze, along with sensors on the street and eventually (we can assume) in Alphabet’s cars, to help commuters and city governments monitor and manage traffic patterns. 76 Flow will spot areas and sources of congestion, model the impact of altered or expanded transit routes, coordinate ride shares, and perhaps even identify zones underserved by public transit. 77 Link-style kiosks will feed data into the system, directing drivers to available parking, recommending detours around traffic jams, and routing self-driving cars through the streets. The kiosks may someday serve as “digital stethoscopes,” monitoring flows of people, commercial activity, and garbage removal, and perhaps inciting service or policy changes; and as notice boards, flagging table openings at neighborhood restaurants or warning of service delays at the nearest subway. “We’ll be doing Developer Days, making APIs,” said Intersection’s chief innovation officer. The city as platform, finally realized. 78
The winning city, to be announced in June, will get not only a DOT grant but also a “license” to Flow and 100 free kiosks. The result: an ingenious vertically-integrated system, with Alphabet managing city streets from A to Z — from individual automobiles and commuters’ navigational systems to transit informatics and the hardware that enables data-capture and transfer. The only commuters out of the loop (and off the map) will be those who aren’t plugged into Alphabet’s platforms and products. At Hudson Yards, the street design will make it clear who the intended users are. Justin Davidson surmises that street activity will be managed via drop-off lanes, “so the limos are taken care of.” But how to manage the shopping-cart pushers and skateboarders and fellow misbehavers? Sidewalk Labs did not respond to my inquiries.
The Instrumental City
If you happen to be in New York next month, stop and look up at the new building straddling the High Line. Whatever’s brewing on the 27th and 28th floors, it’s going to be big. Sidewalk’s new leadership, announced in February, includes former heads of key divisions at Google — maps, shopping, machine intelligence — as well as Bloomberg allies with deep experience in planning and development. Joining Doctoroff in the C-suite are Rit Aggarwala, who designed Bloomberg’s PlaNYC sustainability program, and Josh Sirefman, who helped build Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island. 79 The company is hiring machine vision and simulation experts as well as “city leads” focused on municipal processes like health and human services, public safety, and criminal justice. Presumably, these are the urban sectors it aims to optimize. As recently as last month, Sidewalk Labs was also recruiting a “product lead” for “citizen experiences.”
These-modern day Haussmenn have tamed their western frontier, sunk mounds of capital into a buried rail bed, finessed the zoning at the Department of Buildings, and now intend to use their new weapon — data — to revolutionize the old urban regime.
When Doctoroff, surrounded by his old Bloomberg compatriots and new Alphabet colleagues, looks down upon the construction at Hudson Yards, he must feel that his Olympic dreams, long deferred, have been fulfilled — recast, rebranded for our new age of algorithmic ambition. The developers and financiers and data-managers will behold the same scene. These-modern day Haussmenn have tamed their western frontier, sunk mounds of capital into a buried rail bed, finessed the zoning at the Department of Buildings, and now intend to use their new weapon — data — to revolutionize the old urban regime. They’ll remake the infrastructures that have been entangled at the Yards; they’ll overlay a new topology of circuits and data flows atop the train tracks and tunnels. These Great Men — this is a latter-day Power Broker story, after all — will have successfully united New York’s powers in finance, real estate, design, marketing, engineering, technology, and now data science to construct a floating empire that blends all the urban age discourses: triumphalism, sustainability, technoscientism. They’ll behold the city “fully instrumented” — and instrumentalized, as an engine of data and profit.
And fantasy. From the observation deck atop 30 Hudson Yards, projected to be the highest in the city, residents and visitors will look out upon a dream made manifest: a clean, efficient urban machine; a carefully curated cultural experience; a Keller-fed, Equinox-toned, Coach-clad populace; a sustainable urban ecosystem; a harmonious community that behaves in accordance with the rules; a city that plays by the numbers. Here, those modern theories of behaviorism, dear Professor Arendt, will have “become true.”