The City Transformed
By Jeff Goldman, Thu Nov 22 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Wireless technology is making slow but significant changes in the way we use the urban spaces around us.

There are lots of things to do in Manhattan's Tompkins Square Park. There's a popular dog run where you can let your pet scamper about, there are three different playgrounds with swings and climbing gyms, and there are tables where you can play chess.

There's also broadband wireless connectivity available for free.

The Manhattan-based volunteer group NYCwireless has set up a node in Tompkins Square, using a modified D-Link Access Point to beam a high-speed connection throughout the park. The group has set up more than a dozen other nodes throughout New York City as well, allowing anyone with an 802.11 card to get online for free in locations ranging from Mimi's Pizza to New World Coffee.

Anthony Townsend, a research scientist at New York University's Taub Urban Research Center and one of the founders of NYCwireless, suggests that the effort is ultimately about freeing people from the places where they're used to working. There are a number of reasons why urban workers might want to escape their cubicles, and wireless technology finally makes it possible to do so.

"The tragedy of the information city is that most of what goes on, goes on inside anonymous office towers in the middle of nowhere," Townsend said. "These technologies can support group-based work in pleasant environments that people actually want to be in. So you replace the cubicle with the park bench-and I think that's a definite need."

As wireless technology allows office workers to get just as much work done on a park bench as they would in a cubicle, the physical layout of urban space will gradually adjust to accept the new ways in which cities are used. Mobile access allows users to work and connect in ways they've never been able to before. How will urban environments change to support the new freedom that mobile connectivity provides?

Step into my tree

Heading out of the office and into the park is the most obvious example of the changes that wireless access can bring. One of NYCwireless' current projects is a node in Bryant Park, a popular public space located in Manhattan's midtown business district. A recent deal between NYCwireless and the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation will supply wireless Internet access throughout the park's eight acres.

"One of the reasons I'm interested in that park is the idea that it pulls people out of the office," Townsend said. "Why are they in the office in the first place? Because that's where they have access to equipment for telecommunications and face-to-face interaction with colleagues, and that's how they reach the highest level of productivity. But it's not a particularly pleasant place to do it."

Recognizing this opportunity, a number of companies are looking at the wide variety of places where people might prefer to work. The Texas-based MobileStar Network Corporation has set up 802.11 access points in hotels, airports, and Starbucks coffee stores across the U.S. And in the U.K., Netario recently announced plans to set up Bluetooth networks in cities throughout Europe, starting with its first network in Manchester, England.

Still, don't expect office buildings to disappear anytime soon. The short-term effect is a merging of the places where people work with the places where they relax; more dramatic changes will take time. "People only really started documenting suburban sprawl in the last ten or fifteen years, but that's based on automobile technology and the telephone, which have been around for a hundred years," Townsend said. "So it takes a while for these things to play out in a physical sense."

What's more, offices should continue to have a role to play. Barry Brown, a researcher at the University of Glasgow and the editor of the recently released book Wireless World, notes that cafés have their limitations "If you were going to do an important presentation, you wouldn't take everyone to Starbucks for the presentation," Brown said. "As things merge a bit and we use cafes to do some work, this is not to say that the importance of the head office is completely diminished."

Speeding the metabolism

The Dallas-based JP Mobile is one of the many companies offering secure solutions at the enterprise level to help mobile workers stay connected to the office wherever they happen to be. The company's SureWave Mobile Server provides secure access to enterprise applications, email, and data on a wide variety of phones, pagers, and PDAs.

JP Mobile is currently working with JP Morgan Chase to provide bankers on the road with access to their company's database. Dayakar Puskoor, JP Mobile's founder and CEO, explains that a banker can get the latest news on a client while he drives up to that client's headquarters: it's a huge difference from the usual way of doing research. "He can speak more intimately of what's happening to the customer, and relate to them, instead of printing out the news one day in advance," Puskoor said.

That kind of real-time access is key to any wireless solution, and it brings with it an increased pace in all activities throughout a city-what Townsend calls a "dramatic increase in urban metabolism." Plans can be made on the fly, and nothing needs to be finalized until the last minute: when you're always connected, you don't have to plan anything in advance. It's a major shift in the speed at which a city moves.

And this does have an impact on the physical layout of buildings and public spaces, as mobile phones eliminate the need for waiting rooms and similar public areas. When wireless technology turns a public park into a private office, and plans can be updated with the push of a button, spaces designated for nothing more than killing time become particularly redundant.

A shift in perception

Townsend suggests that of all mobile solutions, location-based services will have the greatest impact on the urban landscape. With a mobile device giving you detailed information about your surroundings, physical cues like signs and building styles become less relevant, and may gradually disappear. "You'll need to have different strategies for making a building stand out or not stand out," he said. "Architecture may become less important as a means of orienting people within cities."

There's a danger, though, that the absence of such physical cues will give enormous influence to those who provide the data. "The digital divide with location based services is going to be about who controls information about your community," Townsend said. "When I go to Harlem, do I get information that's created by the residents of Harlem, or by Yahoo! in Santa Clara, or by Verizon and the Yellow Pages? It's very complex, and nobody's found an easy way to do it."

On the other hand, the mobile Internet can transform how we view our surroundings in the best possible way as well. Imagine standing on a street corner and being able to download video, audio, images, and text describing everything that ever happened in that spot: every inch of a city becomes a virtual museum. "It's like being able to filter the Library of Congress based on what street corner you're standing at," Townsend said. "You can request all information from the web about one street corner."

Brown notes that Tokyo offers an additional example of how wireless technology can transform people's perceptions of urban space, making greater use of densely populated areas. "Quite a few of the bars in Japan are on the fourth or fifth floor of a building," he said. "They have video cameras in the bar and screens on the ground floor, so you can see what's going on inside the bars. It's going to be interesting to see how video screens are used to change lines of sight."

Some enchanted evening

On a more personal level, the ways in which people interact in public spaces are going through fundamental changes. "When people would linger in public places to meet a friend, or find themselves in a public place with nothing to do, they might strike up a conversation with a stranger," Townsend said. "Now, instead of reaching out to strangers, people will reach out via the mobile phone to a familiar network of friends and family."

As a result, urban life becomes more deliberate, and serendipity disappears. When you've always got a companion available through a mobile device should you find yourself with time to kill, chance encounters are all but eliminated. "You see this in bars, waiting rooms, parks, anywhere," Townsend said. "People find themselves alone, become anxious, and they basically build a bubble around themselves."

Still, Townsend admits that those same mobile devices are often responsible for getting people out into the world in the first place. "Even if these technologies undermine serendipity in public places because people are engaged in some kind of terminal use while they're there, at least it gets them into the public places," he said.

Finally, Brown points out that as the urban landscape changes, mixing work and play environments to bring people out of the office and into the world, giving them vast amounts of new information about the cities around them, there's one thing that they'll all be looking for. And surrounded by all this technology, it's more than a little ironic.

"Even though you would think that people could almost do away with face to face meetings because they're so much more mobile and flexible, you find that people put a lot of effort into arranging face time," Brown said. "It's a very interesting irony, isn't it, that one of the main things mobile phones get used for is to arrange face to face meetings?"

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.