“Highest and Best Use” from the Plan to the Platform

The Commissioners’ Plan for Manhattan, 1811. Source: Library of Congress, available at:https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3804n.ct000812/.
John Stehlin considers the historical resonances and specificity of platform urbanism.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Platform Urbanism.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

At the risk of a crude historicizing move that says, “Platforms are really just X,” reading these pieces I was struck by the resonances between platform urbanism and 19th-century settler colonial city planning.1By “settler colonial,” I mean forms of urbanism that treated stolen land as a tabula rasa, rather than adapting to the spatial forms of previous or competing regimes. I am thinking of Manhattan’s Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 (shown above), which established what we might call a platform for (in the words of its authors) the “buying, selling and improving of real estate” in interchangeable units, which became legible not just to local but also international speculators.2Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (New York:The Monacelli Press, 1994), 8; Elizabeth Blackmar, Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991). The grid was an “algorithm for land use,”3Gergely Baics and Leah Meisterlin, “The Grid as Algorithm for Land Use: A Reappraisal of the 1811 Manhattan Grid,” Planning Perspectives (2017). DOI:10.1080/02665433.2017.1397537. a “raised level surface” (in Maroš Krivý’s reframing of Tarleton Gillespie) that was endlessly replicated in a kind of “open innovation.” Indeed, as Lizzie Richardson reminds us, urban public life as we know it depends on the flourishing of the economies this platform fostered.

So, what is new? If, as Sarah Barns notes, initiatives like Sidewalk Toronto entail the “functional reconstitution of city design and services as a platform,” then what may be new about platform urbanism is the scaling downward of this “algorithm for land use” to objects and practices that are newly, and ubiquitously, instrumented.4Sarah Barns, Ellie Cosgrave, Michele Acuto, and Donald McNeill, “Digital Infrastructures and Urban Governance,” Urban Policy and Research 35, no. 1 (2017): 20–31. I see this in my research on urban mobility platforms, particularly the ways that services like bike share, scooter share, and “micro-transit” appropriate vernacular mobilities and convert them into urban sensors. These sensors are largely a solution in search of a problem (as Matt Wilson suggests), allowing something that previous ways of measuring mobility did not: a real-time “market” in urban space, premised on the calculative power of demand-based pricing, gamification, and other algorithmic stimuli. In theory – leaving aside the massive gap between theory and practice in this case – they make every bit of “latent space” perform to its “highest and best use.” For example, the founder of CityRyde, a now-defunct platform for issuing carbon offsets from bike share trips, summarized the ultimate goal as “to track and monetize anything that moves.” This is the logic of capitalist urban planning applied to moving things rather than static parcels.

Francis Spufford’s novel Red Plenty, a strange hybrid of historical fiction and economic drama, is one of my favorite novels. It revolves around a group of mid-century Soviet mathematicians, to whom computers enabled a new kind of central planning that could spontaneously adjust to changes in supply and demand: a market, without capital or capitalists.5Francis Spufford, Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties’ Soviet Dream (London: Faber and Faber, 2010). For a fascinating review that delves deeply into computational complexity theory, see Cosma Shalizi, “In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You.” In many ways, urban platforms purport to do just this. With a sleight of hand that conflates utility maximization with use-value, they promise to be “visible hands,”6Alfred D. Chandler, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap Press, 1977). guiding us “seamlessly” (an inescapable word) through the chaos of urban life, hiding the messiness of markets within an algorithmic apparatus that efficiently allocates empty car seats, spare rooms, excess road capacity, and the precious moments of life itself. Of course, in practice this typically just replaces one set of rentiers with another. But following Wilson’s invocation of Donna Haraway, the trouble that needs staying with is that this platform world reveals occasional glimpses of what a digitally mediated collective flourishing might look like. As with so many technologies, within capitalist social relations these glimpses are usually the most we get.


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