the Digital Restructuring of Urban Space

A graduate seminar at Columbia GSAPP (Spring 2017, Spring 2018) examining the recent histories and effects of digital technologies on the urban environments and the actions of urban planners and designers therein. An earlier version of this course was also taught at Barnard College (Fall 2015). A brief description and example student paper topics are included below.


Course Description (from the Spring 2018 syllabus)

the short version

This seminar will investigate the extent to which digital technologies are producing structural changes in urban environments, processes, and practices. Through a series of case studies, we will question the nature of those changes—their effects on the material condition and organization of cities, their benefits and costs, their promises and their failures. Ultimately, we will ask whether, and how, this potential restructuring carries with it a concomitant re-imagining of ‘the city’ itself and the ways in which we plan for its future.


Make no mistake: This is a back-to-basics course. Call it, maybe, a return to the City beneath the Digital Revolution. Or taking stock of what that city still holds as its built organization and sociopolitical operation, the changes it has experienced, and whether those changes have been (as is sometimes suggested) fundamentally revolutionary. Alternatively, we could call it taking stock of the prior work of the city’s planners in order to consider new directions for its planning.

Underscoring and supporting the seemingly break-neck, unrelenting series of tech-enabled alterations to the city are the promises of progress—most of them eerily similar to the promises of urban planning’s early decades. They are promises of efficiency and optimization: reliable city systems at lower costs to city dwellers. They are promises of democratic outcomes: greater public participation and citizen engagement, born of the marriage between open information and increased connectivity. They are the promises of increasing qualities of life described as lives of convenience: services on demand facilitated by peer-to-peer platforms and just-in-time push notifications. For the harder questions, they are promises of more efficacious decision making through precise and rational analytics—leading to more resilient systems, more prepared responses, more integrated coordination, and maybe even stronger communities. Listing its promises, the digital-age techno-utopia sounds very much like its industrial-age Modernist counterpart.

Above all else, they are promises of growth. Economic growth, to be exact, promised at multiple scales across networked urbanism: from the collaborative multiplier effects of the sharing economy to the very big business of innovation industries, from the job markets created across the skills spectrum to the resultant increases in real estate values as urban desirability continues to skyrocket. Without question, the promise of smart, digital, and networked cities is simple: bigger, better, faster, more.

But these are measures of degree, not difference. They describe augmentation, not transformation. Further, the last two centuries of urban history have taught us that not all progress is good and not all change is structural. New technologies and methods can sufficiently reorganize modes of production enough to reorganize societies and their spaces, certainly. They can also reinforce existing organizational structures or, sometimes sneakily, reify old functions as new forms.

And so, this course will present a return to the city and to the material stuff of urban planning: the built environment interlaced with, between, and beneath the digital sphere—the long-standing concerns of city decision makers and city dwellers and their spatial practices. We will ask, as our primary questions:

  • Whether and to what extent a collection of popular digital technologies has spurred (or could spur) structural changes in urbanism and the city, what those changes are, and whom they benefit; and
  • Whether existing tools for planners, designers, and urban policy makers remain applicable and effective at addressing such long-standing concerns amidst these changes, and if not how our techniques might need to change in response and in anticipation.

Example Papers

Spring 2017

Jahnavi Aluri. "What Are the Planning Implications of the City of Altamonte Spring's Decision to Subsidize Uber Rides for its Residents within its Boundaries?"

Christopher Giamarino. "The Role of Community Organizing in Bridging the Rural-Urban Digital Divide: The Case of B4RN in Lancashire, UK."

Maira Khan. "Role of Smart Technologies in Reshaping Planning Practices: A Case Study of Rio de Janeiro's Operations Center."

James Piacentini. "Blogging as a Tool for Advocacy Planning: The Case of Catalytic Communities and Rioonwatch."

Krithika Prabhakaran. "The Side Effects of the Sharing Economy: How is Ridesharing Impacting the Future of Public Transit Usage for Vulnerable Populations? A Case Study of Los Angeles, California."

Jacquelyne D Sunwoo. "Open Data for ALL? The Case of New York City's Open Data Initiative."

Maryam Yaghoubi. "Innovation Districts & New York City: What Does Zoning Have to Do with It?"

Joan Zhang. "The Omnichannel E-Commerce Model's Impacts on the Local Retail Landscape and Urban Environment: the Case of Amazon New York."