risk – mammoth // building nothing out of something

risk

These are chapters eight and nine of The Infrastructural City; if you’re not familiar with the series, you can start here and catch up here.

Thinking about the new urban landscape and public space and wondering where to start, I suddenly remember how, as a boy, I built my first crystal receiver [...] You would put the headphones on, turn the potentiometer and you could hear all kinds of more-or-less vague noises from different radio stations. They would become clearer and then fade away again. This produced a mysterious effect and it suggested that the sources were far away. The most stunning aspect of the experience was that “they” had always been there and that “they” had been there simultaneously. There were so many of “them” that the crystal receiver worked best at night, when most of the stations were off the air. In the dark, intimate space under my blankets I would scan the air. It made clear that public radio, public space was everywhere, and that you just had to plug in.

Bart Lootsma, “The New Landscape” from Mutations

This space has gotten a little more complicated since Bart Lootsma’s childhood. The multivariate public commons composed of broadband spectra has become increasingly contested, mirroring an evolving bureaucratic complexity in contemporary cities. Much of The Infrastructural City up to these chapters has mapped the development of this complexity, tracing how the humble beginnings of roads, gravel pits, and aqueducts gave rise to the Los Angeles we know today. By confronting infrastructures initiated early in the city’s history the text investigates the interdependence among (variously) the urban landscape, city politics and culture, and the infrastructures themselves. These two chapters – Roger Sherman’s Count(ing) on Change, and Ted Kane and Rick Miller’s Cell Structure – represent a slight shift in focus, presenting us with a set of infrastructures wholly developed recently, in a more congested urban sociopolitical landscape.

Before we go any further, I’d like to second FALSANYC in noting that Cell Structure‘s implication that private development of infrastructure is a new demon, ignores history:

In fact many of our great urban and regional infrastructures have begun as private ventures. The railroads were originally private enterprises, the New York City subway/interborough rapid transit system was privately funded, and the electric grid in much of the northeastern US is under the auspices of the private-but-heavily regulated Con Edison. But we live in a decade when all design writing is hyperbolic [gentle tease: note the irony here] and rather than building on the past, seeks to break with it and launch the world into the future based solely on the brilliance of this or that practitioner/theorist.

This is not to imply Cell Structure is incorrect arguing that the private development model which created the cellular networks is without shortcomings, or in need of comparison to public infrastructural endeavors. But the strict public versus private dichotomy is an oversimplification. The grey area between ‘public’ and ‘private’ is magnified from both sides: by cities which behave like businesses; and by heavily regulated yet privately held companies (like the example of Con Edison above), as beholden to the public who vote in their regulators as they are the shareholders who vote on their board. I don’t mean to contend that the difference between public and private is unimportant, just that it masks a more important distinction brought to light by Cell Structure, which is development for constituencies vs development for markets.

Historically, infrastructural developments [by federal, state and regional interests] reacted to the urban needs of both private and public constituencies, addressed localized real estate interestes, responded to the need for commercial links between disparate communities, and implemented cold war defense logistics [....] Private infrastructure flourishes in [a] vacuum of myopic jurisdictions, taking advantage of gaps in oversight to create new, private realms unburdened by the equal access that has historically been the obligation of utilities operating in the public realm.

We learn public infrastructure projects are usually beholden to the demand of constituents (voters, special interest groups, chambers of commerce, etc). This generally leads to comprehensive (‘fair’) coverage, yet often inefficient or unreliable operation, as there isn’t much redundancy built into the system because its goal is to cover the most possible constituents at the lowest cost. In contrast, privately developed infrastructures are virtually always in response to market demand (though they may transition to constituent control at some point in their future). Competition among providers will often result in redundant, more reliable networks (as seen in the layout of New York’s subway system, and the overlapping cellular networks in Los Angeles), but access can spread more slowly, with increased coverage occurring in sync with profitability.

These results are more obviously rational when correlated with the milieu of risks and incentives faced by responders to constituent demand and/or market demand. Because competing telecommunications companies could control the size and location of their infrastructural investment (tailoring it to certain markets), numerous players fought over the same lucrative market population, leading to redundancy for that market, and gaps elsewhere in the city. Limiting size and scope of investment to the most promising markets was a risk management strategy, and creating cell phone towers which execute a singular function with a high degree of efficiency wasn’t a risky approach to infrastructural development.

In contrast, the property developers, land owners, and various other invested parties catalogued by Roger Sherman in Count(ing) on Change don’t have this same flexibility – the location and population they have to work with is fixed. Because of this, they managed risk while maximizing their ability to earn incentives by capitalizing on their rights and engaging in negotiated deals which engendered many possible scenarios for success. They made due with what they had, with what was around them:

In the northeastern corner of Hollywood, for instance, a property has been assembled out of three lots to construct a virtual urban ecosystem. It is “habitat” to four entities: two by right (a car wash and a juice bar), and two by adjacency (an apartment building and a public right-of-way). Though each use attracts a different audience, the structures and territories they occupy connect to one another spatially in a way that at the same time articulates their socioeconomic interdependency.

One of four couplings among the above stakeholders was the de-facto transition of a wedge-shaped piece of Hollymont Car Wash’s property into an addition to the public right-of-way:

Why would the owner of the wash willingly cede a portion of his own property? Simply put, the car wash, realizing that it could not use that odd sliver of land for its operation, recognized the value it possessed as a tool with which to construct a “clean” public image for itself. That the wash also uses its grey water to irrigate this landscape further underlines their awareness of the collateral benefits that could accrue to them through a seeming unselfish gesture.

Sherman’s excellent chapter (subsequently expanded into a book, which just arrived at mammoth HQ yesterday) describes three more increasingly-complex negotiated urbanisms-in-microcosm, arguing that game theory (far more than any masterplan) is the true protocol by which our cities persist.

The field of Game Theory, which studies the dynamics of negotiation, lays out similar bargaining strategies players (in the case of the city, these include property owners, neighbors, merchants, city agencies, etc.) use as they cross their own political and economic objectives with a finite set of available options. [...] Even if never precisely predictable, the endgame is nearly always the same: to settle upon an equilibrium enforced by each player’s self-interest. More than any other single logic, it is the nature of how this inevitable quid pro quo, or tradeoff is settled that offers the greatest potential as a productive instigator of change-by-design: where design is nothing less that a strategy of both staging and creatively working out the causal relationships that comprise the city-as-ecosystem, and in so doing not only makes evident but actually constitutes the tie that binds the system

Of course, to be able to confidently engage with cities at this level requires the ability to accurately estimate risk and reward – capital, political, social, etc. – not only as applies to one’s own interests, but also to persuade other invested parties. It’s intriguing to hypothesize about what would happen if this model of risk management – one which maximizes paths toward success instead of developing one model and limiting it to the most promising markets – was applied to privately developed infrastructures, like Los Angeles’ telecommunications networks. But then we remember that surely, it already is, and the results just aren’t always what we had hoped for. Whether this is because developments at that scale simply aren’t nimble enough to engage at the level of the examples Sherman describes, or because they have made attempts but found the incentives insufficient, I don’t know – but occasionally, the negotiations are successful, as demonstrated by the multiple projects in Count(ing) on Change which engage oil drilling companies, the Department of Water and Power, and LA Department of Building and Safety.

[I scarcely knew where to begin writing this post. There is so much more going on in these chapters that I barely touched on: the use of embodied urbanism urbanism techniques (to borrow the term from Free Association Design), sometimes accidentally or serendipitously, which instead of legal or financial agreements is the bond of many of these agreements; the notion that some infrastructural networks (like cell phone towers) are useful from a very early stage, while others (like subways) require a greater critical mass, and the impact this has on developing new type of infrastructure in the city; the expanding role of private developers creating public infrastructure (check out this law which Arizona just passed, for example). I'm sure we'll find plenty to talk about during the extra week we gave ourselves.]

12 Responses to “risk”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ethel Baraona Pohl, Stephen Becker. Stephen Becker said: self link | http://m.ammoth.us/blog/2010/07/risk/ | #mammothbook [...]

  2. rholmes says:

    In addition to the link between attitudes towards the management of risk and different resulting urbanisms, I also think there’s a strong connection between risk and agency. In order to expand agency, one must accept expanded risk. We — architects, landscape architects — often step back from expanded agency, because it would increase our financial or legal liability. This is not an absurd decision (the risks of, say, assuming some of the burden of the developer, are real), but it does have consequences (we cede parts of projects which we might have important things to say about) which are not always positive.

    • Stephen says:

      yeah, I think this is absolutely right. I’m becoming more convinced that some of the most exciting (speaking personally) firms of the future will be, among other things, experimenting with radical new strategies of risk management.

      I think it’s key that we learn not only how to gauge (and accept) risk to our own firms, but also how to accurately quantify and counter risks (perceived and real) to other parties in the deal. We can never inherit, for example, the risk of increased traffic to neighbors after the completion of an urban infill project, or the risk of experimenting with a new construction technique unless we become contractors as well. But there has to be a better way than adding on the standard 20% contingency price to loans and construction pricing, or increasing the cost of insurance, or just not doing the project at all. I think this is important regardless of who the developer is, whether designer or designer’s client.

  3. [...] home // hide asides // links // index.archive // contact us // about « risk [...]

  4. [...] —– This post is part of The Infrastructural City blogiscussion, now reading Roger Sherman’s “Counting (on) Change”. [...]

  5. [...] A pair of posts related to Roger Sherman’s “Count(ing) on Change”: [...]

  6. Mark Hogan says:

    I think the most common way to deal with risk in an architectural project is to be somewhat vague in the drawings but very specific in the specification. This, of course, can always lead to unfortunate unintended consequences. New methods of more collaborative project delivery could lead to better consequences if architects and contractors had a better and more productive relationship that was focused on solving problems and creating outcomes instead of always trying to shift liability off on the other. Inevitably, the designers will probably have to take more risk but there is also the possibility of seeing greater profits.

  7. [...] an interesting video to come across, just in time for my contribution to Mammoth’s book club, discussion on Cell Structure and Counting (On) Change chapters of the Infrastructural City. Particularly [...]

  8. [...] probably recognize Roger Sherman as the author of the chapter before “Distribution”, “Count(ing) on Change”.  In “Duck-and-Cover” Sherman proposes both an architecture and a business plan, [...]

  9. [...] that light, although I’m tremendously sympathetic to projects like Roger Sherman’s game theory urbanism as a way of operating within such highly complex environments, the lack of a larger approach within [...]

  10. [...] this set of cost/benefit trade-offs between public and private infrastructures is why we’ve argued in the past that, when discussing the creation and operation of infrastructure, using ‘development for [...]

  11. [...] risk – mammoth // building nothing out of something: “We learn public infrastructure projects are usually beholden to the demand of constituents (voters, special interest groups, chambers of commerce, etc). This generally leads to comprehensive (‘fair’) coverage, yet often inefficient or unreliable operation, as there isn’t much redundancy built into the system because its goal is to cover the most possible constituents at the lowest cost. In contrast, privately developed infrastructures are virtually always in response to market demand (though they may transition to constituent control at some point in their future). Competition among providers will often result in redundant, more reliable networks (as seen in the layout of New York’s subway system, and the overlapping cellular networks in Los Angeles), but access can spread more slowly, with increased coverage occurring in synch with profitability.” [...]