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MIT’s Sidewalk Laboratory

I thought I would share a little bit about a project that I’m working on outside of 58-12 that is right up our alley: it focuses on urban space, people who are often marginalized, and new forms of media! Specifically, it focuses on sidewalks, street vendors, and mapping – these are interests that are shared by both 58-12 and the Sidewalk Laboratory (or SLAB) which is based out of MIT‘s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and headed by Professor Annette Kim.

A street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by SLAB Alum Tiffany Chu, use is courtesy of SLAB.

The premises of SLAB are simple: First, sidewalks are, in fact, much more than their popular perception as a mundane, urban infrastructure would suggest. In the contemporary moment when public space is rapidly being privatized, it remains as one of the few spaces within the city that allow for democratic use despite (or perhaps even because) of their simultaneously compressed spatiality and expansively networked distribution. Sidewalks ought to be celebrated for the public, urban life that they foster. Second, sidewalks are also much more than a pedestrian transportation network – they are spaces for transaction, inhabitation, and discourse, and their users (street vendors among them) ought to be encouraged rather than removed. Third, the authority contained within the cartographic object (i.e., a map) as well as the visual means through which a map can communicate to a variety of demographics suggest that sidewalks and their users can be examined and championed through alternative means of mapping – often referred to as “critical cartography.”

By alternative mapping, we refer to the fact that sidewalks, as “spatially awkward” and subject to dramatic temporal shifts, require new ways of conceiving how to map. An example of an ongoing project of ours is to figure out how to capture the space-time of sidewalks within a map. Here is a “map” that I worked on for SLAB:

Space-time map of sidewalk use in Ho Chi Minh City. Map by Jonathan Crisman, use is courtesy of SLAB.

Two blocks were surveyed every hour for a full day, capturing where things that take up space were located on the sidewalk – things like loiterers, sidewalk cafes, and parked motorbikes. These were each drawn into a 3d environment (using Rhino, a 3d modeling software) and then lofted upward each subsequent hour. The ultimate effect doesn’t necessarily convey how to get to one item or other at a particular time in a locational sense but it does convey they incredible diversity and density of events occurring throughout the day within Vietnam’s sidewalks. This experiment is definitely within the linage of Mei-Po Kwan’s work out of the Department of Geography at OSU.

Space-time paths of Asian and Black pedestrians in Portland, OR. By Mei-Po Kwan, use is courtesy of Department of Geography, Ohio State University.

You can explore more of what SLAB is doing at our website at mit.edu/slab, ‘Like’ SLAB on Facebook at facebook.com/mitslab, or follow SLAB on Twitter at twitter.com/mit_slab. Please note that SLAB and 58-12 Design Lab are separate, unrelated entities and I just happen to work at both. Stay on the lookout for future posts about SLAB developments!

Posted on 07/06/2011 by Jonathan Crisman

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