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Episode 2: What is Digital Urbanism? (Part 2)

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

Welcome to part 2 of the two-part series "what is #digitalurbanism?"

What is digital urbanism?

In part 1 I shared my interpretation of what digital urbanism is, being the practice of using digital technologies and data insights as enablers for shaping our cities and infrastructure, property and landscapes and places that people love.

In this episode I bring in Dallas Rogers - senior lecturer and associate dean of Student life in the school of Architecture Design and Planning at the University of Sydney.

AB: I start my discussion with Dallas with the obvious question, "what is urbanism?".

DR: I guess the place I would start with, "what is urbanism?", is probably to take a step back and ask what is urbanisation?

Urbanisation is an idea that we can get a lot more purchase on, with urbanism a lot harder to pin down. So just very simply, urbanisation tries to capture a process where people over a very long period of time moved from what we might call the countryside into the city. And it tries to think about that process, that migration process and then think of the implications that came from that. So the move from the countryside to the city had huge implications for society across many domains - how we organise ourselves socially, how we organise knowledge, production and industry, how we produce laws and even things like democracy.

And on urbanism, this is a slightly harder thing to get your head around. It can mean anything from an identity of the person, for example a lot of built environment professionals call themselves urbanists, but it's also an interest in this process of urbanisation and all it's implications.

So I think starting there by just separating out urbanisation from urbanism is a good way to get your head around just the complexity of thinking about what urbanism and urbanisation are today.

AB: So I clearly see urbanism as an agenda that is shaped by practitioners engaged in the process of planning and designing for urbanisation. I asked Dallas "where does the practitioner lie in this conversation?".

DR: So there are the typical professions and practices that relate to urbanisation and urbanism, groups like architects, urban and regional planners, urban designers, even social infrastructure planners. They all have a role to play and thinking about how our city goes together at various scales.

So we can think about the relationship between the building and the street. We can think about the relationship between the street and the building in relation to the neighbourhood or suburb and I can think about that suburb in relation to the rest of the city. And I think about how all the roads and hospitals and schools go together - that's a fairly typical understanding of the built environment professions.

And then we have what I would call some non typical ways of thinking about the built environment professions and that is just to go back to the idea of urbanisation itself and what urbanisation produces. As I said before, it is a whole range of different ways of interacting socially, new recreation activities, new ways of governing ourselves, new ways of thinking about ourselves.

So what are the professions and practices related to urbanism and urbanisation? Well, we have the traditional ones and they still shape the built environment, but so many other people are implicated in this too now.

AB: So that's a lot of professions, and people, bundled into this idea of urbanism. So I asked Dallas if the urbanism professions spend enough time together. Here's what he had to say...

DR: A great way to get to this question is through what we teach at university and what students are looking for and actually what employees are looking for as well. So the degree that I program direct is called the Bachelor of Architecture and Environments and it goes across our whole school. So it teaches architecture design which includes interaction design and urban design. And it also teaches planning, which is both strategic planning and regulatory planning.

It's a very complex degree and its am is to teach students to work with others in the built environment professions and that's what employees want - they want students and they want employees that can think in a complex way.

If you're an architect you're going to need to work with urban designers and urban and regional planners. You'll need to think about the 20-year plan for the city as well as the development controls and that is the complex landscape. You can't just be an architect or just an urban or regional planner - the stakes are so much higher now.

AB: And so I now introduce 'digital', asking Dallas where and how does digital and data intersect with urbanism.

DR: So in our book (Understanding Urbanism) Tooran Alizadeh is right about the provision of infrastructure, in that people often forget that, you know, the internet doesn't come from nowhere, it has a physical presence in our city.

We need to lay down these cables, we need to maintain them, we need to take them to people's homes, we need to put satellites in the sky. So we need to think about the provision of this physical infrastructure in our cities and in our world and then ask another question about what is the democratic intent of this infrastructure?

And this is an old question - what's the democratic intent of roads, of hospitals, of schools? We can ask that question across multiple changes, like are our public schools better than private schools and are toll roads better than public roads?

And we can ask the same question about digital technologies - is the public ownership of these digital technologies and free accessibility to your own data and the data of others better?

Is free data better than the corporatisation and commodification of this data? That's the question we're asking in the urban space, and the implications of that are pretty huge for urban practice because if we want an open source city where anyone can get access to data to show us when the bus is coming or you want to know the latest movements of people around the city or to think about how better to integrate our transport systems, then maybe we do need open source data.

And so they're the questions I think that are really key to thinking about digital and data technologies and the city and who has access to data and what we do with that data.

You can listen to the Urbanism.Live podcast via our website here, on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

About Dallas Rogers

Dallas is Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Housing Policy and Program Director of the Bachelor of Architecture and Environments, the School of Architecture, Design and Planning’s only interdisciplinary degree at the University of Sydney. Dallas served as Associate Dean of Student Life and Program Director of the Master of Urbanism in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning. He was a convener of the Institute of Australian Geographers Urban Studies Group.

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