Maybe you’ve heard of William Mitchell, Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. I’d never heard of him when I picked up his book, City of Bits, at the Friends of the Library bookstore out at Fort Mason. The book flap caught my eye: “a comprehensive introduction to a new type of city, a largely invisible but increasingly important system of invisible spaces interconnected by the information superhighway”. This interests me, how the city is being changed as we are freed from the demand for proximity. Do we really even need cities anymore, now that we don’t have to come together for business, to meet, to exchange ideas?

Mitchell has some thoughts on these questions:

  • “Your own address is not pinned to a place; it is simply an access code, with some associated storage space, to some computer located somewhere on the net.”
  • “Increasingly, software beats hardware. In the early 1990’s, for example, Columbia University scrapped plans to build a twenty million dollar addition to its law library and instead bought a state of the art supercomputer and embarked on a program of scanning and storing ten thousand deteriorating old books yearly.” [Similarly, here in San Francisco, the Pacific Stock Exchange dropped a proposed new highrise with a trading floor as it dawned on them that nobody needed a trading floor anymore. Now, their former home is a gym.]
  • “Money, too, is now digital information, endlessly circulating in cyberspace.”
  • He writes about how the first department store, Paris’ Bon Marche (1852) displaced small shops and to which “crowds of shoppers swarmed by train, tram, or bus”. In turn, Downtown shopping districts have been brought down in many cities by suburban malls. Now, he writes, “the electronic mall simply short circuits the trip to a concentration of goods and displays, and replaces the glazed display windows facing the street with windows on a computer screen.”

    Does this mean that cities will become obsolete? Some are already, like Detroit, which has a residential vacancy rate of 27.8 percent, up from 10.3 percent just ten years ago. It’s got about as many residents as San Francisco, but spread out over 139 square miles (vs. our 49). The population dropped from 2 million in 1950 to 790,000 today.

    Paul Goldberger, the architect critic for the New Yorker, spoke at SPUR last week and touched on the “obsolescence” of cities. His take: some will become museums, like Venice. But the ones that will thrive will do so because of the strength of their cultures. That makes me optimistic about the future of San Francisco, because culture we’ve got. Not in the museum sense (though we sure have that) but also in the Vietnamese Tenderloin sense and the tattooed lesbian sense and the foodie sense and the chess players on Market Street sense.

    We need the city. Mitchell’s book, City of Bits, I ran across on the shelf in a bookstore. I wasn’t looking for it on line, knew nothing about it or the author. And after I found it I ran into a friend and we sat in the sun, near the Bay, at Fort Mason, and caught up. On line that would be impossible.

    Back to William Mitchell. Turns out he pioneered computer aided design, invented something called the City Car and ran something called the Smart Cities research group at MIT. His take: it’s not the city that’s obsolete, it’s the car, and he spells it out in this interview. Sadly, William J. Mitchell passed away last week, at the age of 65. His obituary in the Times was headlined, “Architect and Urban Visionary”. He lives on, here:

    William J. Mitchell