The Phone, the City, and the Center

I recently wrote about mobile phones, centralization, and city planning on an exam. I think I gave a rather poor answer: I had too many ideas. I am hesitant of claims that we are entering a new era rather than an old, and suspicious that the role of the mobile is one of decentralization.

The paper I was critiquing was by Anthony Townsend1, who argues that mobile phones are leading to decentralized urban lifestyles. They give individuals the power to act and react individually to changed circumstances. Decision-making becomes distributed: rather than being guided by a plan or hierarchy, people can make and change plans at the last moment. Townsend claims that this reactive, fast-changing “real-time city” poses a challenge to the ponderous centralized planning so favored by city planners. He argues that their units of analysis – the neighborhood, the city, the region – are inappropriate where the important relationships are individual. He illustrates this with the example of a taxi driver who gets his best tips for rides from his mobile phone rather than the central dispatcher.

Although I agree with Townsend’s conclusion, that top-down city planning isn’t working, I suspect he may have reached the right conclusion for the wrong reason. Criticism of centralized planning is not new, and its problems are not unique to our time. Historical comparisons suggest that the appearance of decentralization often belies its opposite. If we see decentralization in the mobile, it may not be the nature of the technology, but rather the spirit of our time.

Planning and History

Decades ago Jane Jacobs2 saw that successful cities consist of overlapping neighborhoods and zones. The elementary school might serve students from one area, while a local park serves people living in an overlapping area. The school may also provide night classes for an entirely different group of people scattered throughout the region. Christopher Alexander expands the argument in A City is Not a Tree, where he argues convincingly against the hierarchical structure favored by city planners. At the end of the nineteenth century Camillo Sitte3 criticized planning for its ordering of the city, in ignorance of the organic growth which had made European cities beautiful.

Jacobs explains also how a successful city is made up of areas with multiple uses. She describes the street as a place for shopping, a link between places, a place where people talk, take out the garbage, watch from the window, play. This constant activity on the street reinforces the security and community of the people who live there.

A Wired magazine4 article about a high-tech district in Helsinki echoes the argument for multiple uses. An enthusiastic planner describes how new patterns of work require that houses be built so that bedrooms can be repurposed as offices and bathrooms can be converted to kitchens. The mobile phone is prominently credited with the change.

Yet none of this is new. In 19th century Vienna – as in other places and times – the tenements were crammed with people and uses; those people overflowed to the cafés where they read, wrote, ate, rested, and argued. For Peter Hall5, this overheated café culture is an important component of the tremendous creativity of Vienna at that time. Further back the pattern repeats: in Beowulf the great hall is a place of many uses.

Now, with its distributed technologies like mobile phones and the Internet, is not the exceptional time. The exception is that period in the twentieth century when the Organization Man built the Organization City. This was a period dominated by another apparently decentralizing technology mentioned by Townsend: the car.


The automobile coincided with a great effort to rebuild our cities in the image of the industrial factory. Small towns dissolved as people moved to the cities. Those cities exploded into central business districts and surrounding suburbs. Zoning was invented, and each zone given its specialized use: industry separated from commerce, and commerce from residence. Racism gave further impetus to division, and residential neighborhoods were further specified by lot size, by setback, by maximum density. The hierarchy of roads ran from dirt tracks in the country to back alleys, suburban cul-de-sacs, main roads, expressways, and autobahns and interstates. All of this was made possible by the car, that great icon of individual freedom.

The trams and interurban rail lines that preceded the highway networks were more centralized on paper. But people riding on those trams, just like those walking along Jacob’s multi-use streets, rubbed shoulders with others they might never meet today. Crossing paths with strangers seems more likely to produce serendipitous meetings and ad-hoc alliances, those acquaintances one sees and may come to know without ever speaking or learning a name, but who may step in to help in time of need. This centralization of transportation creates relationships that cut across hierarchy.

Georg Strøm writes about life in a Filipino village with only one cell phone6. Telephones are rare; communication requires planning. The nearest land line is 11km away; unless someone going there to make a call takes time off work, the transit stops running and s/he must stay the night. The village cell phone is an alternative, but arranging to call a friend entails first phoning the head man’s wife. She could pass on the message for the friend to be present at a fixed time to receive the subsequent call.

This village would seem to be the epitome of the centralized network. The cell phone is no more more mobile than a land line; less so than a personal one. And yet the week-ahead planning with its questionable results, the missed meetings and children running errands in society without the mobile hardly smack of central control.

The Internet is another technology credited with decentralization. It allows people to work from home, to cooperate with others around the globe, to sell to anyone, anywhere. And yet, as Manuel Castells describes in The Internet Galaxy, the registration of Internet domains is incredibly concentrated in a few districts of a few cities in a few countries in the world. The vast majority of people still commute to work (in past feudal and mercantile societies people largely lived where they worked). Silicon Valley is not a network of software companies spread over the face of the earth: it is a very definitely geographical concentration of business and development. WalMart, famous for its just-in-time delivery systems based on network technologies, manages production and distribution centrally, dictating products, prices, and delivery times to its suppliers. Other information-age businesses, like eBay and Amazon, are similarly centralized.


There is a debate around the role of mobile technology and community, between the view that being in constant touch strengthens bonds with family and friends, and the counter argument that phone divorces its user from the context of those around: the oblivious driver, the rude theater-goer. Yet it seems likely the answer is neither. It strengthens one community while it weakens the other. The reality of our cities is not Le Corbusier’s radiant structures, but Jacobs’ overlapping uses. Yes, the phone decentralizes some communication, but weakening the bonds of geography it centralizes the office for the worker who is in constant touch.

Just as the freedom of the automobile played its role in the hierarchy of a civilization built on the order of the factory assembly line, so the cell phone is a device of a society of packet-switched networks, new urbanism, loosely-coupled terrorist cells, high-tech entrepreneurs and flattened corporate structures. We see distributed power in the phone because we see it everywhere. But it may not be the phone that is the force for decentralization. It may only be we who are using it that way. And about even this we may be mistaken.


1 “Life in the Real-Time City: Mobile Telephones and Urban Metabolism”, Journal of Urban Technology vol. 7 no. 2, 2000, 85-104.

2 The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961.

3 City Planning According to Artistic Principles.

4 William Shaw, “In Helsinki Virtual Village”, Wired 9(03), March 2001.

5 Cities in Civilization, 1998.

6 “The telephone comes to a Filipino village”, Perpetual Contact, Katz & Aakhus (eds), 2002.