What yellow umbrellas and "mesh networks" tell us about public space

Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators celebrate the one-year anniversary of last year's protests. Image: AFP/Getty.

Last year, I set a research project for my spatial design students. As part of the “Digital Activism” project, they were to design a democratic space based on our experience of digital networks.

One of the reasons for the project was to allow them to critically evaluate our network culture and the way our built environment has been transformed. The other was the Yellow Umbrella Movement, a 79-day protest in which protestors in Hong Kong took over several planned spaces and made them their own.

This was a very unusual occurrence in Hong Kong. The whole experience, a powerful means of expressing popular discontent to the government, expanded the imagination of the city’s people.

But what really intrigued me was the use of digital social network to coordinate and organise the whole protest. Facebook was used, but the game changer was FireChat: an app that uses your phone’s WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities to build what’s called a “mesh network” with other phones.

Most phones are connected to each other through a centralised network. Whenever you text, send an email or make a call, you’re doing so through cellular networks first: communication can be remotely intercepted, monitored, or even blocked altogether.

With a mesh network, the actual network is decentralised. Devices just connect to other devices, and anyone can become a node with an anonymous screen name in that network, as long as they’re within 70 meters of just one other node.  

But the real advantages of mesh networks have nothing to do with anonymous communication. While mesh networks are harder to infiltrate than centralised networks, their real strength is holding up, even when someone may not have a reliable internet connection.

That is what drew in the student activists of Hong Kong’s recent protests. The protesters were using it to share messages off-the grid, to avoid any censorship or tracking via their on-location service in their smart phone. This app also enabled the protesters to create a new form of “public space” in a private digital network. The network is open, yet you can protect your anonymity; anyone can come and go from the network; and there’s no option for private communications. Using FireChat is more like tweeting than chatting among trusted confidantes.


With the emerging new form of communication in the digital network, our public space is extending and evolving, adapting itself between our physical and digital worlds. The intensive use of AR (Augmented reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) has already transformed our physical experience, giving us extra layers of information where our physical eye can’t find them.

In the digital world, public space is organic and spontaneous, collective and responsive, sometimes – in the case of the DarkNET – even hidden. People are finding ways to express their ideas though different channels. And these channels – WhatsApp, SnapChat and surespot – are increasingly being designed to become more instant and encrypted.

To make the point, I want to share two projects created by my students who graduated from my digital activism studio last year. The first, “The Embassy – The freedom of expression” by Yuuki Teraoka creates a digital version of an existing physical embassy.

It was inspired by the embassies on London’s Exhibition Road, which in 2011 underwent renovation via a project called “Shared Space” implemented by the Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington. Yuuki’s project used the site to challenge ideas of public space, and suggested the digital embassy is the ultimate “access” for the freedom of information.

The second project “The Imprisoned Mind – the Internet in our city” by Sean Koo, is based on the everyday surveillance activities. Rather than repackaging the concept of George Orwell’s 1984, the students adopted Orwell’s concept to explore the privacy in our everyday digital life.  

Sean suggested that, via our extensive digital connectivity – such as data tracking, or the Internet of Things – that surveillance activates were far more extensive than we could imagine. His final design was a museum on Exhibition Road which exhibited our surveillance data via hacker’s channels.

Zhu Tao, an associate professor from Department of Architecture at Hong Kong University, used the title “Regain – the Spatial Revolution” to describe his thoughts of Yellow Umbrella Movement. He said regaining roads and streets in the movement was a form of power negotiation:  negotiating the space and returning it for its people. He added that the nature of public space should be free: free from commercialisation, free from any political expression.  

My students’ projects provoked me to consider how we find that democracy in our “public space” in the digital world. The power negotiation will soon be extended to this digital public space. The question for me is, who has ultimate control?

Cyril Shing is a senior lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts, a part of the University of Arts London.

He will be taking part in tonight’s Design Salon: On Public Space Now at Somerset House, part of this year’s Inside Out Festival.  To book your free place, click here.

 
 
 
 

Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.

Metro

The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.

Tramway

The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.


So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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