‘Schelling’ the City

The other day I asked a simple question on Twitter and Facebook:

“If someone told you to meet then in Downtown Phoenix and gave no further details, where would you go?

I based this question on a presentation by Adam Greenfield at dConstruct09 in September entitled Elements Of A Networked Urbanism. During this presentation he asked a similar question of New York City, where the correct answer traditionally has been the clock in Grand Central. This what is referring to as a ‘focal’ or Schelling point. Named after Professor Thomas Schelling, the 2005 Nobel Prize recipient, a Schelling point is “that which gives a group of like-minded individuals their common purpose.” Groups with strong Schelling points are able to “coordinate their actions with minimal communication.”

Image from mistdog on Flickr

Mr. Greenfield calls such places ‘nodes of unconscious coordination” that people in cities around the word have historically used to make sense of urban place. Most urban places have one. In Tokyo it’s the statue of the dog in Hachiko Square. In London it is under the clock in Waterloo Station. According to Adam, most cities have Schelling points, because, without effective communication between people (i.e., cell phones), meeting places ultimately converge on a couple of high visibility—and usually iconic—destinations.

There is nothing inherent about Grand Central Station that makes a particularly desirable meeting place. In fact its crowded and often hectic nature may actually be a detriment; it may likely be easier to meet someone at a quiet bar, or the public library reading room. Nevertheless, the popular notoriety of Grand Central Station as a meeting place raises its prominence and makes it a natural “focal point.”

As an ‘incurable urbanist’ I was taken by this concept, and wondered if any place in Phoenix could be considered a legitimate Schelling point, hence the question I posted. Here are the responses:

  • Civic Space Park
  • Lux Coffee
  • Phoenix Art Museum
  • Chase Field
  • US Airways Center
  • Central and Adams, by the ‘crazy preacher’
  • Central and Washington (point ‘zero’ in the street numbering grid)
  • 4th and McKinley
  • Phoenix Public Market and have a glass of wine till they found me! (My personal favorite)
  • Phoenix City Hall
  • Cibo
  • Carly’s
  • Fair Trade Café/Central and Roosevelt
  • Revolver Records
  • Lost Leaf

Civic Space Park

While Civic Space Park was the most popular answer, due largely you the controversial and highly visible ‘floating jellyfish sculpture, the numerous responses reflects the fact that Phoenix is an auto dominated, sprawling city, that has long neglected it’s downtown. As a result the city doesn’t have traditional gathering points like in cities established before the automobile.

What I found most interesting, however, is that several people responded that they simply would go anywhere without more information. While, in part, this reflects the lack of a vibrant urban core on another level, the response highlights the rise of ‘ubiquitous computing’ promoted by the prevalence of ‘smart phones.’ This was the point of Greenburg’s entire presentation: that when everybody (and everything is networked, you no longer need unconscious co-ordination. Rather you can simply post on Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, BrightKite, etc that I’m and the Corner of Washington and 7th St, or I’m at Lux Coffeebar, or Gangplank, or Rula Bula, and this functions as a ‘flocking’ or ‘shoaling’ point: a place where people converge.

This not only has impacts for how people interact with each other, but also with their cities and neighborhoods. Social activity is increasingly less about specific times and places and more about converging at locations where have announced their presence or have expressed as their destination. As a result, what we’ve long understood as the nature of community as a loose connection of people within a neighborhood or interest group is morphing to a much more conscious social network.

This is not the first time I’ve mused about this topic (see my Ignite Phoenix 5 presentation on Slideshare or YouTube), nor will it be the last. I’m still not 100% sure of the final outcomes of this shift, but I feel that it will be huge. Stay tuned for further updates as my research and thinking progresses. In the meantime, please let me know what you think in the comment section.

This is day 2 in my 28 Day Blogging Challenge. 26 more to go.

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Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.
  • Perri Collins

    Wow, I never thought about that. Fascinating…

  • The Schelling point is a fabulous concept (and you wrote a great post about it; I didn’t know about this). I think I will ask the same question to my friends and followers.
    Not being from Phoenix, but having recently visited it, I would have probably suggested the Civic Space Park as well, or one of those other locations on the light rail line. If I knew the 0 point (origin) of the Phoenix grid, I would have chosen that.

    Chicago also has an origin (State and Madison) – well, most gridded cities probably do. Not enough people know the origins of other cities – once you know it, then you can pretty much find ANY address in the city.

  • Yuri Artibise

    it shouldn’t be up to the City or ASU to program events at the Park. I find it sad that Phoenicians seem to prefer to hide behind block walls that interact in public spacesis an ‘offiicial event’ In many other cities (and even other parks in, people make public spaces such as Parks their own and have impromptu picnics, frisbee tournaments, etc. Of course, the security presence at Civic Space doesn’t make it an inviting place to hang out either… Encanto and Steele Indian School Parks seem to be better used, especially on weekends)

    As for AE England Building, I find it a poor venue for most events — the acoustics suck and it’s size is awkward; too small for large events yet too big for intimate ones. Too bad, because it is a great building, just poorly configured.

  • Si

    I’d be more likely to frequent Civic Space if there was reason to. Even the art installation has waned — it has continually dimmed since it opened, to the point where it’s hardly visible from just up the street.

    I’ve been disappointed with the lack of events at the park. Even more so, the A.E. England building seems largely underutilized. Part of that could be ASU’s fault, but I hope things improve.

  • Si

    I agree on all your points. I was at Encanto a few Sundays ago, and it was PACKED (almost downright uncomfortable), then last weekend at Civic Space I was the only person on the north side of the park. It’s such a shame.

    As for A.E. England, it is really poorly configured. I was hoping that the FF art would at least help, but I don’t think it’s done much so far.