The data visualizations illustrate the intricate connections between cities and the rest of the earth; they are on display at the 2021 Venice Biennale of Architecture
By Sarah Steimer
It’s easier to see the gap between cities and their environments than to recognize their interdependencies. Urban regions are often envisioned as self-enclosed bubbles, connected to one another, but detached from the rest of the earth. Popular maps of worldwide urbanization have long reflected such ideas, with cities circled and shaded in, while the rest of the world is left empty.
But a new visualization project led by Neil Brenner, the Lucy Flower Professor of Urban Sociology, demonstrates how cities do not exist in a vacuum, but are forged through intricate relationships to spaces of agriculture and extraction, and to a worldwide network of transportation linkages. The project is an invited contribution to this year's Venice Biennale of Architecture, an international exhibition of urbanism and design that is held every two years.
It’s also one of the first projects to originate from the University of Chicago's newly founded Urban Theory Lab. Brenner started the lab at Harvard University in 2014 before bringing it to Chicago in 2020. The lab brings together urban theorists such as Brenner with experts in the visualization of spatial data on urbanization and environmental transformation. The project team includes Grga Bašić, a digital artist and cartographer who will join the Urban Theory Lab this summer as senior research associate in cartography and spatial media, as well as other researchers trained in architecture, design, and urban research, including Daniel Ibañez of the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalunya; Nikos Katsikis of Delft University of Technology; Mariano Gomez Luque, an architect and urbanist based in Argentina; and Adam Vosburgh of Columbia University.
The goal of bringing together such expertise is to critically interrogate inherited frameworks of urban knowledge, and to develop new conceptualizations that might more effectively illuminate contemporary transformations, crises and struggles. “In this sense,” Brenner explains, “we are a theory lab: We are deeply interested in the power of concepts to advance our understanding of contemporary urban transformations.” Brenner emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations between social scientists, designers and cartographers in communicating new urban theories to a broader public. “Spatial visualizations can help us begin to decipher the confusing urban transformations we are experiencing,” Brenner says. “They can also inspire us to develop new visions of the urban futures we hope to build together.”
The data spheres project presents a counterpoint to traditional maps of world urbanization in which cities are depicted as self-propelled engines of economic growth. Imagine a map of the world illustrating the spatial distribution of economic output. The data are often presented through dots: Larger dots signify the economic centrality of cities. Brenner calls this understanding of urbanization intellectually misleading, and even politically dangerous, because it renders much of the world invisible. The Urban Theory Lab’s data-spheres project illustrates the role of non-city landscapes — where food is produced; where energy and raw materials are extracted; and through which commodities are circulated — as essential support zones for urbanization.
Due to the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lab’s contribution to the Venice Biennale was a video animation, displayed on a full wall of the exhibition gallery through the juxtaposition of nine video screens, but also publicly available via the web. The data spheres — 3-D renderings of the Earth — move beyond traditional snapshots by illustrating some of the major operational landscapes outside of cities that support urban life. For example, the lab’s model of shipping corridors across the globe shows the impact of commodities being circulated between cities, territories, and continents on the oceans. More than 90% of the world’s cargo is transported via sea routes, but these areas aren’t traditionally included in visual representations of urbanization.
“We have to think about those ‘elsewheres’ upon which cities depend as intrinsic to the urbanization process: They may be distant, in geographical terms, but they are not remote. The so-called hinterlands that are normally rendered invisible, or depicted as if they were empty, are now understood to be the environmental foundations of modern social existence.” – Neil Brenner
Perhaps most strikingly, the models offer a look not just at the production zones, but at the impact of those activities on the world at large. A traditional rendering of population, for example, may use upward spikes to represent the number of people living in a location; the more people, the higher the spike. The Urban Theory Lab’s model, on the other hand, shows the spikes inverted into “population cavities.” These are carved into the planet’s terrain with the depth determined by the number of people living — and therefore consuming resources — in a given city.
The lab’s data models present such indentations to signify how cities consume the ecological value that is largely produced elsewhere. They represent “metabolic black-holes,” according to Brenner, “because consumption within cities almost invariably involves production elsewhere, often of a highly destructive nature — consider, for example, the social and environmental impacts associated with the food and fuel consumed within cities — they are most likely experienced most directly in zones of agriculture and extraction located elsewhere.”
In reconfiguring the framework for data interpretation, the data-spheres video urges viewers to reconsider how they conceive the process of urbanization. By depicting the cities as holes instead of spikes, or by depicting oceans or other traditionally “empty” territories as filled with productive activity, the view of urbanization processes shifts.
“We have to think about those ‘elsewheres’ upon which cities depend as intrinsic to the urbanization process: They may be distant, in geographical terms, but they are not remote,” Brenner says. “The so-called hinterlands that are normally rendered invisible, or depicted as if they were empty, are now understood to be the environmental foundations of modern social existence.”