Trash and social consciousness

Towards a comprehensive understanding of non-linear phenomena and capital hybridization in urban environments: empowering social awareness through the study of waste in New York

"Cities happen to be problems in organized complexity, like the neurosciences. They present situations in which half a dozen or several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways... The variables are many but they are not shelter skelter, they are "interrelated into an organic whole"  
[1] Jane Jacobs, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961)

Indeed, she envisions a frictional, far-from-ideal system that accounts for multiple levels of interactions and decentralized decision-making. Such model has been recurrently referred to as "bottom-up", one which accounts for a culture where planning and design emerge from every individual's knowledge and involvement.

As opposed to equilibrium-based theories, Jacobs proposes a culture of systems that tend to far-from-equilibrium rather quickly, as they are open for influences and multiple levels of interactions. The theory of the Central Place and Location Theory would assume not only a non-frictional, linear system where distribution follows simple linear functions of distance, but would also obliterate the sheer existence and influence of the time factor. In other words, they were oversimplified, reductive models unable to successfully describe urban phenomena by all means. Approximating urban environments from an “equilibrium” perspective does not appear, thus, acceptable.

It would not take too long for planners to realize the potential of models to interpret and implement complex, organized behaviour. Alongside the process of parameterization of cities that started as a consequence of the above, a new view of systems in general arose during the 70's that would finally help shape and frame this new take on the essential dynamics of urban processes. Indeed, Complexity Theory embraces this paradigm, as initially described by Ilya Prigogine in the sixties and seventies -he was honoured the Nobel Prize in 1977 for his study on irreversible thermodynamics and dissipative structures. This theory is, curiously enough, the result of many interwoven forces and influences:

"The physics of far-from-equilibrium structures is important, as is the notion of decentralized decision making. Processes that lead to surprising events, to emergent structures not directly obvious from the elements of their process but hidden within their mechanism. , new forms of geometry associated with fractal patterns, and chaotic dynamics -“all are combining to provide theories that are applicable to highly complex systems such as cities"
[2] Michael Batty 2007, "Cities and Complexity: Understanding Cities with Cellular Automata, Agent Based Modeling, and Fractals" (2007)

The present research aims to empower social consciousness through the use of GIS technology in regard to energy consumption, use of resources, and waste production. The goal of the research is not only to study potential relationships between social and structural components of the urban environment and the production of waste, but to ultimately make them visible through the development of a software platform that would allow for free, instant access to that particular piece of data. In other words, "Trash and social consciousness" seeks to ultimately reshape the way we live, perceive and plan cities through free access to information.

In a very real sense, waste can define the metastructure of a particular society. Some common denominators among the many "official" definitions of waste are: [1] its pervasive nature, [2] its condition of "unusefulness" and [3] unsafeness, [4] its lack of rigorous property, and [5] its "object(ual)" character. This study aims to take advantage of the fact that waste is embedded in the western society growth model, therefore constituting a defining characteristic of its mode of production, economic systems, and cultural biases and preferences.

According to the US Environmental Agency, solely solid waste production has increased roughly a 300% in the last 40 years, leading to a situation never encountered before. New York is the city in the United States which Solid Waste Management appears the most inefficient, and is the nationwide leader in waste exportation, with a total of 5600000 tons exported per year. The same tendencies can also be appreciated in other nations and cities worldwide, such as in the case of Beijing, China, El Cairo, Egypt, Bombay, India, and many others.


This proposal is part of a larger thesis, which entails an investigation of emergent phenomena and complex systems in urban environments . In this particular matter, this is an attempt to both theorize and experimentally explore some of the underlying theories that affect city planning, city morphology, and, consequently, human behaviour. Complex systems have largely influenced the way we think about urban environments. Nevertheless, it seems that those descriptions inevitably inherited a subtle traditional approach, as far as the selection of the "agents of study" is concerned: transportation and mobility infrastructures, typology, and land use are all common words to the description and planning of cities. As opposed to this "traditional" approach, "Trash and social consciousness" focuses on urban "subsystems" that equally influence the use and morphology of human settlements: waste.

Waste becomes, thus, an ambivalent attribute. On the one hand, it is the means through which we describe urban phenomena via its intricate relationships with social strata. On the other hand, waste reflects back on human behaviour not only as a consequence of it, but also as a cultural material. In order to achieve such interactions, it is essential to make information available to the public, and regain a social awareness that has been buried by its own accumulation over the past decades. Therefore, the findings of the projects will be publicly accessible through a web application downloadable by not only desk computers, but also hand-held devices such as iPod/iPhones and similar.

Data from accessible from the Department of Sanitation of the City of New York (DSNY) is used in the study. More specifically, data from the 2008 report on "Characterization of Solid Waste" constitutes the main body of information regarding waste production per borough, density and income levels for the city of New York.
In order for this information to be meaningful, it is essential to cross-reference it with spatial data, which describes the city and its morphology. More specifically, the project looks at density and income distributions according to the census tracts for the same period.

After mining and parsing the available data, the tables acquired from the DSNY will be cross referenced with those resembling spatial attributes in the city, thus making possible a spatial characterization of waste production and its types. Model builder is used to extract the geographic data and export it to tables, as this data is to be imported in Processing for future use and develop the "mock-up" of the final hand-held device applications.
Proof of concept: Finally, an iPod application will be developed.

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