AN OUTLOOK FOR URBAN PLANNING IN CYBERSPACE:
TOWARD THE CONSTRUCTION OF CYBER CITIES WITH THE APPLICATION OF UNIQUE CHARACTERISTICS OF CYBERSPACE
A Paper By
Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London
Abstract: Cyberspace is a new form of living space generated virtually in the Internet. It relates to urban planning in two aspects. One is the presentation of actual town plans using cyberspace. The other is the definition of cyberspace as a new form of urban space and our contribution to its planning and construction from urban-planner's viewpoint. In the first half of this study we aim to grasp the spatial characteristics and the present status of cyberspace.
Cyberspace has unique spatial order where physical distance is no more valid and accessibility depends thoroughly on the topological linkage. It is also unique in that spaces can be easily modified and different places can be united. However, the existing cyberspace appears to be a vast chaotic space filled with various kinds of information. Among this collection of information exist many cyber cities that simply imitate the real world with delicate images and still contents. Most of them fail to utilise the unique spatial features of cyberspace.
The latter half of this study inquires the outlook for construction of useful cyberspace and proposes a structural model. In particular, we propose to actively involve these spatial features to the planning of cyber cities and spaces. In order to create a useful and enjoyable cyberspace, we should design the spatial structure in the way that it utilises the unique characteristics of cyberspace. As a conclusion, we state the possible relationship between urban planning and cyberspace in the future.
Development of computer network has brought a new concept called cyberspace*1). Owing to its late appearance, there still remains some uncertainties regarding the definition of cyberspace, but we will define it as follows: any types of virtual space generated from a collection of electronic data that exists within the Internet. Although its history is practically less than a decade, cyberspace has been rapidly growing throughout the worlds largest computer network, the Internet*2). It has been developed by more than double each year, and is expected to bring a new paradigm of network society for the next century.
Cyberspace relates to urban planning mainly in two aspects. One is the exploitation of World Wide Web (WWW)*7) as a new means of presenting town plans. Using the Internet for providing town planning information encourages citizen participation and public debate(24), provided that the majority of citizens have access to the network. In fact, number of governments and municipalities are now uploading plans and information of various levels to the Internet.
The other aspect is the definition of cyberspace itself as a new form of urban space and our contribution to its planning and constructing process from urban-planner's point of view. Focused on the latter, this study aims to grasp the unique spatial characteristics and the present status of cyberspace. It will then inquire the outlook for construction of useful cyberspace and propose a structural model of cellular network. Ultimately, we propose a new paradigm for urban planning: cyberspace planning.
Investigation reveals that, at the moment, cyber-space appears to be a vast chaotic space filled with various kinds of information. Anyone who has an access to the server machine is able to edit the contents and upload it. There is no perfect index of the entire cyberspace components, and this may result in low efficiency while searching for some specific information. Also, many existing cyber cities attempt to imitate the real world with delicate images, though limited by their spatial restriction. Their appearance bear those of the ordinary towns and it takes time to retrieve all the precise images and walk through them.
On the other hand, cyberspace has unique spatial order where physical distance is no more valid and accessibility depends thoroughly on the topological linkage. It is also unique in that spaces can be, for instance, easily modified and different places can be united with each other. The existing cyber cities fail to take the advantage of such unique features.
We propose to actively involve these spatial features to the planning of cyber cities and spaces. In order to make it easier to modify the topological structure, as well as to correspond to any changes in standards and technologies concerning cyberspace, we present a structural model that treats every space, city or object in cyberspace as unit-module. These modules are shuffled, reconnected and dynamically replaced by each other according to the user's movement. Attributes such as size, shape and colour scheme will also reflect the user's taste. Eventually, it is expected to automatically generate, as a whole, the optimal cyberspace for each user.
In the following, we will briefly review the history of the Internet, change in cyberspace environment and some of the previous studies. We will then focus on the unique spatial characteristics of cyberspace. Thirdly, we categorise some of the existing cyber cities and draw the problems. Based on these problems, we will propose a network cyberspace model that utilises the spatial feature of cyberspace. As a conclusion, we state the possible relationship between urban planning and cyberspace in the future: the new concept of cyberspace planning.
History of The Internet and Cyberspace
The Internet originates in the military-purposed network, ARPANET of the United States, deployed in 1969. During the 1980s, many academic networks of different countries were connected to it one after another. However, the drastic outbreak took place only after 1991, when the network was commercialised and the WWW service was provided. Ever since then, the Internet has been constantly growing let alone the remarkable increment of cyberspace inside the network.
Various surveys reveal that there are over 16 million hosts, estimated number of 80 million HTML pages on public web as of January 1997 (9). There will be change in IP address *3) to increase the digit and meet the demand. The uploading rate of web contents still maintains the speed of doubling each half year which is far beyond the average spread speed of other new technologies such as virtual reality*5). Other figures show that $129 million was spent on the Internet advertising in the first quarter of 1997 (10).
According to a random sampling data, a typical user visits around 20 web pages per day. There is hardly any ways to count the total number of users, but judging from the sales of personal computers and the increase of traffic on the Internet, it is estimated that, by the year 2000, there will be over 300 million users. In other words, the next century is likely to become a full-network era (14).
As the Internet grows every year, cyberspace develops inside it. Despite the active commitment of industries, backbone of the Internet remains strongly dependent on the research institutions, and thus, many cyberspace have the site *4) within the academic domains (16).
In conjunction with such rapid development and the dependency on research institutes, there have been some intensive studies carried out on cyberspace. Roughly speaking, there are three types of approaches to cyberspace studies. The first group emphasises the geographical and the topological aspects of the Internet and those of the physical traffic within the network. These studies are achieved mainly by the researchers of relevant fields such as geography, transportation science or electronic engineering. Most of these studies are intended to visualise and explicitly display the map of the Internet (4), (7), (8) . Other visualisation efforts have been put into the conceptual, analytical aspects of traffic display (5), (6), (19).
Architects, as well as a few of the urban planners, on the other hand, tend to think of cyberspace as a new dimension of social space (1), (3), (11), (15). In this context, cyberspace could be utilised as a complementary space of the entity, and should be perceived and planned as such (19). In the field of architecture, in particular, many attempts have been made on virtual city planning, or cyberspace planning. However, it is more of a new style of composite art than a study on comfortable living space.
Other approaches are attempted by anthropologists, and specialists in social studies in which cyberspace is claimed to have been generating a unique culture of network(3), (22), (23).
Features of Cyberspaces
Unlike the real city, cyber city consists of information data electronically constructed and sustained within the computer network. Textures describing the surface and the topological information are uploaded to the network through server machines.
Among this complex mixture of information are many kinds of firms including finance, communication, and general merchandise. Together with the general users, they form a new utility space.
With the aid of space descriptive languages such as VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) *6) and an authoring software, anyone who has access to the network could create his/her own space. Renewal and maintenance of the contents are also easy and convenient even for the non-experts. And, above all, apart from physical disruption of network, the content of cyberspace is practically immortal.
At the moment, most of the cyberspaces are free from gravity. In fact, directions and magnitudes of gravity or time consequence could be arbitrarily defined and easily altered.
Furthermore, the unit length and directions of three vectors with which we describe cyberspace could differ from location to location. In this sense, size or shape of each individual building and street is free from any spatial constraint. The only factor that keeps the space in shape is topological relationship.
By replacing the original set of gravity, time consequence, colour scheme and size of the space with ones own psychological scaling, we could not only invent ones favourite space, but also share this cognitive, sensuous space of ones own with other users.
Apparently, cyberspace is a space of different dimension in which we cannot live. However, it is a place where every user could enjoy ones own setup environment. It is the place where everyone can plan and create the city of his/her dream. And, most of all, it is the place where we could meet each other regardless of our actual location. Thus, cyberspace may not give the ultimate solution to the problems regarding our living environment, but it will help increasing the opportunity for us to explore and communicate in a different means.
Existing Cyber Cities
There are already number of cyber cities and spaces on the Internet and is increasing every day (17), (21). As of upper June 1996, combined site searching for words city, space, cyber and virtual on major search engines returned 460 highly matching hits. They could be categorised roughly as follows:
a) document type source (287 cases)
b) two dimensional sites with maps (132 cases)
c) three dimensional rendering model (41 cases)
Document data bearing the name of cyber city were either an HTML page with at least one shop or a site comprised by more than two individuals. It implies that the concept of "city" is interpreted in a broad sense. Apparently, words are not adequate for expressing the intuitive image of cyberspace. In fact, it was difficult to grasp the whereabouts or linkage structure, and these sites were more of a catalogue rather than a city.
Two dimensional sites, on the other hand, contain maps and landscape images. Most of them have a front page with large map displaying the entire city. By clicking the corresponding part of the map, visitors can jump to the particular spot. Together with many graphical images of landscape, this map gives a good glimpse of spatial order. However, there is a tradeoff between the amount of visual images and the access speed. As the number of images increases and as they increase their levels of detail, the total time for retrieving these images would increase and more memory would be consumed for this which may result in inconsistency of the movement. Moreover, contents and links within the city are pre-determined by the authors and, like it or not, every user is forced to follow it.
There exists parallelism between these two dimensional image cyber cities and the actual cities in that they both have a scale classification from boulevards and regions down to passages and buildings. In both cyber and physical spaces, links are mostly formed between different scale levels, and only few connect objects of the same scale. In other words, the topological structure reflects tree structure which restricts free traveling within the same level space. Besides, it is hard to integrate such scale level of different cyber cities, and they could be connected with one point.
Intuitive understanding of spatial order is much easier in three dimensional world. These spaces are usually rendered with spatial descriptive language such as VRML and could be viewed with major browsers. However, as seen in the two dimensional cases, three dimensional cities, too, intend to imitate the physical world, reducing the processing speed and the dynamism of cyberspace. Much the same as the actual space, they force the users to follow the fixed street plans and links.
In short, the existing cyber cities have the following problems:
a) Links are fixed; freedom of traveling is limited.
b) Traveling within the same scale level is not easy.
c) Too many pictures cause delay of traffic.
In order to avoid the above problems, we will now propose a space model that utilises the unique spatial characteristics of cyberspace.
Proposal on Cellular Network Cyberspace
In the last section, we observed that many of the existing cyber cities and cyberspaces are intended to imitate the real cities. Although they achieve this similarity to some extent, they fail to take the advantage of unique spatial structure of cyberspace. In the following, we will briefly review and restate the cellular network cyberspace model (26), (27) as an example of structural model that utilises the unique spatial features. It is a prototype spatial model that is frequently modified according to the history of users previous movement.
The cellular network cyberspace consists of a collection of unit cells and numbers of paths connecting these cells. Each cell could contain any types virtual objects of various scale such as the city, district, building, room, a movie image, or collection of cells.
These cells, regardless of the size of its contents, are semi-transparent simplex and are uniformly treated so that the process of replacing and uniting of the cells could be easily attained.
By connecting these cells with each other, we could invent a cellular network space. Adjacent cells could be linked or even united together, and cells could be omitted or added at any instant, and at any spot. Although the default set of cells and the topological structure is given, it could be easily replaced by the users custom set.
Besides, by tracing the links that user followed during the previous visit and counting the frequency of times visiting each cells, cells of particular interest are brought forth and eventually united together.
The other criteria for moving and replacing the cells is the theme and keyword of each cells. If they share the same topic, it is likely that these cells are referred at the same time, and thus, it would be convenient for the user to see them united. Moreover, if one of the cells contain the search engine sites, it would refer to some newly uploaded data. If the contents or the keywords of the new data match those of the existing cells, it may automatically generate a new cell beside the existing ones.
Thus, each time the user uses this network space, the cells would appear or disappear depending on the locus drawn during the previous visits. Ultimately, this network model could be automatically renewed and the contents and the topological structure could be customised. Colour, time, gravity, connectivity of each cell are also subject of customisation.
However, there are questions on the integrity of multi-users environment while one user have a united cell, the other user may see them as two separate cells, depending on his previous movement and taste.
Another problem is the convertibility of data. In order to apply the cellular network model to cyberspaces on the Internet, every space, and every contents of the spaces should follow a certain guideline to be acknowledged as unit cells. In other words, every web contents should have a regular format applicable for cellular network.
Conclusion - Toward The Coming Century
In this study, we have seen the relationship between urban planning and cyberspace. In particular, we emphasised the aspect of urban planning in cyberspace. We reviewed the process of its development and the current status of cyberspace. We then summarised the unique spatial characteristics of cyberspace. Among these unique features were flexibility of space where users or builders can unite, replace and remove each space with relative ease. Other revision was made on the existing cyber cities. They were classified in three data types: documents, two dimensional images, and three dimensional worlds. Many of the two dimensional and three dimensional cities adopted detailed graphic images that helped our intuitive understanding of the space. However, they were strongly influenced by the existing physical cities, and failed to take the advantage of the unique spatial characteristics of cyberspace. We also drew some of their topological problems. One of the major problems was the pre-determined structure and links that force users to follow. Based upon these problems, we proposed a cellular network model that utilises unique spatial features. It was aimed to automatically construct the ideal environment for each user depending on their taste. As for conclusion, we would like to make the following statement.
Throughout the long history of urban planning, our seniors have, in order to contribute to the solution of social and urban problems, proposed and constructed residential spaces, as in the best form as possible, each of which strongly influenced by the thought and the applicable technologies of the period. At this very end of the century, almost a hundred years after the Ebenezer Howards proposition of garden city, we are confronted with various world-wide-level issues that are relevant to social and urban lives. The variety in urban life style and sense of value, in particular, have grown immensely that the existing city appears to be inadequate to meet every needs despite its multi-functionality.
Cyberspace is expected to give some alternatives to serve such diverse life styles. Though it might not be the ultimate solution, cyberspace allows a wide range of choice of environment where each individuals may find the ideal place or may customise the space according to ones own taste. It is a communal space in which everyone of us can enjoy a social life of ones own style; i.e. expressing ourselves, listening to the others opinion, communicating with each other, and receiving various visual and audio information. Compared to an actual city, cyberspace has much flexible spatial character. It allows spaces to expand, unite and distort. It is practically immortal, yet easily renewed and maintained. Its appearance, together with other attributes of spatial characteristics such as gravity, could be customised and still could be shared as multi-user environment.
On the other hand, the fact that cyberspace could exist only within the computer network limits its possibility. For instance, it doesnt supply any food to eat or place to sleep, and we cannot live an actual life inside the cyberspace. Also, we could perceive various information or give out messages, but it is our mind that is receiving and sending these data, and we cannot experience any actual movement in the real sense. And finally, it may discriminate the people who has no access to the computer network.
In this sense, cyberspace certainly does not provide Utopia. It is merely a complementary space of the entity, and we should create and use it accordingly.
The designing scheme and rules may be considerably different from that of the actual town planning. Nevertheless, we believe that it is our responsibility to contribute to the planning and constructing of an enjoyable, useful cyberspace for general public. The time for cyberspace planning has come.
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