Games and Spaces of Negotiation

[Counting on Change, by Roger Sherman  — Chapter 9 of The Infrastructural City Blogiscussion]

[A learned coexistence: Curley’s Cafe, Shell’s Oil Rigs, and US bank together in Signal Hill, Los Angeles.  Source]

“Emphasize change-based thinking.

Embrace risk.

Understand successional dynamics and settle upon an equilibrium enforced by each [urban] player’s self interest.

Stage and creatively work out the causal relationships that comprise the city as ecosystem.

Use design as a means of ‘setting a trap’ to capture potential change — change that is waiting to be sprung or unleashed.

Exploit the quid pro quo….”


No, this isn’t a relapse post about The Wire.  Well, maybe it is.  The above ‘protocols of adaptive design’ have been collected from Roger Sherman’s chapter Counting On Change in The Infrastructural City.  These worthy bits of design manifesto are interspersed through Sherman’s analysis of intensely negotiated spaces in Los Angeles – spaces where diverse land uses are thrown into improbable juxtaposition.  Negotiations occurring in these spaces hinge on a property’s bundle of rights and how its edges are extended, thickened, cantilevered or blended together with others via multiple rounds of bargaining amongst their various owners.

In pointing to the surprising complexity of these deals, Sherman calls the reader’s attention to a pervasive, yet overlooked element of the informal: the ecology of persuasion, deal making, interpersonal politics, and the design potential therein.

In contemporary fashion, Sherman diagrams these on-site negotiations, but in a rather loose, tongue-in-cheek kind of way, particularly in the cartoon-like icons displayed in deal-making flow charts, such as the one below for the site pictured at the top of this post:

Sherman compares these loose, improvised negotiations to computer gaming, as such software and game theory suggests that simple strategies tend to be the most instrumental due to their ability to build in adaptive complexity.  But when I saw the diagrams I also thought of other apt games outside of computer space – in particular Parker Brother’s Monopoly.  Sherman’s icons and flow charts look remarkably similar to the visual language of the board game and its playing pieces.

[Vintage monopoly cards source]

But beyond the graphic similarity, the game of monopoly works exactly like the proprietary dealings Sherman was diagramming in the microcosms of LA.  If we excuse and/or temporarily forget the malevolent corporate end game of Monopoly (to bankrupt everyone else for one’s own financial gain, which in my experience rarely ever happens because the game has a tendency to go on forever) the process of actually playing the game is the same:  The Monopoly board presents a given, urban territory, parceled and ready for development and speculation.  A general set of institutional rules are in place that everyone has to abide by.  There is a great deal of luck involved (dice, unknown cards), and accordingly each player has to hedge their bets and take educated risks to get anywhere.  And unlike computer games, one has to negotiate heavily with other sentient, and sometimes non-rational players to get what they want…to Exploit the quid pro quo. In monopoly it was always the open and unscripted deal making (complex or simple, for which there were no rules) that made the game interesting.

As both the playful abstraction of Monopoly and Counting On Change demonstrate, the aggregated collection of these fuzzy, interpersonal negotiations are integral processes of the city and are potentially underutilized by designers.  Returning to the HBO series The Wire (another inseparable meshwork of reality and imagination) the show can be construed as a visual, dramatized thesis in support of Sherman’s ideas.

Part of what made The Wire so fascinating was the overt revelation of how an entire city is built, and evolves upon the collective of such informal (and non-law abiding) dealings, rather than a  single or autonomous masterplan.  Every agent is limited to a certain range of influence, at the edges of which they need to negotiate.  Every urban system – the police, politicians, the ports, the newspapers, and the drug dealers were each run by such informal rules in collusion or in opposition to a background of institutionalized frameworks.  Everything was about the deal and playing the Game.  And similar to game theory, it was the players who could act outside of sluggish, behemoth bureaucracies that were the most nimble and adept opportunists – just like the enclaves of LA.

So how does one appropriate such fuzzy logic and deal making for design means?  Sherman suggests the “setting of traps” with the bait of  “specific architectural and/or programmatic elements which have both a provisional immediate use and at the same time sow the seeds for a variety of possible futures – serving as attractors or nuisances  which influence (encourage or deter) future choices and development in a non prescriptive way.” In other words, one must be an acutely observant opportunist in order to hack into the system — something Gordon Matta-Clark achieved back in 1973 with his Fake Estates project:

“A meditation on property, ownership, landscape, and absence, Fake Estates was born when Matta-Clark discovered that the city periodically auctioned off “gutterspace” — absurdly small slivers of land carved from the urban grid by anomalies in surveying, zoning, and municipal construction. Matta-Clark purchased fifteen of these odd lots at auction. He then visited and photographed each one, and collected the related maps and deeds.”

[One of Matta-Clark’s fake estates. “Buying them was my own take on the strangeness of existing property demarcation lines. Property is so all-pervasive. Everyone’s notion of ownership is determined by the use factor.” -Gordon Matta-Clark]

Matta-Clark was able to acquire these properties for next to nothing, and once he owned them, he could have used or leveraged them in any number of ways.  Unfortunately the artist passed away before he had the chance to do anything with these lots (if he was going to anything at all).  But nearly 40 years later Local Code, one of the winners of the WPA 2.0 competition, borrowed from Clark’s opportunism and brought it into the contemporary, with attendant shifts in how we are able to read the urban:

If 2.0 of this project was the effective delineation of a shared, usable urban condition,  2.1 will likely be how to actually make something like this happen as its full of challenges (ownership, maintenance, acceptance, etc.).  Applying the condition of the negotiated local presented by Sherman, its interesting to speculate how such an understanding could inform the implementation of such an infrastructure.  Beyond community participation, each void becomes its own hyper-local opportunity; a microcosm for engaging and dealing with adjacencies.

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