Honeycomb City Networks | What if bees had mobile phones?


Hexagonal London. Source: Strange Maps

In The Infrastructural City‘s chapter 8: Cell Structure, Mobile Phones, authors Ted Kane and Rick Miller, write about the wireless infrastructure created in Los Angeles for the mobile phones networks as a new kind of stratum, born after all the large-scale developments of the times of urban sprawl, as highways, oil pumps or dams and pits. As they pointed “Like the freeways before them, wireless networks hold out the promise to spatially liberate the citizen by connecting the city without undermining the autonomy of the individual citizen.”

This layer in the city can be consider as a new kind of [still] invisible infrastructure. The optimized division of space given by this network display is well explained in the patent of a Cellular Radiotelephone System Structured for Flexible Use of Different Cell by Richard H. Frenkiel, where the central point of the design is the hexagonal cell grid, which provides ideal efficiency to the system:

The use of plural cell high capacity mobile telecommunicatios systems is facilitated by providing dual service availability in an essentially geographically continuous large-cell grid and an overlaid and essentially geographically discontinuous small-cell grid.

Here is the original design from 1979:


Drawing of the patent of the Cellular Radiotelephone System Structured for Flexible Use of Different Cell by Richard H. Frenkiel

The growth of this invisible network in worldwide cities has driven us to speculate about a new form of urban design in our cities, carried out by private companies rather than government institutions. What kind of cities would we have now if they had been planned following the design parameters of mobile networks? Is this private generated grid pattern determining in some way a new kind of urban segmentation with digital hubs and digital deserts?

Looking to maps and urban designs that follows the rules of wireless networks, we have noticed about a Victorian plan to optimize London in order to avoid traffic congestion due to cabs. This plan from the mid-19th century shows that some urban optimization plans were considering to use the same space arrangement used by bees. Such spatial disposition was described at the fourth century C. E. by Pappus of Alexandria on the preface to his book V Mathematical Collection with a discussion about “the Sagacity of Bees

“Bees know just this fact which is useful to them, that the hexagon is greater than the square and the triangle and will hold more honey for the same expenditure of material in constructing each”

Following this idea, there are also some scientist and physics that has studied the hexagonal grid to generate new structural forms, as we can see at the researches done by Lord Kelvin and currently followed by Professor Denis Wearie.


Cells in the Weaire-Phelan Structure. Source: Kelvin’s foam structure: a commentary

In 1999 the mathematician Thomas C. Hales proved the honeycomb conjecture, which states that a regular hexagonal grid or honeycomb represents the best way to divide a surface into regions of equal area with the least total perimeter.

In his Branding the Boroughs series, Kosmograd quotes John Leighton (author of hexagonal plan for London) and extends his hexagonal map in order to obtain a clear definition between boroughs while “reinforcing the idea of London as a series of villages”.

We can read:

In the middle of the 19th Century a slightly fanatical Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries published a scheme for an hexagonal London […] John Leighton suggested that the old borough boundaries should be altered to conform to a honeycomb pattern. Within a five-mile radius of the General Post Office all the sprawling, differently sized boroughs were to become hexagonal-shaped areas, 2-miles across. There were 19 altogether with the City in the centre of the honeycomb. Each hexagonal borough would be identified by a letter, and the letter as well as a number would be painted or cut out of tin-plate to be visible day and night on lamp-posts at every street corner.

Kosmograd’s concept for giving each of London’s boroughs a brand makeover:


Honeycomb London. Source: Kosmograd

After reading the Kane and Miller’s Chapter “Cell Structure, mobile phones” and all the references above, we have noticed that this new urban grid has been already implemented by telecommunications companies, and that we move and interact through this “corporate model of urban planning” without even notice it. We are bees buzzing into this honeycomb urban grid, a new kind of infrastructure traced by antennas arranged in hexagons, and often camouflaged to not “disturb” urban visuals. Kane and Miller pointed that “Stealthy networks of towers and transmission stations span the city in a hexagonal mattrix, honeycombing a sprawling metropolis already shaped by generations of commercial development”.

But even going further in the future of urban design, we also found out some projects that use hexagonal grids as the basis of their urban plans. Just take a look at Matsys‘s Sietch Nevada. Based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune, they have projected waterbanking as the fundamental factor in future urban infrastructure in the American Southwest by proposing a network of storage canals covered with undulating residential and commercial structures. Following the same principles of the hexagonal grid, Matsy has proposed a new city that is cellular in form, focusing on structures that constitute a new neighborhood typology which is able to mediate between the subterranean urban network and the surface level activities of water harvesting, energy generation, and urban agriculture and aquaculture.


Stich City. Matsy

Following these thoughts, it’s easy to imagine future archaeologists when discovering that a series of inorganic trees, chimneys and church steeples were nodes of a sort of hexagonal invisible infrastructures that appeared in our cities at the end of 20th century, coinciding with the extinction of bees. Future scientist finding the answer to the emergence of that kind of trees, with no seeds and concrete roots. Genetically modified nature or simply mobile phones infrastructures? Maybe their final conclusion [transmitted telepathically], will be this quote taken from Varnelis and Sumrell in Blue Monday:

From the late twentieth century “Urbanity as the product of concentrated structures and physical connections was replaced by an urbanity through a system of dispersed virtual links”

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This post is part of The Infrastructural City blogiscussion, now reading “Cell Structure, Mobile Phones” by Ted Kane and Rick Miller.

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