Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Bringing a Knife to a Food Fight

You may recall I created this graphic comparing lively cities to empty cities where lively ones are built on a foundation of walkability:

This of course rests on our understanding that it is indeed true. And that walkability does in fact make for a better city. I can wax on about why this is so theoretically (freedom of transportation choice, efficiency of connections between and amongst goods, services, labor, talent, etc., desirability of place, etc.), but all that really matters is your opinion. Similarly, whenever I ask groups or crowds I've spoken to, I often ask, "what is your favorite city in the world?" The answers have always fallen within a very narrow range (Vancouver, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Portland, New York, San Francisco, DC., etc.).

These answers come from Sun Belt residents and it is a pretty fair assumption that these places are more walkable than the Sun Belt. In Peter Bosselmann's book Urban Transformation, he highlights all of the walkable neighborhood centers in San Francisco. 66 of them, walkable (within 5 minutes) to 50%(!) of the population of the city. Zounds! I've heard many Dallasites lament what has become of certain streets like Greenville Avenue, which once was home to a far more complex ecology of shops and business types beyond: bar, bar, bar, bar, bar, bar, bar, repeat.

The next question becomes, how do we get from city B (above, empty) to City A (above, lively)?

Ideologues like Joel Kotkin, whose opinion has been skewed by who knows what but likely the common Baby Boomer notion that cars = freedom and James Dean didn't actually die in a car accident, say there is no going back. Going back would NOT be progress. I'm of the opinion that 1) the next generation rejects this notion, and 2) progress also means corrections of mistakes, not wandering down the same intellectual cul-de-sac because we refuse to ask for directions. Kotkin does seem like that kinda guy, no?

Unfortunately for Kotkin, actual intellectuals who operate in the world of objective data have begun putting together various metrics and measures that show why cities are so important, and more critically for this topic, the internet is not an agent of sprawl like Kotkin thinks it is.

I've quoted these two often, but both economist Ed Glaeser and physicist Geoffrey West are arguing that density is necessary for innovation. Great. Now how do we get to density? Kotkin says, the internet allows clustering online. There is no need to cluster physically. Once again, real studies and real world prove otherwise.

First, Glaeser cites in a study in his recent book from the University of Michigan (ick, but in this case I'll hold my sports tribalist nose) where groups that cooperated in person faired far better than those who collaborated online. In fact, the online groups nearly all fell apart amongst finger-pointing, blame, etc. It sort of reminds of two things: 1) the notion posited in Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic that the inability to make eye contact between two drivers dehumanizes the interaction, makes it impersonal, and the "other" becomes the enemy. And 2) well...the chaos of online anonymity.

The other example is real world places like DUMBO that show that creative types not only like being near each other, but it makes collaboration amongst businesses easier, more efficient, and simply...better.

Web 2.0 has emerged, not as a means of spreading us apart, as Kotkin wishes, but as a methods of re-clustering. We tweet, we facebook, we geo-tag places. We text others our locations. We self-organize online so that we can self-organize in person. The internet hasn't dehumanized us, but reminded us of our humanity. It reconnected all of those missing links and interconnectivity that are lost living at the end of a cul-de-sac. We are becoming more gridded online and in person.


(ideally you should be able to click to embiggen)

The emergence of the web coinciding with increased costs of driving (all of the above: gas, roads, cars, etc.), means we won't be living further away from everything and all of our needs are handled online like Kotkin suggests.

Why in the world would the internet replace the easiest and (often) the most enjoyable trips, those that are the shortest, and manageable by foot? It makes zero sense, particularly from an economic standpoint.

Instead, doesn't it make more sense that the internet, through near free transfer of electrons, allows us to replace the more DISTANT, expensive trips. In the most extreme sense, thanks to Google Earth, I can travel anywhere in the world and study any city that I want.

More likely, the internet replaces the majority of our long distant/regional trips, but of course, likely not all. For example, if I want to collaborate with my friend Kevin of FortWorthology on something. We'd likely do the majority of work online. But once a month or so, we would still likely get together, in person, for a beer (which we have done - always by train, the TRE between Dallas and Fort Worth).

The internet, and ever increasingly, our smart phones are the car of the new generation. It allows us to remain connected to friends, work, and our entire city in the way a car never could. And it, as well as its infrastructure, is far cheaper.

The question becomes, do we still want to spend billions on replacing highways? Or just work on getting everybody connected to the digital highways?