Monday, 17 December 2012

The end of suburbs


Like many Americans my age I was born in a city, but grew up in a suburb.  My youth was dominated by the idea of the "dying city".  Chicago, where my family was from was a our Egypt.  The Suburbs were our Promised Land.  


I returned to the very city my family left.  Rather than blight and decline I found a space of opportunity, culture and diversity.  A place of fun.  I found I love cities, and I found that a lot of other people love cities.  In fact most of my family didn't move to the suburbs, they stayed in Chicago because the suburbs were frankly dull.  A place where if you didn't have two kids crying and a TV blasting you would lose your mind.  A zone without the richness of either urban or rural life, a space of paved roads and sod grass where, in my opinion, the worst of rural and urban life came together.  Unclean, wasteful of energy, congested, while at the same time close minded, isolated, petty.  

I think you can gather I am not a big fan of the idea of suburbanism. And I am not the only one.  All over the world people and governments are rejecting or ignoring this wasteful style of living.  

Map of major social media data points in Chicago, you can see the city is more than a mass of infrastructure,  it is a cluster of cultural and intellectual wealth that is driving the new economy.

We are living in a Golden Age of cities.  The process of suburbanization that America experienced after World War II has been one feature of American life that did not go global.  The world has embraced cities where now a full half of the world live.

Suburbs are a resource intensive form of life.  Suburbs economic life is depends on the automobile to build a thin wide matrix of settlement over hundreds of miles square with a very low density.  This produces highly isolated living, which required the telephone to maintain communications and TV to preserve cultural identity.

One might assume that the Internet, withs it combination of broadcasting, direct communications and support for remote working could promote suburb life.  And there is no doubt that many people will be able to live in more rural settings because of the Internet. 

The home town where I grew up,  Web 3.0 technology has reached most of the settled areas of America, but along with thin layer of wide scattered development comes a thinness of cultural opportunity.  As the Knowledge Economy expands these areas will only be able to compete via low tax rates, rents and wages, which will likely feed in to the relative poverty of cultural opportunity offered by a city.

But I think something bigger is happening.  Though the Internet works well with suburbs, the mobile internet actually is part of the rising urbanisation.  Geo-located web services are most useful in an urban setting. Google maps and Foursquare can open up the hidden places and folds in the urban landscape.  And the cities themselves contain the density of cultural capital that is driving the Internet.  The Internet is thus being mostly created in cities, and mostly used in cities and is most useful in cities.

Its not just that access is better in cities, though it is, it is also simply the fact that there is more you can do with our mobile phone in Chicago Illinois than Round Lake Park Illinois.  Not only is there more to find and checkin to, but this means there is more to post in a big city, which feeds the process of data and social network creation.

Suburban living certainly encourages social networks, which can help overcome the isolated of wide settlement areas.  Soccer moms are turning to Facebook to keep a network of friends.  But in the new generation of Web 3.0 geo-located services there is little benefit to suburban living.  Growing up in Round Lake I already knew the few places there were to go.  Perhaps a Google maps could have helped find a review for a place that involved a 80 mile drive, which people in suburban areas will often have to do to find a good pasta place or real Thai food.  But the real winners in Web 3.0 will be foot traffic in dense areas, where the intelligence of geo-social software will open a new renaissance of urban spaces coming in this new decade.

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