Saturday, August 13, 2005

John M. Edger: Smart Growth and the Internet

Smart Growth and the Internet
Aug 11, 2005 By John M. Eger

Congested roads and highways, long commutes, smog, pollution and loss of productivity are often cited for America's economic woes and the gradual decline in that elusive "quality of life" aspect of living in some of our finest cities.

Some believe the decline of our cities started in 1939 at the World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. The most popular exhibition was The World of Tomorrow in the General Motors Pavilion. It featured an enormous model of a city of the Future, complete with elevated freeways, on-ramps and off-ramps and gleaming skyscrapers separated by miles and miles of asphalt.For General Motors and for the rest of America, the vision became reality, as more and more roads were built across the country and more and more families were able to purchase their own automobiles.

Only now, over 66 years later, are we beginning to change the lens in our camera and see the need for a new and vastly different vision of our future and the role of cities. In a very real sense, the shift from an industrial to an information society is the raison d'ĂȘtre for revisiting the American love affair with the automobile and asking some very tough questions about its role in the new economy. By doing so, we will begin to open the door to new thinking about the architecture of our cities and renewing their place in our lives.

One of the more interesting paradoxes -- particularly for regions struggling to divine "smart growth" solutions -- is that the more we live and work in cyberspace, the more important real place becomes. While this notion runs counter to much of today's popular literature, we are already seeing the knowledge worker and high-tech, knowledge-sensitive industries migrating to highly livable communities. They are places with mountains or lakes, open spaces, clean air and water, and -- as in the case of Portland, Ore., and other communities that have established urban-growth boundaries -- less reliance on the automobile as the primary mode of transportation.

The growing concern with urban sprawl, coupled with the nostalgic yearning, which the "new-urbanism" movement represents, is evidence of sweeping changes in public attitude toward physical space. As the Internet revolution moves into full bloom, however, there is every reason to believe it could have a dramatic impact on the architecture and landscape of communities throughout the world. For no technology in human history is having, or is likely to have, such tremendous influence on life and work and play, and in the transforming process -- and if we are thoughtful -- on our physical space.Automobiles did not appear in significant numbers until after World War I. When it arrived it came like the Internet itself, as a whirlwind, allowing for the first time people and goods to travel efficiently from place to place, and in a way that maximized individual freedom. No longer would Americans be restricted to train or trolley or stagecoach schedules, nor be dependent upon the slow pace of the horse-drawn carriage. They could now travel where and when they wanted to go. Thus the introduction of the automobile cemented and reinforced the drive toward individualism that is perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of American culture. That was the good news.

The automobile's impact did not end there, however. In the post-World War II era, as the automobile became a mass commodity within reach of the middle and even lower strata of society, it also made possible a large-scale exodus from America's central cities to the suburban fringe. This move was in response to -- and ultimately accelerated -- the many serious social problems that still threaten American cities today. These difficulties range from racial and social segregation of U.S. society to daunting problems of urban sprawl and environmental degradation.

Given the spread and influence of the Internet, and the opportunity for the first time to use telecommunications as a substitute for transportation we now have a choice: to get in our cars for a loaf of bread or a book or CD, or go online. To push for mass transit and/or light rail, to argue for "car free" zones and "walkable communities" or to continue the "fatal attraction" to our automobiles at the risk of losing for all time a sense of place and a place that is livable and sustainable."

If we are to capitalize on this shift in which telecommunications becomes a substitute for transportation, we must make some conscious decisions to change our habits. We need to renew our sense of place and rethink our attitudes and our policies toward civic life, the village green and the fundamental and historical reason for the city.

The purpose of the city, as an Athenian scholar once observed, is "to bring people together" in harmony with one another and with their environment for "economic gain and glory." We can no longer do that if we don't use technology as a tool of transformation; if we are unwilling to see that the Internet has offered us an alternative to our reliance on the automobile.

John M. Eger is the Van Deerlin endowed professor of communications and public policy at San Diego State University and president of the California Institute for Smart Communities.
John M. Eger

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