Emergic: Rajesh Jain's Blog

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Urban Informatics

September 14th, 2003 · No Comments

Howard Rheingoldquotes Anthony Townsend about how new technology may change the way cities are structured:

Two hundred years ago, that meant most urban workers had to live within a half-hour’s walk or horseback ride of the city center. The railroad and automobile made it possible to extend the distance covered in an hour, making suburbs and sprawl possible. “While urban planners continue to assume commuting time is non-productive, mobile telephones, voice-mail, text messaging have changed the basis of that assumption.”

As a result of the extra telephone-enabled work accomplished while commuting or moving from place to place within a city, Townsend believes the pace of urban life is quickening. “As every person completes more tasks, communicates with more people, coordinates activities among more social networks in the same amount of time, the aggregate effect is an acceleration of the urban metabolism.” If Townsend is right, today’s New York minute will seem too leisurely for tomorrow’s crowds of hypercoordinated and autoscheduled city-dwellers. One key challenge to civic leaders and urban planners is to create more public spaces that attract transient communities of wireless urban nomads who serve as creativity and conviviality magnets, attracting vitality to the social heart of the city.

In Townsend’s view, the effects of this metabolic speedup are complex and sometimes contradictory: “Mobile communications technologies reinforce the competitive advantage of central city business districts by making them more efficient, yet at the same time make automobile-based urban sprawl manageable and livable.” People get more done in the city core. At the same time that the urban core is heating up and attracting the young, fast-moving, youth thumb-tribes and unwired mobile knowledge workers, it becomes possible to extend sprawl even further. People will be doing email via speech-to-text/text-to-speech intermediaries while crawling through traffic from their suburban homes. “Just as the telegraph and the railroad were symbiotic partners in creating cities of previous centuries, the automobile and the mobile telephone are partnering to create cities of the twenty first century.”

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