Is New Urbanism the Next Internet?
By Charles Brewer
I don't claim any more insight on this topic than the
next person, but I'll share some thoughts.
The first concerns my strong feeling that, "I want this, and I bet
other people do, too!" Back in 1993, when I was looking for a business
to start, I went to a conference and saw someone demonstrating the Internet.
It looked interesting, so I decided to get hooked up myself. I proceeded
to have the most frustrating experience imaginable trying to get the necessary
software, get it set up, and get connected. Finally, a few months later,
I had things up and going. I found the Internet to be a great resource,
and I thought that surely there must be lots of other people out there
like me who would love to use the Internet if only someone could deliver
it to them in a way that allowed them to have an easy, good experience.
It turns out that I was way more right than I suspected!
Well, I now feel basically the same way about new urbanism, or as I prefer
to think of it, good urbanism. Surely there are lots of people out there
who would really prefer to live in good urbanist environments, if only
someone could create more of those places. So once again I have this very
strong sense of a very important product/service with lots of demand and
very little quality supply.
Is urbanism the next Internet? It's sort of like comparing apples and
oranges. I think of the Internet as a tool, primarily. It helps me communicate
with people, and it helps me gather information or entertainment. And
I think of new urbanism as a set of guidelines for creating good places
to live, work and play. But to some extent the Internet can create "places"
also. List-serves, for example, are in a way places. The conversations
people have on them are, I suspect, richer and more thoughtful than many
of the routine ones that they have in their physical lives. It is in fact
very cool to be able to carry on discussions of this sort with leading
thinkers from all over the world. And as bandwidth and technology allow
richer and richer interactions over the net, the net's ability to create
"places" will certainly be enhanced.
So as this happens, more and more things that in the past could only be
provided physically in your local place will be provided from afar. Clearly
this is an extension of a trend where writing, the printing press, telephones
and TV have been major contributors also.
Does this mean that your local place is less important? I'd say it does
mean some attributes of local places are less important than they used
to be. For example, you can now be a researcher whether your town has
a good library or not. And virtual communities can to some extent augment
the companionship you find in your local community. And as some attributes
of place become less important, I suspect others will become more important.
I'll tick off a few: Libraries -- less important. Proximity to work-mates
-- less important. Physical recreation opportunities -- more important.
Good food -- more important. Physical beauty -- more important.
If people are spending more time on virtual interactions, as I suppose
they will, might that mean that during the time they are not on-line they
crave physical community more than ever? I think it might. For example,
imagine a telecommuter. He or she does not get the normal water-cooler
companionship that workplaces normally provide. When he is finished with
work, is he going to want to look up and find himself in a cul-de-sac
subdivision with absolutely no one around? I think not. I think he's going
to want to be able to walk out the door and find some people!
But you know what? I really like the physical world. I like to feel like
a healthy animal. Too much time in the virtual world makes me feel worse.
I don't like it. And to me there is no question that the qualities of
the physical place where I live are far, far more important than anything
about the Internet, and always will be.
So there you go. New urbanism trumps the Internet,
Note: Charles Brewer founded MindSpring in 1994. He later served as chairman
of EarthLink, Inc., a company formed by the merger of MindSpring and EarthLink.
This commentary was originally written as a "post" on a professional
new urbanism site Brewer subscribes to, then later adapted for use in