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VOL. 3, NO. 3 -- APRIL/MAY 2001

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, hands down.

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 this publication.