Rethinking Urban Planning In A Networked World

What’s At Stake?

As the new channels of interaction between people, broadband networks are bound to have a tremendous impact on urban life.  This then is the question for those dealing with urban policy and planning at all levels of government: will these impacts occur intentionally or unintentionally?

This is not a new question, just one with a new technological twist.  In the 1950s, the US set about creating the interstate highway system for combustion vehicles, which in turn led to dramatic changes in urban life – often with unintended consequences.  Looking back with hindsight, the damage done to neighborhoods, like those in the Bronx where Interstate 95 runs through, is now among the best known examples of such consequences.

One reason to fear that the impact of broadband on urban life might not be addressed head on is that broadband is considered by many public officials to be a private, perhaps a luxury, service, sometimes associated with entertainment and trivia.  The point here is that broadband is not just a private service, but should also be considered to be a necessary public service which is essential to many aspects of community, cultural and commercial development.  Thus, urban policy today must address its impacts to ensure that society’s goals are met – not just private goals.  

Below, I try to identify – not necessarily to provide solutions to – some of the more important issues that will need to be addressed in future urban policy and planning.  

1. Broadband Networks Are Not Equal Everywhere

The first obvious question is whether all parts of our country will have sufficient service.  As a society, we cannot afford the redlining of poorer, urban (or rural) sections.  Some of what is called broadband in this country is, in fact, so slow that it cannot support the collaborative and video tools that will be critical for future economic and educational/cultural development.  

When the Interstate Highway system was constructed, no one required that 4 or 6 lane highways be built everywhere.  But it was also considered unacceptable to offer dirt roads to poor areas.  There was a minimum modern standard of highway that was offered everywhere.  So, too, urban planners need to ensure that a high enough level of broadband is made available in all neighborhoods or risk seeing the development of “digital slums” instead.

While not quite a limited resource such as railroad mainlines, broadband networks do have a backbone structure.  In the same way that urban development occurred around these mainlines and railroad stops, it is important for urban planners to anticipate the growth that will surround prime broadband network paths.

2. Broadband Needs To Reach Into Where People Live And Work

All people in our society should have the option to use broadband where they live, work and learn.  The broadband backbone network – like the highways – does not reach to every door.  However, urban planners need to ensure that the connection from the home, business and schools/libraries to the broadband network also supports sufficient speeds.  

This implies the need for new policies, including building standards which specify data networking requirements much as they require electrical, plumbing or heating requirements.  It also implies a serious and enforced requirement for broadband connections in publicly funded or subsidized housing and business projects.

3. Urban Residents Need To Gain Broadband Skills

All people should have the ability to use broadband.  The availability of broadband to a room is not enough.  Urban leaders in the 19th century recognized the importance of ensuring all citizens could read and then created the public schools and libraries necessary to achieve that goal.  Today, urban leaders need to ensure that all are given sufficient training to use the broadband networks.

4. The Merger Of Spaces For Working, Living and Shopping

Consider the changes in the nature and location of work.  During the last hundred years, the place for work, the place for living and the place for shopping have been separate.  Vast transportation networks were built to move people from one kind of place to another.  Zoning rules were established to keep these different places separate from each other.

Today, in many suburbs, the distinction has softened dramatically – with people commonly having home offices where they tele-work at least part of the week.  They also shop from their homes.  The same pattern shows up even in more densely populated urban areas where the distances between work, living and shopping are less formidable than in the suburbs.

As broadband increases and more people participate in an information-driven economy, more and more people will not go to work, but the work will go to the people – wherever they might be, including home.  This has already led to a decreased need for office space.  (Cisco Systems found that it needed 40% less office space per employee because of broadband-based tele-work and collaboration tools.  There was also a significant reduction in energy use and greenhouse gases.)

Urban policy must adapt to this new world and urban planners must re-think the assumptions that guided a society where work, home and shops were apart.

5. New Understanding Of Economic Development

As the nature of work changes and work increasingly mixes with other aspects of life, so too must the economic development strategies of urban areas change.   Work, even in large organizations, is increasingly dispersed among people who are connected together by broadband networks.  

We are entering an era where many people can work from anywhere and still be paid well.  So for those people, the question is not necessarily where the jobs are, but where the quality of life is highest for them.

Thus the old strategy of providing incentives and other special considerations for companies who “locate” in an urban area will result in diminishing positive benefits.  Instead, the focus will need to shift from the companies to the employees and the investments in the urban economy will be more focused on the non-economic qualities of urban life that people find attractive.

6. Increasing Demand For Educational And Cultural Services

More generally, this new broadband age will also result in a re-ordered set of priorities for urban life.  For example, in a knowledge based society that is connected by broadband networks, there needs to be an understanding of the critical role that will be played by educational and cultural services for two reasons.  

First, in a knowledge economy, workers will need to continually upgrade their education and intellectual skills to maintain their own economic viability.  Urban leaders owe it to their residents to ensure that these skills can be upgraded where the residents already live because the necessary network infrastructure is in place.  

Second, the availability of educational and cultural services is an important part of what makes an urban area attractive to potential residents.  Thus, urban policy will need to address the development of such services to ensure that urban areas are vibrant areas to live.  

Libraries are a central urban institution in the provision of these lifelong education and cultural opportunities.  Libraries in many parts of the world have aggressively responded to the development of the Internet and are recreating themselves as centers not only of books, but also as the place to go for computer technology and digital media, spaces for the creation of literature and music, and guidance on upgrading work skills.

7. Making Other Urban Infrastructure Smarter And Greener

Broadband networks are not just a new infrastructure or another utility.  They are also, in part, the intelligent infrastructure that could make all the other infrastructure – roads, energy, water and waste – work better and operate in a greener way.  

Similarly, urban planners will need to understand how the design and form of the built environment will become dramatically changed by the broadband transformations described above.

In sum, urban policy makers and urban planners must face the changing world and changing requirements on urban life that broadband networks will necessarily impose.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


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