Archive | Urban design

Mobile Connectivity and Urban Interaction

What does it mean to be social?

Being “social” used to mean that a person was outgoing and enjoyed interacting with people – an extrovert. Today, most equate the term “social” with social media and online communities.

The most social among us are perceived to be those who maintain several social media accounts and have a large group of followers they interact with regularly. Has this sociological shift also had an impact on how we interact with our physical urban spaces? Do we even take notice of our environment while we’re walking around the city with our mobile devices?

Emily Badger (@emilymbadger), writing for Atlantic Cities, recently profiled a team of researchers who have found that the use of smart phones has weakened the degree of social interaction in our public gathering spaces.

I don’t believe the conclusion here is a sociological revelation by any means, since most of us have observed the trend personally. (Right now I’m recalling the last person I walked by at the grocery store who appeared to be having a heated conversation with their self, only to discover they were talking on their mobile phone using a hands-free headset.)

The article is summed up with a proposal that our physical public spaces may need to be redesigned to accommodate the “new” social, using the very same mobile technology in a socially-positive way. But in what ways can mobile technology increase physical interaction with each other and the urban environment?

Here are examples of online resources and activities that are already attempting to do just that:

  1. Meetup (www.meetup.com) is an online community with over 9.5 million members in 45,000 cities that makes it easy to find and sign up for events with others with similar interests and causes. “Meetup’s mission is to revitalize local community and help people around the world self-organize. Meetup believes that people can change their personal world, or the whole world, by organizing themselves into groups that are powerful enough to make a difference.”
  2. Foursquare (www.foursquare.com) allows users to use tools that help “keep up with friends, discover what’s nearby, save money and unlock deals.” What is significant about this tool is that the user is actually “checking-in” at a physical location, where other social media activities are not location-dependent.
  3. Geocaching is an activity that uses mobile devices, including smart phones, to participate in real-life explorations as individuals or in teams. According to Geochaching.com, “Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.”
  4. Social Media Breakfast (www.socialmediabreakfast.com) is a regularly occurring breakfast program that promotes “feeding your belly and your brain”!  The organization, which currently has more than 40 cities around the world with affiliated groups, states two goals of the program: (1) Face-to-Face Networking and (2) Education on “social media best practices for business”. Locally, Social Media Breakfast Fort Wayne (SMBFW) meets the last Tuesday of each month. Check out details on Twitter (@SMBFW) or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/smbftw ).

Are these efforts moving us in the right direction, and if so, what can we do to build on what’s already in progress? If not, what strategies will redirect us toward reclaiming physical interaction?

- Photo from Flickr by Svedek

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The novelty of walking to school

Students walking to St. John's School in Marshfield, Wis. Courtesy USDOT

I walked to school every day of my life, from kindergarten through high school. It was only a quarter mile to my elementary school, and it was less than a mile to the high school. And every street had a sidewalk.

But that was 30 years ago. Now, such a simple part of life seems to be a thing of the past:

In 2009 only 13 percent of K-8th Grade students were reported as walking or biking to school. That’s a huge shift from 40 years earlier when that number was 48 percent. In 1969, 89 percent of kids who lived within a mile of school walked or rode their bikes; in 2009 that figure was down to 35 percent.

That’s from a story on the U.S. Department of Transportation blog, “Indiana Schools Take Strides Toward Safe Routes to School.” Although those statistics are bleak, the USDOT congratulated Indiana for doing a good job of meeting what the Federal Highway Administration calls the 5 E’s:

  1. Engineering – Creating roadway improvements near schools that reduce speeds and potential conflicts between motor vehicles and walking students and establishing safer crossings, walkways, and bikeways.
  2. Education – Teaching children important bicycling and walking safety skills and launching driver safety campaigns near schools.
  3. Enforcement – Partnering with local law enforcement to ensure traffic laws are obeyed in school zones and initiating community enforcement such as crossing guard programs.
  4. Encouragement – Using events and activities to promote walking and bicycling.
  5. Evaluation – Monitoring and documenting outcomes and trends to gauge success.

The first point, of course, mirrors the Complete Streets movement.

But despite the accolades, it’s doubtful an Indiana child walks or bikes to school, especially here in Fort Wayne, where the Walk Score is 39 out of a possible 100. A consistent policy of building simple physical features such as sidewalks and crossable streets would make getting around on foot a lot more feasible.

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Making room for outdoor space in private urban developments

from Flickr user Mondo Tiki Man

A recent Atlantic Cities piece written by Kaid Benfield, “What Developers Get Wrong About Smart Growth,” profiles cities that have made a commendable effort to include public green space in and around adjacent urban infill projects, presumably completed by private developers.

As mentioned in the article, typical infill projects exist on such tight sites that every square foot is maximized for enclosed living spaces. Exterior park-like retreats are rarely prioritized high enough to be included in the project.

First, I contend that we — as private owners/clients and design and construction professionals — need to broaden our definition of “mixed use” and include public and/or private outdoor spaces as one of the most critical program elements right from the earliest design stages. Humans possess a primal need to connect with nature, and any initiative to encourage citizens to relocate to downtown live/work spaces should strive to include access to nature or “green” space.

Secondly, we should ask how we can better use our public park properties to supplement our urban environments.

This is not conceptual! This article poses a tangible challenge to all who believe in and desire to advance market-driven urbanism.

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Learning from Columbus, Indiana

What can the rest of Indiana learn from Columbus? From an article in the Star Press of Muncie:

The American Institute of Architects ranks Columbus as the sixth city in the nation for architectural innovation and design? (The ones listed 1-5 are: Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.)

and this:

What every comprehensive planning and design exercise that has guided the development of Columbus — from its civic buildings, to its health and senior care facilities, to its commercial and retail facilities, to its streetscape and public art for the last 40 years has contained physical design guidelines and the drawings and models to communicate their recommendations.These provide everyone with a vision of what might be. They serve as “talk pieces” to foster public discussion, debate and consensus building. More important, paraphrasing the great architect and planner, Daniel Burnham, who said about his plan for Chicago, “They need to stir men’s soul.” I might add, “women, children, investors, developers and retirees.”

Read the whole article here.

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The new American dream

Will the Obama White House recognize changes in American culture, or assume we’re still living in the ’80s?

Here’s David Brooks:

The 1980s and 1990s made up the era of the great dispersal. Forty-three million people moved every year, and basically they moved outward — from inner-ring suburbs to far-flung exurbs on the metro fringe. …

If you asked people in that age of go-go suburbia what they wanted in their new housing developments, they often said they wanted a golf course. But the culture has changed. If you ask people today what they want, they’re more likely to say coffee shops, hiking trails and community centers.

People overshot the mark. They moved to the exurbs because they wanted space and order. But once there, they found that they were missing community and social bonds. So in the past years there has been a new trend. Meeting places are popping up across the suburban landscape.

Read the column here. Hat tip: Richard Florida

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The four elements of great coffeehouses

Coffeehouse

(Jon) The article is aimed at the college student, but it’s wonderfully applicable to everyone who craves community.

The article in Comment magazine is titled “Great coffeehouses, great conversations, and the college experience” and written by Larry Bourgeois, who has been starting coffeehouses and bookstores since the 1970s. As his bio says:

Larry believes that effective young adult ministry requires using more untraditional places and spaces than are found in common institutional church settings. Quality coffeehouses conveniently located can provide essential hospitality and common ground where “conversations of consequence” can naturally/supernaturally regularly occur.

What makes a great coffeehouse?

Great coffeehouses embody four elements. First is Creation, a relationship more about the earth, stewardship, and accountability than about “products.” Great coffeehouses are places of Calling, where, as Frederick Buechner said, “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” As individual callings meet, they develop Community, where divisive issues become shared concerns, and through which we find Communion, the celebration of the mystery and majesty of the cosmos in each other and the world. This is the cultural potential of the third place.

What local coffeehouses best fulfill these four qualities?

Read the article online at Comment magazine.

– Photo by qwrrty on Flickr

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Clotheslines in a Good City?

So on the heels of the Grassroots Green event, I was reading through the Green Living Guide (which everybody should buy!) and noticed a small article promoting the drying of clothes on a clothesline instead of an electric (or gas) drier. I didn’t even realize, though I shouldn’t have been shocked, that many HOA’s, landlords, etc. have banned clothesline-drying on primarily aesthetic and property value grounds. But apparently, the resulting controversy is big enough as to make national news.

So the question is: should a good city – and her residents – encourage the unsightly but environmentally-friendly practice of clothesline-drying? Or promote a more “beautiful” city by mandating the more sightly, but less environmentally-friendly use of electric dryers?

- Scott Greider

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