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?

Come, let us rezone together

I’m completely ripping off The News-Sentinel’s headline above, but it’s too good not to. (BTW: Great headline, Caleb!)

In his column today, Kevin Leininger comments on the proposed rezoning of 633 properties in a “downtown edge” zone.

On paper, perhaps, the proposed changes — intended to codify earlier downtown improvements plans — don’t seem all that consequential. It would limit the location and size of gas station/convenience stores, for example, establish guidelines for heights and setbacks, and would seek to limit common features deemed too “suburban,” such as surface parking lots and drive-through service lanes, while promoting so-called “mixed-use” projects combining housing, stores and other urban features.

But recent history shows how even seemingly benign guidelines can conflict with market decisions.

Consider planners’ preference for “pedestrian-friendly” development that eliminates parking lots between the sidewalk and door. When Subway Systems Inc. built a new restaurant on West Jefferson Boulevard earlier this year, it included a parking lot and drive-through — passing up a city grant in the process — because an earlier location had taught that foot traffic alone could not sustain the business. And when Woodson Motorsports moved to East Washington at Clay two years ago, it lost a city grant when it put a modern metallic façade on the historic brick building.

In each case, the owners decided to act in their own perceived best interest – even though those interests were not necessarily compatible with planners’ interests.

If their properties had been rezoned, however — and both are included in the proposed “downtown edge” area — those decisions could have been made more complicated.

Personally, I’d hope that such rezoning would not mandate urban-style development, but at least put it on even footing with “normal” suburban-style development. Because it seems to me that current zoning is not in any way “neutral,” despite Kevin’s perspective.

Suburban-style development, including minimum parking standards, is the only one codified, with everything else having to be submitted for “exceptional” approval. Unless I am wrong, the code the city is considering would only open a new urban-like avenue for development. Is that true?

‘Is America’s suburban dream collapsing into a nightmare?’

The above is the provocative headline on a story on cnn.com. After some description of the foreclosures in suburbia, the story focuses on the shifting attitudes of homeowners.

“The American dream is absolutely changing,” (Christopher Leinberger, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution,) told CNN.

This change can be witnessed in places like Atlanta, Georgia, Detroit, Michigan, and Dallas, Texas, said Leinberger, where once rundown downtowns are being revitalized by well-educated, young professionals who have no desire to live in a detached single family home typical of a suburbia where life is often centered around long commutes and cars.

Instead, they are looking for what Leinberger calls “walkable urbanism” — both small communities and big cities characterized by efficient mass transit systems and high density developments enabling residents to walk virtually everywhere for everything — from home to work to restaurants to movie theaters.

The so-called New Urbanism movement emerged in the mid-90s and has been steadily gaining momentum, especially with rising energy costs, environmental concerns and health problems associated with what Leinberger calls “drivable suburbanism” — a low-density built environment plan that emerged around the end of the World War II and has been the dominant design in the U.S. ever since.

We don’t want to wish ill on the suburban dweller, but times may get tougher out there before they get better.

Read the whole story here.

— photo by respres on Flickr

Good links

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Today’s rant: Abandon downtown!

From today’s News-Sentinel:

When you drive on our terrible streets or drop your kids off at schools that are in dire need of repair, just think of all that could have been done with the money being wasted on downtown.

But don’t think about how the financing of Harrison Square actually works. From the city’s Web site (PDF):

Q: How will Harrison Square be financed?
A: The initial Harrison Square development will have a development cost of approximately $125 million with a 50/50 private-public sharing of the cost. No general property taxes will be used to finance the project. The majority (78%) of the public dollars for the project will come from funding tools and revenue streams dedicated specifically to downtown development and are geographically restricted. Those tools are known as Community Revitalization Enhancement Districts (CRED) and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Districts. The remaining 22% of the public dollars would come from unrestricted funds such as CEDIT. The numbers presented are the most accurate available based upon current information. Final numbers depend upon the outcome of project component negotiations.

Again: “No general property taxes will be used to finance the project.”

But I do have to lay the blame for the misunderstanding at the feet of the city. The Fort Wayne mayor’s office did a poor job communicating the complicated financing tangle behind Harrison Square when it was announced. The confusion that still exists shows that the city must do better in explaining these complicated deals so the citizens can agree and disagree intelligently