For digital users
2010 was the year to get connected; 2011 will be the year to become networked.
It is one thing to buy an iPhone, join Facebook and Twitter, get a blog, friend and follow. It is another to keep it all going.
Already, people are being encouraged to unplug. But why unplug when it is possible to network? How? The solution is to link Twitter and Facebook to a blog; to connect the blog to LinkedIn, taking advantage of the interconnections so that things are only done once.
In other words, connectivity is only the beginning – networking is the goal. And not just for tech geeks but for all users of urban places…
The 20th century was a time of unprecedented travel by land, sea, air and in space. Connectivity was king, fuelled by cheap oil and political ambition. Highways, beltways, motorways and ring roads were the badges of honour of any developing urban centre. Find a UK or US city that isn’t surrounded or divided by road infrastructure, connecting across great distances.
The ambition to reach new and distant places with ever more iconic infrastructure has created a global transport industry, which is today faced with the task of keeping itself fed. Fortunately for the industry, the pace of global urbanisation is providing plenty of new opportunities to build plenty of new roads. Less developed cities in less developed countries are being transport planned with the very same arterial connections that lace the urban centres of more developed cities in more developed countries.
But is this a good thing? It is worth looking at the consequences of that development, not least the damage that road building has had on the local communities that have been severed by the construction of highways infrastructure.
Of course it is necessary to justify the construction of road systems on the basis of the economic benefits that come from the flow of trade between places. However, prioritising global connectivity over local urban quality has come at a huge cost: sprawl, congestion, social isolation, environmental degradation, inequality, sickness and, it turns out, economic underperformance.
Recent work as part of the UrbanBuzz project run by Space Syntax Limited for University College London has shown that the economic performance of urban centres is not simply a product of their global connectedness or volume of sales space. It is instead influenced by the balance between global and local connectivity – in other words by the network of spatial connections at all scales. Balanced accessibility, it seems, is key: streets networked together as grids; networked between different modes of movement: vehicle, cycle, pedestrian; allowing transactions to occur between people moving at different scales: between the local and the global.
The risk for the 21st century is that the knowledge gained through studies like this will not be learned quickly enough to prevent further damage to urban centres. The trophy megaproject is still winning out against the worthy local network, not least because trophies are more visible, more tangible, more singularly digestible in the minds of political agencies.
The pace of urban development must therefore be matched first, by an effort to disseminate existing knowledge on urban sustainability and second, by a continuing research programme to pursue the other factors that influence how places work at a social, economic and environmental level, not least the relationships between the physical environment and the increasing digital world of human transaction.
These worlds are not separate but part of a continuum of information movement, copresence and interaction, which is at once digital and urban. The grid of the future will be connected at every level of scale, mode and medium. A grid of digital urbanists.