Next City-Shaping Technologies?

What existing or new technologies will play a leading role in shaping our towns and cities? In the US, most of us are keenly aware of the role the technology of the car in shaping our communities. Cars change the ways that we think about space, about distances, and about moving around in our communities. For every tool, for every technology, you can think of how there is a certain culture of its use that goes along with it. So the car isn’t just a tool that is shaped by our culture, but it shapes our culture in turn. If you start to think of all the ways that cars, or automotive culture generally, have shaped the development of our towns and cities, it can get pretty complicated, especially if you start drawing connections to other aspects of our lives.

For example, what happens when car culture intersects with cheap fuel prices? And then what happens when those prices explode? Last summer, public radio’s Marketplace ran an interview with Chris Steiner on his recent book, $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better. The chapters in Steiner’s book run through different price points of a gallon of gas, $6/gallon, $8/gallon, etc., up to $20/gallon, exploring the broader consequences for our society at each point:

RYSSDAL: I want to skip right to chapter $12 a gallon.

STEINER: That’s where we kinda forecast that people will finally come to the grips with the fact that the freestanding house with a quarter acre of land, or half an acre of land, 50 miles outside the city, isn’t a sustainable way to live. And they’re going to get into places that are more walkable and denser.

Of course, other layers of complication come in when you factor in our credit policies as they interrelate with housing prices. In the run up of our latest housing bubble, many people got familiar with the motto of “drive until you qualify” as they extended their commutes until they could reach a housing price they could afford.

Now add on the changing age demographics, and you get another layer of complexity. A recent Washington Post article chronicled some of the challenges facing seniors  with senior citizens living in car-centric communities.

The generation that gave birth to suburbia and the two-car garage is reaching the age at which driving, for many, no longer seems like such a swell option. As Americans grow older — one in five will be 65 or older by 2030 — many are finding that the world that lured them away from city life is losing some of its appeal. […]

Suburbia is where the population is aging fastest. At the dawn of the 21st century, 69 percent of people 65 or older lived in the suburbs. More than 285,000 people in that age group live in the three largest counties surrounding Washington: Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s.

These are only some of the things we might think about with the impact of cars and automobile culture on our communities. But what other technologies might play a similar role in shaping our towns and cities? What new technologies might be coming, or what existing technologies might grown in importance for the shape of development to come? These are all some of many questions we’ll pursue in the project on Shaping our Towns & Cities. If you’re interested in finding out more about participating, just drop me a line.

–Jeff Prudhomme

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