A Placemaking Journal

The Social Network: Community Edition

Likes. Friends. Followers. We’ve got hundreds of ‘em. Plus, LinkedIN for professionals and Google+ for, uhhhh, well, for someone and then all kinds of iPhone texting, FaceTime, email, and Skype-ing. Who has time to make a phone call anymore?

In trying to understanding and leverage the power of our wired social networks, I’ve been thinking about how our new handheld technology will reshape our built environment in the 21st century. The obvious technological advances of the past (trains/trolleys/cars) led us to connect and build the places we now live in. Are we responding correctly to the contemporary human condition with the mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods we design and code for today?

Local University of California San Diego professor, James Fowler, wrote a book, Connected, and gave a poignant TEDxSanDiego talk on the power of new technology to reform tactile social networks. Professor Fowler makes the point that our new technology isn’t influencing us to live in a George Jetsonesque technological fantasy world (or Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, or Frank Gehry fantasies, for that matter). In fact, he cites empirical and scientific data to illustrate how new social networks are ushering us “Back to the Village.” For it is face-to-face interactions that drive behavior and serve as the greatest influences in our lives.

My personal handheld technology allows me to find my nearby shared car, Car-2-Go, to more easily / more cheaply meet someone. I can instantly contact a neighbor or connect with a local business owner. What the train/trolley/car did to expand our use of space and time over large distances, my new handheld technology does to expand my personal space and time within an intimate circle of neighbors and friends.

From Robert Putnam’s great book on our collective loss of social capital in Bowling Alone, to Richard Florida linking creativity and tactile connectivity in The Rise of the Creative Class, our intimate connection with friends and family being lost to suburbia is well-documented. Mr. Fowler’s data also suggests that no longer are public health issues, such as obesity, solely a matter of one’s own free will, but that these are reinforced by our increasingly limited social networks.

We no longer have to stay within the lines.

This week Planetizen released their top planning trends for 2011. The top two trends in our profession are Tactical Urbanism and planners becoming public health officials again. Both topics are directly related as people are making better urbanism with their own hands to create more walkable, bikable, and humane places. UCLA professor and former CDC director, Dr. Richard Jackson, has successfully implicated our suburban built environment in the remarkable degradation of our nation’s public health over the past 50-years.

This new social network data, coupled with the public health evidence, makes it remarkably clear that our reconnected community networks are the new technology shaping future development towards more intimate neighborhoods. Our handheld devices and internet social networks are proving useful tools to facilitate our greater capacity for real social networks. And this, how we’re able to physically connect with others, will define our ability to endure and thrive into the 21st century.

What’s not to “Like”?

This is good for you! Photo: ©2011 Sandy Sorlien, Transect Collection.

–Howard Blackson


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