Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Joel Garreau on the future of cities

Today I attended a lecture at ASU by Washington Post writer Joel Garreau, author of Edge Cities and Radical Evolution, about the future of cities. What follows is a rough sketch of his talk based on my notes.

He began by saying that he's interested in culture and values, and isn't a "gear-head" about the emerging technologies that he's written about ("GRIN" technologies--genetics, robotics, information systems, and nanotechnology).

He currently studies cities--how they are shaped by technology, and how cities shape us.

He started with a slide of an old Spanish map of the New World, which was mostly accurate, except for an oversized Florida and drawing California as an island. Why was California shown as an island? Because explorers in the Seattle area saw a body of water that went very far to the south, and explorers in the Baja California area saw a body of water that went very far to the north, and they just connected the dots. That error took 100 years to correct. Spanish explorers would land in Monterey Bay and carry boats inland, expecting to hit water, and they always commented that the Indians in the area seemed to be friendly. Garreau suggested that they were actually laughing at them for pointlessly carrying boats inland. When the explorers would fail to hit another body of water, they would report back that the map was wrong, only to be told that they must not have been where they thought they were. It finally took a decree from the King of Spain to change the map.

His next slide was of the Los Angeles area, pointing out what he called "edge cities," which he called "the biggest change in 150 years of how we build cities." "Edge cities" are major and new urban centers around old big cities. They have a large amount of office and retail space, lots of jobs, and didn't exist 30-40 years ago. They are popping up everywhere there is major growth. The area around John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, is an edge city--it has 5 million square feet of office space (more than Memphis), 600,000 square feet of retail space. It's not a suburb, or sub-anything. It's not a bedroom community. It has the features of office parks and all traditional city functions. The edge cities in New Jersey in the greater New York area have more jobs than Manhattan.

Phoenix was one of the earliest places to recognize that it was going to have more than one city center--we have major centers downtown, uptown/Central Avenure, Camelback/Biltmore, South Mountain, and Tempe (among others), and these were recognized as centers that would exist by city planners a couple of decades ago.

Paris has La Defense as an edge city, as well as Marne-la-Vallee, where EuroDisney is. When superior locations for growth are first found, the rich people move in first, and tend to go uphill, upwind, and upriver, byt Marne-la-Vallee was a poor area that was planned to be an edge city by selecting it as the location for EuroDisney, and it succeeded.

Boston edge cities include the Burlington Mall area, MIT area, downtown, Quincy/Braintree, and Framingham area.

One major factor that has changed cities are the available modes of transportation. Chicago was formed as a rail town, based around inter- and intra-urban rail. Detroit was formed as an automobile town.

The last industrial age downtown built in North America was Calgary, Alberta, Canada in 1914. In 1915, the one millionth Model T Ford came off the assembly line, and ended the old downtowns. The old industrial downtowns were from the 1840s to 1914, and existed because of the necessity of collecting raw materials in one place and having thousands of people there to work on those materials.

Prior to those downtowns, cities were places like Jefferson's Charlottesville, Washington's Alexandria, and Lincoln's Philadelphia. Most people earned a living from the land, and lived outside of cities.

The automobile suddenly made places outside the old industrial cities far more valuable, like Long Island.

Until 1955, the southwestern-most Major League Baseball team was in St. Louis, because movement by train placed constraints on scheduling. The Cardinals were thus the team rooted for by everyone further south and west. Once airplanes came into the picture, baseball could spread, and other cities could become major cities--Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle, Houston.

Garreau asked, if Chicago were leveled, what would you rebuild first--O'Hare, or downtown. O'Hare is more critical today.

But the changes caused by automobiles and airplanes is nothing compared to the networked computer, which is making changes more significant and more rapidly than the automobile.

He showed a photograph of a Kresge's in the Capitol Hill area of D.C., explaining that it was a discount 5 & dime store, the K in K-Mart. He said Kresge's is dead, and K-Mart is dying, but do you think the building is still there, and if so, what is it? The first guess--Starbuck's--was almost correct. It is a coffee shop. He argued that Kresge's and K-Mart has been killed by Wal-Mart, which is really an IT company that happens to sell sneakers. He claimed that when you buy a pair of sneakers at Wal-Mart, a process kicks off at check out that starts to make a replacement pair in Malaysia within 24 hours.

So why are coffee shops popular, and why do people pay $4 for coffee? Is it the free wireless? He argued that it is a social thing, only marginally about the coffee and the wifi. The main factor around the physical environment is that the rare stuff we can't digitize, like face-to-face contact, has much higher relative value than it did before.

Bill Mitchell of the MIT Media Lab, and former head of the architecture department, has catalogued 87 forms of real estate in cities, all being transformed by information technology. One form is super markets. Garreau asked, if you could get hamburger and toilet paper delivered to your home for free, why would you get in your car to go get groceries? To buy produce or meat, was the answer suggested by the audience. He then showed a photo of a Freshfields, a modern farmer's market, and showed a photo of booths with tables inside it--it's also a place to sit and socialize.

Another type of building is a prison. He suggested that we don't need as many prisons if we use GPS anklets or bracelets for nonviolent offenses.

He then argued that Moore's Law will continue to hold for the forseeable future, and we've already seen 32 doublings in processors since 1959. The only thing comparable is railroad capacity doubling, which saw 14.5 doublings before leveling out due to requirements of coal, steel, and land, and being superseded by the automobile. The IT limits are the laws of physics, the marketplace, human ingenuity, and our culture and values, and he argued that only our culture and values set real limits for the forseeable future. (In a class yesterday, one of my professors said that a physics professor speaking at ASU last year said that we've reached the physical limits for silicon chips, and won't see any more doublings, but a subsequent new development has already refuted him with a four-times improvement due to nanotechnology--presumably this.)

Sequencing the human genome was thought nuts, impossible, and/or would cost a fortune, but was done in 2000 at a fraction of the expected cost, far sooner than anyone expected, thanks to Moore's Law.

Garreau suggested that ten years from now, anything you can put in a lab for $1 million will be something you can put in your home for $1,000; anything you can get now for $1,000 will be "pocket lint." He used USB memory fobs as an example of today's "pocket lint."

He showed a photo of students at CMU in a computer lab, and asked, "Is there a future for physical university campuses?" He gave a yes, on the grounds that this is where you "meet your first spouse and friends for a lifetime"--the social aspects. Distance learning has been around for a very long time (Benjamin Franklin did learning-by-mail), but it's always a second choice.

Shopping malls, he said, are turning into entertainment spaces. He cited his friend Jaron Lanier (a virtual reality pioneer), who suggests that the first thing to disappear will be escalators, replaced by rides--so when you go up by ferris wheel and come down by water slide, think of Lanier. He observed that if you go to a mall at 10 a.m., you'll see the senior mall walkers, and if you go in the afternoon, you'll see "drug dealing rugrats." (He didn't note, but I thought of how Arizona Mills Mall in Tempe has turned one space into an indoor miniature golf course.)

Office space--is there any future to it? Again, he argued for the social aspect, and maintained that the accidental casual face-to-face contact is impossible to digitize, yet he finds the random conversation at the printer jam (the modern equivalent of the water cooler) to be his most productive time of day. To this, Prof. Brad Allenby objected that there is casual contact in World of Warcraft and Second Life, and we shouldn't assume that such things can't be digitizable.

Another audience member suggested that because human beings need touch, we need real physical contact. (But that assumes the impossibility of tactile telepresence.) Yet another pointed out that movie theater attendance is up, even though you can watch online or at home cheaper.

Garreau said, supposed you decide face-to-face matters, but only need it two days a week--how would that affect where you live? If you only needed it 3 days a month, then where might you live?

He said some cities will live, if they are good for face-to-face contact. Others will die, if they aren't. We're headed to a profound shift of what is urban/urbane, and cities like Santa Fe are the future. It has 63,000 people, opera, restaurants, second-hand boot stores.

The top fastest-growing metro areas are smaller cities that are like villages with face-to-face spaces and are somewhat dispersed. The top ones are Wenatchee, WA, Provo-Orem, UT, Grand Junction, CO, Gulfport-Biloxi, MS, and Myrtle Beach, SC. The top states for real estate price appreciation are Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Other example cities in this model include the Adams-Morgan area of D.C., Tempe, AZ, and Marrakesh.

He then briefly turned to other technologies. He said that Craig Venter says that by the end of this year he will have an organism that "eats CO2 and poops gasoline." (And his company has just received $600 million in funding from ExxonMobil.) Nanotech may build membranes that purify water. These things will impact where cities become feasible. "Is Darfur the next garden spot?"

He then referred to a book by Leo Marx of MIT, titled The Machine in the Garden. He argued that in the industrial age, we suffered a split--we had to come into the cities and leave nature behind. Now we're trying to put what we like about cities into a garden.

In the final Q&A, he said he has a hidden assumption that we will continue moving forward and not go back to pre-industrial society; he said "no petroleum engineers think we're running out of oil, only cheap oil."

He said that we're seeing a new explosion of religious fervor, and included environmentalism in that, saying that it has its own saints and heretics. He thinks human beings are "hardwired to have faith--even Russia made Marxism into faith," but said that he's "a hardcore rationalist" even though "rationalism doesn't seem to be emotionally satisfying." He said, following Popper, that "science can't tell you what is true, only what is false, but it can changes minds without killing people." (I disagree with his statement that science can't tell you what is true--theories that keep passing tests do at least approximate truth.)

An audience member commented that virtual environments can convey mental and physical aspects, but not emotional and spiritual. Garreau agreed, but I think both (and a few other questioners) were making an unwarranted assumption that virtual environments will not be able to reach a point of being indistinguishable (or very nearly so) from real environments, and thus allowing effective conveyance of body language, subtle gestures, and so forth, perfectly adequate for transmitting emotional information. (As for spiritual properties, I think they're in need of demonstration before we worry about them--and given claims that have been made about them, it's surprising that the questioner thought physical proximity was a limitation.) In a conversation with Prof. Allenby afterward, he also pointed out that we may be better able to make judgments of trust in a virtual environment because we are more alert to the possibility of a partial presentation of a personality and to intentional distortions. There are also some types of cues that are more accurately picked up audibly, while visual information can overwhelm those cues.

Prof. Allenby also noted that major technological changes may turn what we now think of as fundamental truths into contingencies, and that may include some aspects of what we call human nature.

Garreau ended by observing that past predictions of what the future will be like have usually been wrong, becasue things are more complex and more expensive then we think--and then we get blindsided by innovations like the iPhone.


Mark said...

That was an interesting read - thanks as always for posting.

Gautam said...

absolutely great article to read.

EM said...

Excellent. Thanks for that. if you've never read his Nine Nations of North America, it's one of my favorite books ever. Eric