Ed Driscoll


ORRIN JUDD ON CITIES: “It remains unclear to me why we should expect that cities even have a future. With the demise of manufacturing, does anyone still have a job that they couldn’t just as easily do out of their home with a computer and video-conferencing?”

Orrin was referring to my piece yesterday in Tech Central Station on the Segway and urban planning. And while I appreciate the link, I’m not sure if I entirely agree with him (and believe me, I know it’s dangerous to disagree with anybody who is as well-read as Judd is). As much as my wife and I both love telecommuting, it’s hard for me to imagine cities dispersing anytime in the next century or so. I think there’s always going to be a need for centralized locations of commerce, financial markets, meeting and shopping places, etc., if only for symbolic purposes.

Of course, what cities are used for, could be change radically. In one of my favorite McLuhan quotes (from Tom Wolfe’s magazine profile of him, reprinted in “The Pump House Gang”), McLuhan said, “Of course, a city like New York is obsolete. People will no longer concentrate in great urban centers for the purpose of work. New York will become a Disneyland, a pleasure dome…”

But that was almost 40 years ago, and yet while in many cases, New York is a pleasure zone (if not yet domed), its primary business (sorry Cal) is still business. And will probably remain so for at least the foreseeable future.

It’s also possible that suburbs could become more urban as well, but I tend to doubt it. In the late 1990s, Reason magazine and Virginia Postrel’s The Scene Web log frequently covered a trend among urban planners called “The New Urbanism“, an attempt to increase the density of suburbs to more city-like conditions. Why this would make sense, any more than Curbusier’s Radiant City concepts that banished sidewalks and put buildings in otherwise unpopulated greenbelts, is arguable (at best), but it does show that there are lots of forces working hard to keep the concept of cities alive, even as telecommuting becomes more and more viable and popular.

There’s no doubt that telecommuting is a powerful trend, one that’s been growing even before Alvin Toffler referred to it in “The Third Wave” 22 years ago, but my own feeling is that cities are going to be with us for a very long time to come.

Of course, as Kubrick and Spielberg’s “A.I” showed with their image of Manhattan, circa 3000, who or what is going to live there is still up for grabs.