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Futuristic Technologies, Backwards Cities

The British Psychological Society published an interesting article the other day on what your choice of social networking says about your personality. Here's the good stuff:

People who used Facebook mostly for socialising tended to score more highly on sociability and neuroticism (consistent with past research suggesting that shy people use the site to forge social ties and combat loneliness). Social use of Twitter correlated with higher sociability and openness (but not neuroticism) and with lower scores on conscientiousness. This suggests that social Twitter users don't use it so much to combat loneliness, but more as a form of social procrastination.

What about using the sites as an informational tool? There was an intriguing divergence here. People who said they used Facebook as an informational tool tended to score higher on neuroticism, sociability, extraversion and openness, but lower on conscientiousness and "need for cognition". Informational users of Twitter were the mirror opposite: they scored higher on conscientiousness and "need for cognition", but lower on neuroticism, extraversion and sociability. The researchers interpreted these patterns as suggesting that Facebook users seek and share information as a way of avoiding more cognitively demanding sources such as journal articles and newspaper reports. Twitter users, by contrast, use the site for its cognitive stimulation - as a way of uncovering useful information and material without socialising (this was particularly true for older participants).

In other words, people use different sites for different reasons. Yet, the most interesting thing (I feel) is that Facebook has 500 million subscribers while Twitter has 200 million. Does that mean that people are more extroverted in general, or just that people are more extroverted online? Does it mean that two out of every seven people are nervous about direct social interaction and just want to be mentally stimulated? Or does it mean that five out of every seven are highly neurotic and need be to around others?read_more

At the very least, this has to convince us that there is an overwhelming preference for applications that allow us to be social online. Strange that we don't necessarily interact in a similarly social way in real life though. I don't know about you but I can't tell you how long it's been since I've seen some of my closest friends.

Or maybe it's not as strange as we think. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have been deliberately designed to facilitate social interaction from their inception. Our actual American cities, on the other hand, somehow look like they belong in developing nations. Alex Marshall, in Govering Magazine, finally asks "what gives?" and comes up with a pretty smart answer:

Take a look around your community and I bet you'll see pothole-filled roads, rusting bridges and decaying train stations. It is rare, rather than the rule, to see unblemished asphalt, gleaming railings and bright platforms. Yet we are, by all estimates, one of the richest societies in the world. What gives? […]

[I think] we have become accustomed to a lower-quality public environment, one that would not be tolerated in France, Germany or Japan. It was already ironic that Cambridge, a rich, liberal city that lavishes praises on the public sector, put up with it. Regardless, the chronic maintenance cutbacks in this country result in shoddy-looking and poor-performing infrastructure systems, more accidents and a negative impact on economic capacity.

He states that the mere existence of "maintenance budgets" makes our politicians salivate like starving street urchins. In essence, this money isn't divvied out right away and is deliberately set aside for unspecified emergencies. But that what makes it a target for convenient shortfalls in your city's budget, which somehow always seem more pressing than fixing those potholes or pruning low-hanging branches that loom ominously over your parked car.

State officials, similarly, borrow cash to build big bond projects (I'm looking at you, High-Speed Rail) and then decide that they'd rather use the maintenance budget to pay the bonds back. Then, since these cool new roads/bridges/public spaces/etc. are never maintained, they need to be replaced by pulling out another round of hefty bonds in a few years. Thus, the cycle of stupid spending is perpetuated.

Marshall thinks we need to start setting maintenance budgets in stone and forcing our politicians to approve them in blood. I entirely agree, and would even add that (now that the CRA's been canned) we re-focus all of our "large project" efforts almost entirely on improving street scenes for economic and community growth. In fact, most business owners would love to move into thriving, well-connected and well-maintained areas. And yet, none of our politicians seems to believe that (or they'd rather pander to chummy developers who just want large projects than provide these areas).

Actually, Tara Strum penned an interesting article for Buildopedia about this exact thing: how, exactly, we spend the government green to make places better (instead of just making places). My L.A. peeps might find her example familiar:

It's no secret that people love walkable, pedestrian-friendly retail environments. Even newer master-planned developments mimic "Main Street." Razing a couple of blocks and building new, however, isn't always an option – or an advantage. In the case of Los Angeles' La Brea district, incremental urbanism provided the route to utilizing a set of old industrial buildings to create space that was not only more economically feasible but also more architecturally interesting. "Once you clean them up – you sandblast the brick, the wood trusses – you're really dealing with a kind of architecture you can't recreate in today's contemporary building practices," [Architect Alan] Pullman [of Studio One Eleven] says. "These are fantastic spaces and they're really desirable for independent retailers, creative office users, and people that want to do really interesting, distinctive restaurants." The rehabilitation of these industrial facilities, formerly without windows and contributing nothing to the street life, created a more welcoming, walkable environment.

The buildings, however, were not all improved at once, nor did they start with permanent tenants in every space. Pullman explains, "They seeded the project by rehabbing one of the buildings at one end and a parking structure to provide communal parking for the project.

Do my reading glasses deceive me? Is Pullman actually saying that maintaining our architecture also improves the quality of urban spaces? Well hot damn, if it had been that easy all along, why wasn't all of our money invested in urban maintenance? Heck, if you can improve communities and increase economic investment simply by spending money to keep the streets and buildings pretty, why build any new projects at all?

All rhetoric and sarcasm aside, there's a bigger problem here that I think hasn't been addressed: when people build structures, the city has a million and one rules about how the space will operate on the inside, but doesn't care as much about how it will function on the outside. There are safety rules for just about every detail of your home: how high doorknobs need to be, how low ceiling can be, how tall doors need to be, how deep your foundation needs to be. But what if the building owners just don't feel like cutting that low-hanging tree? Or slap up a barbed-wire gate outside your doorway? Or make their building look like a giant box, like this.

I'm not suggesting that we force building owners to maintain the outside of their structures. I'm asking why building, zoning and planning departments care so much about how a building will function on the inside and yet so little about how a building functions in urban space.

The fact that this mindset prevails above others is a symptom of how dumb our government can be when it comes to dishing out regulations. But it's also a reflection of how stupidly we've learned to operate as city and town dwellers. For example, Google Maps and Sigalert are fantastical technologies for determining how to manipulate our way around cities, but ultimately approach our urban transit problems in a completely backwards way. Why design technology to navigate us through complex urban spaces when we can just design our urban spaces to be less complex? Why do we use apps to find our bus connections to work instead of invest in better-coordinated bus routes?

There's only so far innovation can even take us if the city around us isn't organized smartly, to assist in the ways we live our lives. We can order groceries online and have them delivered to our homes, or we can walk 10 minutes to the store. We can re-route our trips based on how many accidents are on the freeway, or we can build trains that alleviate the heaviest traffic areas. Our city streets can continue to lose money to fabricated commerical spaces or we can finally begin to fabricate better city spaces.

We can let our infrastructure collapse and pay to build it again, or we can maintain it.

Now that the Facebook IPO is out, I doubt Mark Zuckerberg plans to pull out loans for new, exciting projects and reallocate Facebook's maintenance budget to pay back those loans.

That's the kind of bad business only our politicians get away with.

[This article was first published at]