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Social Media and the City

Can the Slate story on Walk Score, part of a series on America's Pedestrian Problem, and more recently the CMU research project Livehoods, redefine the metics used in determining "quality of life" in America?

To students of urbanism the familiar story has been told over and over: post-WWII flight from the cities to the suburbs altered how American's lived - generally from living "outside" your home to a more secluded, private interior sanctuary. The neighborhood evening stroll, theatre, coffee shop and playground were replaced by household rooms dedicated to gym equipment, surround sound home theaters (complete with popcorn machines), elaborate coffee makers, and backyard jungle-gyms.

For the majority of use this is how quality of life is currently defined. How many flat screen TVs do you own (one in almost every room!), how many pieces of specialized lawn care equipment (that's a cool edger!), how big can your backyard playground get (huge!). These metrics are so engrained that the question I'm often asked by my suburban dwelling friends generally follows, "why do you rent in the city when, for the same amount of money, you could buy in the suburbs?"

While the question of renting versus ownership in the current economy has been well addressed by Richard Florida and dismissing for the moment the dismal state of compensation in the architectural profession which generally precludes affordable options in cities, can the question be rephrased in terms of the quality of life I'm willing to invest in? To most urbanists (but, generally speaking, surprisingly less architects) this is obvious. I measure my quality of life by: how many libraries, museums, parks, restaurants, dry cleaners and bus stops can I walk too? Factoring in bus routes the number and variety of destinations grows larger.

Back to the original question - does social media - walk score, livehoods, foursqaure, etc. - combined with mobile phones - have the power change this? Certainly, recent studies showing Millennials disfavoring car ownership and other typically suburban aspects give us hope. And there lies the next series of challenges and opportunities - reinvestment in the quality of our urban infrastructure, neglected for decades as we expanded further and further into suburbia - in which the next generation of urbanists can produce substantial impact.