The Grass Is Always Greener On The Other Side of the Highway

Cornhole in Shaker

Being a product of the sprawling wasteland that is suburban Cleveland, Ohio, (most recently voted the most miserable place to live in the US by Forbes magazine) I can attest that I am no fan of suburbs. This is because I spent roughly two thirds of my life in a place that required me to drive 15 minutes if I wanted a banana. I don’t like this. There’s however literally millions of other people who don’t mind at all.

Yes, cities are growing, so to will the social ills the compound when you squeeze people tighter and tighter together. This concrete and steel beast is seemingly calling the lot of us to its bosom in droves, either out of desperation or out of some dream of boundless opportunity that most humans like to unwittingly share. However, there are also still countless others fleeing the city like a bad case of the cooties. Fed up with either the hustle and bustle, shitty schools, failing infrastructure or any other number of social catastrophes you get when you chuck a couple of million people together, they can’t wait to get out.

Fed up with either the hustle and bustle, shitty schools, failing infrastructure or any other number of social catastrophes you get when you chuck a couple of million people together, they can’t wait to get out.

What we got right now is the oft bandied quote of over 50% of the earth’s population living or going to be living in metropolitan areas (notice the deliberate disuse of the word “city”), but a lot of those billions aren’t necessariy happy about it. I live in London. For those of you that also live in London you know that the fact that this city hasn’t eaten itself alive, been subjected to weekly riots and civil strife or been abondoned by humanity altogether yet is quite a miracle.

The fact is that there are plenty of people who would leave the city if they could, and they do when they can. The sad fact is that we (meaning myself and the two people who read this by accident) usually move to the city from the faceless suburb or some shithole little town they call home and then see it as this amazing place that surely everyone loves. Basically the grass is always greener on the other side of the highway.

So as cities will only get bigger theoretically, so too will the suburbs. Whether gated communities in Sao Paulo or Istanbul (I’ve been to them there on the Black Sea end, they’re actually quite pleasant), people are making hard compromises, trying to be close to things and trying to get a tree or two into their life. Fact is, I don’t blame them. I’ve been living in the East End of London and surrounded by rubbish, crime which I suppose could be worse and general infrastructural incompetence for the past four years, and lately I’ve been getting the itch for greener, wider places.

That said, I’ve often thought of what is someone like myself, into the concept of urban computing and all that to do, when most of the people I’ve known don’t live in what is really the “city”, but in fact somewhere next to a city. Finally there are some good idea about starting to think about rural computing, a great nod to the other half.

“…in a lot of the conversations about the urban world, we’ve forgotten the next largest context for the city; the suburbs, the rural world and the small towns and villages that populate it.”

“So much city thinking seems mad keen for a return to city states; autonomous islands, connected to each other through finance and fibre but not to land that surrounds them. It’s a little bit collapsist; let’s wrap the city around us while we still can. But maybe we could think about network technologies as a way to reintegrate rural and urban rather than accelerate the dominance of one over the other. Perhaps all this brilliant city thinking could lift its eyes a little and look beyond the city walls – I’d love to see what we’d come up with then. If we can stop the countryside becoming a Cursed Earth, we might not need a Mega-City.”
(Davies 2009)

Part of the problem seems to be with the very notion of what “urban computing” seems to be, which is the vague and poorly defined notion of there being a ubiquitous and usable data structure and presence to the city. In essence, a data or computing architecture that would hypothetically function like architecture and civic engineering would, shaping the experience of the city. Like a sidewalk has you walk this way way or that, so too would this data layer, allowing you to experience things in brand new, exciting ways.
This translates way too many times to technology for cool, rich, white people in the centres of New York City, London and San Francisco “rediscovering the city” or “reshaping the experience of the city” all through the miracle of iPhones, “smart” buildings, and regrettably, more screens everywhere.

The suburban experience has very little walking which otherwise would allow you to hold up your phone to a building and find out all about it or get a coupon for that frappacino. The suburban computing experience is about gates and fences, private backyards, strip malls and driving. Lots of driving. Its spending long periods of time at home and then in a car. Its generally about another pretty uncool group of people, kids. Going out to meet a friend for coffee is not so easy usually. You also drive drunk typically. This is the reality for quite a bit of people.

The interesting thing about suburbs, whether ‘inner-ring’ or cul-de-sac or gated is that by default they are  much more homogenised. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you think about it. For one, you have a large group of people of a relatively concurrent income level and technical expertise. Getting them onto a system that would be tailored to them and their experience would make more sense than trying to shove a whole boatload of technology on bankers in the city who are there for eight hours a day who don’t have the time and people in lower income groups with less access and knowledge of technology. So maybe suburban computing is about connecting living rooms of people who live next to each other that don’t even know each others names. Or maybe its community oriented. Maybe it connects streets miles away from each other and not just by profile or musical interest. Maybe it goes around the backyard fences and gated houses and gets people to go outside and actually enjoy all that room and fresh air.