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Smart Growth, Smart Places and Bright Green Cities
Alex Steffen, 10 Jan 05

One of the major advantages of smart growth is that compact communities and walkable streets help us drive less by bringing the things we want closer to where we live -- what traffic wonks call "access by proximity." This ability to live better in smaller spaces, with less driving, is a major engine for sustainable prosperity.

At the same time, smart places, embedded intelligence and wireless connection are transforming an economy based on large, sloppy, hidden flows into an economy where we know exactly the precise location of anything we care enough about to monitor.

These forces of compactness and precision are commingling and reinforcing each other. We used to search for things by going and looking for them, and we now often drive long distances to get what we want: very soon, we will know where things are because they know where they are, and where they are will usually be close at hand -- the information equivalent of compact communities.

Even more importantly, smart places and smart growth are combining to increase our ability to treat goods as services, that is, to use concrete objects (a meeting hall, a car, a powertool) on a rental or cooperative basis, close-by and conveniently.


Take two examples: car-sharing and neighborhood tool libraries. Both make sense for people living in compact communities. Car-sharing lets you live without a car, but still have access to one when its time to take a road-trip, or to have a sports car, but borrow an SUV when it's time to go furniture shopping. Likewise, tool libraries save you all the expense and bother of owning your own hedge-clipper or twenty-five foot ladder, while still having access to one when you need it.

With embedded intelligence and wireless networks, you could not only reserve that flatbed truck or lawnmower but know that the share-service knows exactly where you vehicle or power tool is right then, and who has it, and that it'll be where you want it when you want it. And more spontaneous uses become much easier ("I'd kind of like to drive to the beach -- oh, there's a Prius parked right around the corner, and no one's reserved it for the rest of the day." Click and grab the sunscreen.)

Futuristic? Um... not so much. carsharing services like Zipcar, Flexcar and the excellent CityCarShare are already half-way there:

" I simply visit Zipcar's Web site and am immediately directed to my personal Zipcar page - my computer retains my logon information. If a computer's not handy, I can phone in the reservation.

"Online, I get a list of five cars in assigned parking spaces within a few blocks of my apartment. I can also sort the list by rates or the cars I rent most frequently. I also see a round-the-clock schedule indicating which cars are available when.

"I walk to the parking spot - an online map tells me how to get there - and pull out my membership card. I place the card over a radio-frequency reader beneath the windshield, and the doors unlock immediately and keylessly. (And Zipcar is boosting the data capacity of its wireless platform so it can offer Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity inside its cars.)"

But this is just the beginning. When objects know where they are, where you are, and when your schedules are likely to coincide, it becomes much easier to share hard goods with others, which is both cheaper and more sustainable than buying that Prius or vacuuming robot yourself.

Other goods we think of a products are also morphing into services when dipped into smart places. Already a bunch of companies offer the hire of a copier or a carpet or whatever instead of its purchase -- you get to use it, and when it wears out or obsolesces, they'll replace it with a new one. Our cost works out to be roughly the same, once all's said and done, but transforming machines into services lets the companies design them for disassembly, recycling and reuse, ultimately making them a tidy additional profit off the increased efficiencies involved.

This trend may hit lift-off in smart neighborhoods. Your washing machine may become your contract for washing-machine-services, your television become your agreement for video-provision. All of this becomes much easier when all the parties involved can tell where the appliance is, how close it is to wearing out, and when the next upgrade will be ready. And with neighbors more able to band together in co-ops, appliance services consumers could order services in bulk, dropping the price and gaining negotiating power, as well as being able to choose the most responsible providers (much the way some city people are supporting organic agriculture by buying in bulk directly from the farm, what's known as "community-supported agriculture").

Finally, as I noted elsewhere, the same conditions which make it possible to live a simultaneously more prosperous and less material life, also make possible a new, and perhaps improved, form of urban sociability: "the physical, the neighborly, the visceral and urban and the virtual, the connected, the digital and networked -- these are symbiants, not competitors. The public square and wifi compliment each other. Public transportation and high density go extremely well with the kind of highly networked, extremely social lives which digital people live today."

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Are you channeling me, Alex?

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 11 Jan 05

I wonder if there's a different level of success for car-sharing services which charge a flat monthly fee vs. those which charge per mile or per hour. Americans seem to have a particular psychology when it comes to pay-per-use services, especially when they are services for which many people are accustomed to paying a flat rate or to paying once and being done with it.

Have there been any examples of former suburban/sprawl neighborhoods transforming to access-by-proximity/smart neighborhoods?

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 11 Jan 05

I am a member of a Montreal car-sharing cooperative (, a name that would not fly in the land of McCarthy, methinks)

The reasonably complex payment scheme includes a yearly fee topped up with a per-hour and per-kilometer metered payment. One pays, in fact, three different fees for use.

The concentration of cars is in urban areas; suburban areas don't have the high densities of need/use required for such schemes, at least not in this part of the world, and it's too cold this time of year to walk more than a kilometer for a paid service!

I find the psychological effect to be a limiting factor on my use. They have not provided a meter or other feedback system, so you have to calculate your cost manually. But one is very aware of waste when the kilometers tick away; it's not unlike a taxi experience in that regard.

The service here has been steadily expanding-but that's not the American model your questions were about. I can't speak for anyone's psychology but my own!

FWIW, I know that England has been flirting with a pay-per-kilometer scheme based on GPS tracking, especially since the congestion charging scheme in London has been so much more successful than was initially feared.

All the best,

Hans Samuelson
in snowy Montreal

Posted by: Hans Samuelson on 11 Jan 05

Communauto one of the largest carsharing systems in North America. I've found Communauto to be pretty affordable. The rates aren't that high, especially if you are driving short distances. Long distance makes renting a car cheaper. But since they are in multiple cities in Quebec, you can be a member in one city, and use the Communauto in other cities. And you can use the existing Canadian public transport (bus/train) system among the big cities. Communauto could improve their web and phone interfaces though to help with trip planning and car locating.

One of Communautos chief advantages is that it has a lot of cars, at least where I've used it, in the Plateau.

The Project for Public spaces thinks the Plateau is one of the top neighbourhoods in NA. It is also apparently the most densely populated district in Canada and has a very low rate of car ownership. These things are probably related, and make car sharing more attractive. The pretty good public transport system in downtown Montreal also helps.

Posted by: Garry Peterson on 11 Jan 05

Flexcar is great in winter. In summer, not so much: park in the sun and if the car gets hot enough (even in Portland, so "hot enough" is not all that hot) you'll be locked out because of a defect in the card reader. The company is aware of the problem but as far as I know has made no effort to correct it.

Posted by: sennoma on 11 Jan 05



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