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WC Retro: Walksheds, Cab-Spotting and Smart Places

foto702.jpg By Alex Steffen, posted on April 13, 2006.

A few weeks ago, Worldchanging ally Alan Durning's 18 year-old son totalled their family car. He was fine, the other driver was fine, but the car was a write-off. The family has therefore decided to conduct an experiment, and see if they can live a car-free lifestyle in a compact neighborhood in a mid-density North American city.

What they're discovering is that they can reasonably walk about a mile to do most things:

"A one-mile perimeter, therefore, defines this car-less family’s pedestrian travel zone—call it our “walkshed.” Fortunately, because we chose to live in a compact community, our walkshed turns out to be well stocked."

Now, we've discussed the benefits of walking (both for the walker and for the neighborhood itself). But one thing Alan has discovered is that there's a paucity of good information tools for walkers, even here in tech-friendly Seattle:

According to one map-making friend, creating walkshed maps... would be a relatively simple Google Maps “Mash Up.” Anyone know of such a tool? Anyone volunteer to do this project? I’d love to have a detailed map stowed in the “glove box” of our Burley of all 248 businesses in my home zone. Ideally, I would want a walking map or PDA application that shows me the whereabouts of public restrooms, water fountains, bike racks, curb cuts, bus stops, and benches.

It frankly shocks me a bit that such data isn't being compiled (by either City Hall or a local civic group) and made readily available, but my own map-making friend tells me that much of this data has either not been adequately compiled or is in formats which make it difficult for the average person to access, not only here in Seattle but most places.

But bright green cities are smart cities: whether we're talking about Seattle or Lagos, better information makes the lives of the citizens easier and the work of the government more likely to succeed. Better information about place is no magic bullet, but it can greatly enhance the ability of citizens to both take part in the civic lives of their cities and improve their lives directly.

Properly done, great placemaking and good information architectures support each other (or, as I wrote earlier "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.")

But all this requires more and better information be made widely and freely available in forms people can actually use, and in ways which promote rather than undermine democratic control over technologies.

There is no practical reason why such information can't be made available. From Google Earth to Placeopedia, the signs are everywhere that we're awash in information about place, and the tide is still rising (pardon the linked pun). Not all information wants to free, but much of it want to be at very least available on a pay-what-you-will basis, and some of it is too cheap to meter.

Consider Stamen Design's Cabspotting project is another great example. Taking data gathered from the GPS trackers in cabs and overlaying it over a street grid, Cabspotting allows artists to explore how traffic moves through the streets of San Francisco. It's part of the Invisible Dynamics initiative sponsored by SF's awesome Exploratorium (which has been one of my favorite museums since I was a little kid).

Cabspotting is an art project, not a planning tool, but that's precisely the point, really: we're soaking in this sort of data and wireless bandwidth (and if Adam Greenfield's right, we ain't seen nothing yet): making good choices will mean that the information we have increasingly empowers us, both as citizens and neighbors.

What does this all mean for us as individuals, and how does this tie back to Alan's original problem, the lack of good walking map for his neighborhood?

Well, it would not take all that big a push from where we're standing to create a network of governmental, NGO and community resources which made it possible for the Durnings to easily:

1) Create a digital walking map of their neighborhood which included most if not all of the information Alan requests above, as well as a whole bunch of other kinds of information, should he want to know it: how heavy traffic is on certain streets; when the next bus is coming; which of stores he wants to shop at are open today and when they close; whether there are enough cabs nearby should he want a ride home with his purchases; even what streets have higher incidences of crime and might perhaps be best avoided.

2) Connect to the underlying meaning beneath the maps and both learn more and share their own insights: is there a land-use change planned for the lot down the street? What are the builders proposing there (and, with visualization software, you could even find out flows around us: how's the local stream doing? What's the pollen count today? How much energy are we using, how much is the neighborhood using? What infrastructure supports our lives? What's coming out of the smokestack of the local factory (and how can we make pollution more measurable and more visible)?

4) Help us act in concert with our neighbors: how can we annotate places to spur community discussion? How can we make social software and local community work better together (and serve ends beyond getting a date or a party invitation)? Walkshed-scaled advocacy networking might be a real possibility.

5) Facilitate shared social goods: car shares, tool shares, product-service systems, stuff-swapping (freecycle-style) and junk tagging even hitchhiking.

6) Fuel local and regional economic activity and direct-to-consumer ventures like CSAs, both by making it easier to find these things in your walkshed and by helping to make it clearly from the where the things you are buying come.

The walkshed is the natural unit on which to concentrate delivery of the kind of information flows which will make places smart. And such information, done properly, could well transcend walking maps and become tools for sustainable living.

[A follow-up essay will be exploring what this sort of information means to people living in emerging megacities.]

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