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Product-Services, Urban Innovation and the Death of Car Culture
Alex Steffen, 7 Sep 10

A few items of interest:

We'll be writing more about the recent spate of books and reports on product-service systems and sharing models soon, but for right now, this image from our friends at GOOD is a pretty interesting take on the evolution of some aspects of the post-ownership trend:

"Sharing is Contagious" graphic; cropped to show only the "Product Service System" column (full graphic via GOOD)

Throughout the Global North, but especially in North America, cars are losing their luster as fetish consumer objects for the younger generations. Simply put, though many people still understand the utility of cars as personal transportation machines in spread-out landscapes, people no longer see cars as particularly important definitions of who they are: "car culture" as it was defined in the 1950s is in steep decline. Increasingly, younger urbanites aren't even getting driver's licenses.

(image via Advertising Age)

What's more, young people in particular own fewer cars than previous generations and are driving a lot less. The most cited reason is concern for the environment -- cars are the single greatest cause of climate change, and contribute to a host of other environmental problems -- but observers see a convergence of an increasing preference for compact urban neighborhoods and high adoption of technology:

"[A]lmost everything about digital media and technology makes cars less desirable or useful and public transportation a lot more relevant. Texting while driving is dangerous and increasingly illegal, as is watching mobile TV or working on your laptop. All, at least under favorable wireless circumstances, work fine on the train. The internet and mobile devices also have made telecommuting increasingly common, displacing both cars and public transit."

Meanwhile, the hippest things around are all about transforming urban spaces for livability. Urban gardening is huge in both Europe and the U.S., of course (though arguably less important for restoring local food resilience than protecting a city's food shed through farmland preservation and direct support of local farmers -- but that's a story for another time). Biking is becoming mainstream in some North American cities (with a surge in political activism by bikers as they realize how completely hostile to bicyclists transportation planning culture is, especially in the U.S.). And the creation of temporary public spaces in parking lots, dead malls and back alleys are hot urban planning innovations.

(image via Metropolis Magazine)

Not that it's easy. Metropolis has an interesting short interview with Andres Power, who plans temporary parks for San Francisco:

Andres Power: I’m technically an urban designer in San Francisco’s Planning Department. So I work on large capital improvement projects like sidewalk widening, bulb-outs, street replantings. A capital improvement project can take ten years from the moment that it’s funded to when it’s built, but a temporary park can go from an idea to a grand opening in three months.

The Pavement to Parks plaza program was inspired by the work of Janette Sadik-Khan, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation. Since she was appointed by Bloomberg, she’s really pushed the relationship between New York and its streets. We were blown back by what she was doing, using this temporary process to create public space.

Of course, San Francisco’s mayor doesn’t have the same power that the mayor of New York does.

AP This makes a big difference. Cities like New York have a strong hierarchical structure. We don’t have that in San Francisco. And so when there are differences in opinion between groups or agencies, it can be almost impossible to get things done. The first plaza that went in, at 17th and Castro, had a history going back almost ten years of the community talking about using that space. But making it temporary made it happen. Then, the parklets were inspired by PARK(ing) Day .

Which is indigenous to San Francisco.

AP Right. That was started by Rebar . By the way, New York just put in its first parklet, inspired by us. So it’s coming full circle. And lots of other cities: Portland, Seattle, DC, LA….they’re interested in putting in parklets.

Our plaza program is not exactly like New York’s. Their Department of Transportation designs their plazas in-house, with their engineers and landscape designers. Which has its advantages. Their plazas are incredibly replicable, efficient, and easy. But in having different local designers work on ours, we have something more organic and site-specific. And there’s more room for whimsical projects.

Does the City of San Francisco not have its own designers?

AP DPW does have the in-house talent. But we like working with local professionals and having this partnership between the city, and local designers, and local manufacturers. One reason why the program is so incredibly inexpensive is that the designers are doing it pro bono. And a lot of the materials have been donated, or sold to us at cost.

There’s talk of simplifying the permit process for these temporary plazas. How is that going to happen?

AP The plazas will always likely require some input from the various city agencies, including DPW and the municipal transportation agency. But we’re working with these same agencies on developing a permit system that will allow anyone willing to hold a permit for a space - a business, a nonprofit, a group of people - to apply to put in a parklet.

This last point touches on something I've been hearing a lot about from multiple quarters recently, which is the degree to which urban bureaucracies throughout the developed world are having a hard time gearing up innovation at the speed which circumstances demand it. As we've discussed before, innovation and experimentation are key to the kind of rapid progress we'll need to see in cities if they're going to respond to the scope, scale and speed of the present planetary crisis, but out-dated rule systems and NIMBY politics have in many cities ground truly new thinking almost to a halt. That needs to change.

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Hi Alex,

Thanks for the great post. The Sharing is Contagious infographic is part of my work on I wanted to show how we are growing up sharing files, videos, knowledge etc and now these behaviors are extending into other areas of our lives. I believe we are entering new era of consumerism, defined by access over ownership, trust between strangers and the primacy of experiences over more stuff. There is a big shift underway from the 20th Century defined by hyper-consumption towards the 21st Century an era of Collaborative Consumption. Its the subject of my upcoming book What's Mine Is Yours - would love to send you a copy!
Rachel Botsman

Posted by: Rachel Botsman on 7 Sep 10 - best site out there on shareable design

Posted by: FrankG on 7 Sep 10

Alex, great to hear that you're going to be covering this beat more! I look forward to sharing even more your work with our community. We've been a big supporter since we launched.

And I highly recommend you get a copy of Rachel's book. I just finished the galley copy she sent me. It offers a powerful framework for understanding this shift. And it also sets the analysis on the firm ground of a critique of consumerism that is well researched and highly engaging. The book is a sort of a one stop shop for both what has been and why it's not working anymore and what is coming, without compromising on either.

Posted by: Neal Gorenflo on 7 Sep 10

Great post - looking beyond developed world with its economic funks etcetc the multinationationals have shifted to emerging market customers who havent got 3 cars each yet.
Here it is even harder for cities that already suffer from a public infrastructure deficit to keep up with change - or outrun the well oiled corporation.

As the interview demonstrates - structures/hierarchies matter. Thinking about emerging markets, new middle classes are popping up in endemically unequal countries and have a 'differentiated' view of their own citizenship.

lots to chew on...

Ive written a post about some of this here: buy less get more, sustainable consumption goes social

Posted by: Jimmy on 7 Sep 10

Rachel, I've seen your site - like it a lot. I was wondering whether Alex was featured in your 'Pioneers & Protagonists' section or in your book?

I'm in the US, so that's my frame of reference, but here at least, Alex was one of the first talking about product-service systems and coined the 'post-ownership' meme (which is miles more powerful than the word 'sharing')...

Posted by: JS on 8 Sep 10

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