Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Urban/Suburban Sprawl

I am starting to have more concern about this topic then I had in the past. Maybe slightly ironically, because I live in your typical suburban condo development and have for 7 years. All the stores I regularly shop at are sprawled about within a few miles of my home. But there's nothing within reasonable walking distance from my house.

I live in an inner ring or second tier suburb, if you drive out another 10-15 miles on a major freeway, it's just like this all over. It really makes me wonder about the sustainability of it all. Can we continue to develop every last square inch of land for strip malls and spread out, cookie cutter style housing developments?

It really hit me on a recent trip to visit my Grandma in Naples, Florida. Naples is your typical Florida retirement community - it has achieved absurd growth over the last 20 years. Since the 1980s, the West Coast of Florida has been a viable alternative for some looking to avoid the more populus Miami/West Palm/Ft Lauderdale complex. My grandparents first moved to the area in the early to mid 1990s as snowbirds. Upon first visiting you got the impression that it was certainly on the way up population wise. They moved to a well known development called Pelican Bay and it was pretty clear that there was still room for this development to grow. Not any longer - Pelican Bay seems nearly fully developed, as do most of the coastal development in that area. The development of housing communities in that area now extends 10 to 15 miles east of I-75 with no signs of stopping (maybe slowing a bit due to current economic conditions).

What really struck me was the strip malls, they've continued to multiply in somewhat of a willy nilly fashion in that area, and the saturation of businesses is pretty crazy - you have every type of restaurant imaginable, what seems like a grocery store at every major intersection, stores of all sizes and shapes plugged into themed strip malls. Naples has virtually no high density areas, it has a downtown that's 8 or 9 square blocks, but the rest of it exists in this massive strip mall sprawl along US 41 and other east/west and north/south coridores, and the massive-mega acreage developmens with fancy names. There is a good mix of density in many of these developments, but most of them still require you to get in your car to dine, shop or run errands.

I'd imagine that, eventually, it will hit a critical mass, where new development will slow down, but there's no sign of that occuring as of yet, and there's more and more baby boomers retiring every day.

I'd like to see a more thoughtful approach to community design in this country, and we have to do more than building poorly desgined "city center" type developments that end up being a bust. But I wonder where that's going to come from or when it will ever happen. I have hope that higher fuel prices will spurn people to think about this more, and I think it might be one of the only things that does so. Otherwise, cheap land and developer greed seem to be winning this battle - in the short term it's beneficial, but the long run damage that we are doing seems to be too great to ignore anymore.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The evolution of social networking in my life

I've been on Twitter and Facebook for a year or two now, and been a user of various social networking sites since I can remember, long before sites like myspace and friendster were popular. I enjoy them quite a bit, though they've, until recently, tended to be used by the more technology literate in my life. Which is a large number of my friends, unsuprisingly.

The bar on sites like Facebook seems to have come down recently - the generation gap has subsided - with various aunts, uncles, and parents on the site (can't tell how much any of them actually use it on a regular basis, doesn't seem like a lot). With the requisite filters set up to deal with mom and dad not being able to see every detail of my social life, I can deal with the fall of the generational barrier. Now if I could just get them to use the service in some meaningful way. Even an occasional status update or picture posted would be better that the mostly barren profiles I currently see. The youngest in my family are the heaviest users of facebook, I seem to fall somewhere in between, but even my sister and my cousins who are early gen-x'ers (as opposed to the borderline late gen x/early gen y'er) that I am seems to be using facebook quite a bit.

It occured to me at family Easter activities with my in-laws yesterday that the technology barrier is becoming an increasing problem for those without - I've seen lots of pictures of my 6 month old nephew via facebook, but my sister-in-law is less inclined to email or share those pictures in ways that the older members of my family can see. It's motivating people to want to get on facebook - my mother-in-law, who is seemingly always alternating between fear and disinterest of technology is even wanting to get in on the action. No Facebook account for her yet. Father-in-law does have an account (assuming for purpose of viewing said photos) which does not have so much as a profile picture (another sign of an extremely casual facebook user).

Meanwhile, my phone and unlimited text messaging plan has become a huge and constant distraction, and it is starting to impact my actual 1:1 communications with people. My phone rings, buzzes, beeps so much that I ignore legitimate calls and text messages till often long after they are relevant. I find myself leaving my phone in places where I will not hear it ring or buzz.

I became very keenly aware of how big of a distraction it was becoming when the new service Four Square recently opened its doors. The service is an evolution of Dodgeball, a now defunct service that a number of my friends used for several years. They've integrated it with Twitter versus making it it's own thing, which on the surface is a great thing for those of us that use Twitter. It has a better website then dodgeball ever did on day 1 and the mobile web experience is great. I really like the service. But I've already deleted my account. Why? Because of the level of distraction and the inability to control it. You can choose to publicly post your check ins on your twitter stream, which I was not interested in doing, but many of my friends do. So I can already see those there. But there's another option to send a direct message. I see this as sort of an either-or, but some of my friends chose to do both. It became a constant stream of text messages and twitter spam on a Friday/Saturday night. The last straw for me was when I awoke one Sunday morning to over 100 new text messages, many relaying the check in statuses of my friends out and and about the night before (and many in duplicate). I could turn off Dodgeball and completely ignore it when spending a night in - but not as much with this service. I think I've just hit a time and a place in my life where the appeal of going out to the bar often gets trumped by having a more low-key evening with a group of friends at somebody's house or just hanging out with my wife watching movies and such.

I've taken it a step further though, and something that happened at work prompted me to take it there. I was on a number of distributions that were crucial to my job a year ago, but now are unnecessary. I got off of these recently, and realized that they were generating a good 25% of my email. I also realized that I'm now able to focus more on the communications that actually need my attention. It occured to me that my personal cell phone was becoming much the same way - all the twitters and facebook updates were causing me to become distracted from matters at hand or communications with people (ask my wife, I've missed several crucial phone calls because of this). So, I've turned it all off, and I'm going to try and keep it that way for a while. I'll still look at Twitter and Facebook, but I'll pull the info when I want to see it, versus having any of it pushed to me. I think it will work out well and allow me to focus more with less distraction.