By the year 2097, we will have moved to the countryside, leaving cities behind us. Those were the Orwellian predictions that Jonathan Dimbleby made during the last week’s country Life Centenary debate. He fears that millions of ‘refugees’ fro the cities will invade the countryside and concrete it over with car parks, supermarkets and DIY stores. Unpleasant as it sounds, Dimbleby’s nightmare scenario could well come true, in part because the Internet is freeing people from work-related prison suburbia. If the daily need for commuting to work were removed, most of suburbia’s exiles would no doubt choose to move either to villages or, indeed, back to the cities.
Suburbia has managed to deliver the worst of all worlds- too much traffic, not enough greenery, too far to work, not far enough from neighbours. Planners have failed to create communities that have more in common than their distance from Kings Cross or Victoria station. Not surprisingly, then, that given half a chance –and a decent Internet connection-many of us would not hesitate to flee from the soul-destroying streets of identical semi-detached houses.
However, Dimbleby has failed to foresee the potential to reverse migration, form the suburbs to the cities. Over the past four years many of my contemporaries have moved from places such as Clapham or Richmond to Central London, in search of a community of like-minded people and a flat within a walking distance to Dillons or Cafe Boheme.
A lot of these people work for companies that are based in the Thames Valley, Reading triangle- the English version of Silicon Valley. Since daily face-to-face contact with their co-workers is not a requirement of their jobs, why not to move to Soho, where is significantly more fun than it is in suburbia? The Internet has given people the opportunity to make that choice, and many are taking it.
But this bipolarisation of migration patterns and this solution of suburbia to exurbia will need to be carefully managed to avoid the environmental damage predicted by Jonathan Dimbleby. Our planners must consider our technology-enabled human desires and put in place an infrastructure that will enable both villages and cities to thrive and prosper.
We need to support retailers’ efforts to develop home delivery systems, to help us avoid the nightmares of supermarket car parks in the middle of the green belt. We must take advantage of electronic commerce’s potential to reduce the need for centralised retailing that always impacts badly on the environment, and move to a one-to-one retail relationship that will deliver shopping to your doorstep.
So far, planners seem to be focusing on the basic utilities but telecommunications must become the key element in any urban planning and development. Thus far, the building if the network infrastructure in the UK has been left to a combination of American cable investors and global corporations that happen to have had headquarter in this country. London is the node on the telematics network of large corporations, so in many ways we are well positioned to leverage that. Aberdeen, with its US oil companies, has done well by combining private and government investment to create a Metropolitan Area Network that will serve them well into the 21st century. But this is all to haphazard, driven by commercial considerations without a though for the implications for society as a whole.
There is a risk of ‘social damping’ when cable installers go down streets only where residents have higher than average incomes- living out members of society who are not considered attractive by electronic commerce retailers, and therefore do not merit having cable. The fact that cable could also connect children to their school networks and parents to teachers has not really been a factor on nobody’s specification list so far.
We need planners who can mange the process of wiring the network up the nation in a systematic way, and ensure equal coverage of the countryside and cities, including the less economically attractive areas. UK utilities are claiming a 100 per cent increase in their budgets for telematics over the past two years. Yet we still don’t see any results in the form of a high –bandwidth Internet infrastructure across the country. Scottish power and its telco offshoot, Scottish Telecom, with Scotland On Line havebeen one of the most visible builders of UK. Net, but more is needed to prepare us for the migration out of the suburbs. With globalization of telematic network infrastructure, national level and even supra-national planning is needed to provide the best value solution by leveraging global corporations’ networks to provide networks for the UK.
That different level of planning might also need an innovative governmental institution to deal with telcos at the right level, understanding that we need to be linked to New York as much as we need to be linked to Edinburgh or Woking. Only a truly international perspective will deliver the right infrastructure at the right price to both cities and villages. Jonathan Dimbleby is right. We do want to move out of the suburbs, but to do so we need to prepare now, so the move does not result in a mega-suburbia but rather a well-managed network connecting both villages and cities, with telecommunications leading the way.
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