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The Social Interaction Potential

In the mid-1990's, a "futurist" predicted that with the advent of the internet, people would be able to work anywhere without being constrained by the distances between their homes and their offices. Technology would make it possible for workers to move to, say Montana, while continuing to serve their clients in New York. Cheap gas and the automobile culture had already started to empty cities. This bit of prognostication was simply taking the trend and pushing it out even further.

Except that prediction has turned out to be wrong.

Urbanist, Richard Florida, has a good explanation of why this prediction is misguided. In his book, the Rise of the Creative Class, Florida concludes that productivity relies not so much on the reach of the internet as much as the proximity of workers in relation to each other. According to the laws of urban energy, the very creativity upon which our economy depends needs places where different people with different ideas and areas of expertise can meet – even if by sheer serendipity.

Population trends are confirming this as urban centers in many locations, such as Lancaster City, are healthy and vibrant, even growing faster than the suburbs that surround them. Young educated adults, as well as retirees, are moving into cities to take advantage of this productivity/creativity symbiosis. And as they congregate, they are starting to reshape cities to meet other needs as well.

Steve Farber, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Utah, has studied where this trend is going and has come up with a "social interaction potential" (SIP) formula for spaces such as cities. In a recent Atlantic Cities article, Emily Badger gives the SIP concept some attention. The formula involves 35 city characteristics, sorted into 5 factors. More information can be found on the University of Utah website, including a narrowing of factors to three of the most important – centralization, unfragmented land use, and short commutes.

How would Lancaster do? Amazingly, well.


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