I have been living in Rijswijk, a small city in the Netherlands, for almost seven years. Through these years the shopping centre in this city has been changing, or perhaps ‘degrading’ is a better word. Until five years ago, supermarkets, branded clothing shops, department stores chains, restaurants and cafés, filled all the space. Around 40% of it currently stands empty as many retailers either went bankrupt or were forced to reduce their branches. The reasons vary from economic stagnation (since the financial crisis that hit the global economy in 2008) and an increase in internet shopping to a decrease in consumer spending due to high rates of unemployment.
Based on my observation, this situation has been happening mainly in Europe and the
USA. Shopping centres or shopping malls, a rendezvous for young people, where elderly also meet their friends every week at the same spot, have become less liveable or at the extreme situation, they are gone. What do these continents have in common? They are developed countries, but more specific is that internet technology in these countries is maturely developed, available and affordable for everyone. So the last reason of shopping centre degradation I mentioned before, i.e., the increase of internet shopping, is very interesting.
Besides replacing mostly the blue collar workforce, the enormous pace of internet technology has been affecting urban development in other ways on these continents:
Reduced need of office space
Along with higher availability of high-speed internet connectivity, nowadays more and more companies allow their employees to work remotely. Furthermore, open and flexible workspace has been gaining more attention in order to promote interaction among employees. As a result, we need less office space than we did 10 years ago.
Less transport infrastructure
Smartphones and navigation systems deliver not only real-time traffic information but also traffic forecasts which make it possible for car drivers to make decisions before they even leave their homes. They can decide to take another route, to change the appointment location, or to travel at a later time to avoid traffic congestion. Is the concept of providing X m2 road space per capita still relevant then? Do we really need more roads and highways in the future?
Decreased need of parking space
The future of driverless cars is as of now yet unclear. What is already happening is the rise of car sharing platforms. Car sharing is gaining success in cities where people use public transport for their work journeys and occasionally need a car for other journey purposes. This solution allows users to have mobility needs met in a way which is a lot cheaper than owning a car. With mobile apps they can reserve a car, pick it, and leave it at the nearest location.
I am sure these trends will soon be followed by other countries outside Europe and America. The Middle East countries seem to be the first in the pipeline with their fast growth in mobile data.
I believe the digital technology will change the way we plan and design our cities. Fifteen years ago when I was a university student in Regional and City Planning, I learned about zoning, provision of housing and commercial areas, industrial sites, and separated infrastructure. There were no issues of online shopping, shared economy, driverless cars or shared cars.
Our world is changing. We need to change our way of thinking when designing our cities and accommodating the mobility requirements of the people. The central question will be; how will our cities look like in the next 10-20 years? Digital technology gives urban planners the chance to create an efficient use of city space. On the other hand, this technology is reducing physical interactions between people because they prefer to do it through social media. Perhaps, urban planners should give a higher priority to the creation of more (open) space for people to meet and interact.
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