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September 27, 2005 / jnolen

Density leads to interestingness (and other good things)

I'm a little late on this, but Steven Berlin Johnson (of EBIGFY fame) wrote a smart article for Discover Magazine that examines the idea of The Long Tail in the context of urban life — something I've been increasingly interested in the last few years. (It also plugs Dodgeball, a service I think it pretty damn cool but haven't had a chance to use yet. See, I still live in a little backwoods town called Santa Barbara.)

His thesis is here in his blog post about the article:

The logic of the long tail will favor urban environments over less densely populated ones. If you're downloading the latest album from an obscure Scandinavian doo-wop group, geography doesn’t matter: It's just as easy to get the bits delivered to you in the middle of Wyoming as it is in the middle of Manhattan. But if you’re trying to meet up with other fans of Scandinavian doo-wop, you’ll have more luck in Manhattan.

Serendipitously, I read this article from the Harvard University Gazette which outlines the principle that population density is what makes a good city.

Which also brought to mind an article I read in The New Yorker(?) about a year ago(?) that argued that New York was in fact the greenest city in America, simply because of it's incredible density. Google has failed me and I can't find the article now, but the general idea is that because New Yorkers are so tightly packed, it takes far fewer resources to heat them, to transport food to them, to move them around, and to deal with their trash. So per-capita, energy is used much more efficiently in New York than in, say, rural Washington despite the fact that rural Washington has more trees.

And here is a Malcolm Gladwell article that draws lessons from The Death and Life of Great American Cities for office planning. (I really need to go read that book.)

All of which does a fairly good job, in sum, of explaining why I decided that I wanted to move to San Francisco. Of course, I didn't really have the vocabulary to explain that at the time. I just knew I was looking for more opportunity on a whole range of levels. But I'm really excited about the chance to live in a real city for the first time — a city that's crowded enough for interesting things to happen. I'll let you know as soon as I'm signed up for Dodgeball.

One Comment

  1. Matt M. / Oct 5 2005 4:15 am

    The Death and Life of Great American Cities also brings you back full circle to Steven Johnson because he has a chapter on urban planning in his book Emergence that uses that book.
    Johnson also had a great “microsite” on urban planning on FEED back when FEED was still a going concern.

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