The Great Decoupling
What happens to cities when what we do isn’t tied to where we are?
Cities, their centers, and the density of urban organization are inextricably tied to the human condition. In fact, they’re probably inevitable. Over the course of history, we’ve relied on organizing ourselves to better our quality of life collectively.
To keep things simple, we’ll view cities one dimensionally: as tools for the creation of social and economic activity. This functional approach to urbanism harkens back to the history of cities, which formed around trade routes and acted as catalysts for economic and cultural confluence.1
Next arises the question of what urban centers are and what they’re for in the first place. Keeping in line with that functional stance on cities, urban centers, generally speaking, are just expressions of function. They organize social and economic activity within a city itself. For the sake of argument, government and life services might be viewed as peripheral phenomena that only serve to maintain these two primary functions.2
A good place to start is looking at the social function of cities. On a basic level, they provide a means by which people can connect to each other and to a larger, collective purpose. There’s a science to this, as cities accomplish social functions designedly: common spaces, public zoning and the intersection of pathways are all a means of creating spontaneous interaction and the eventual promotion of culture.3 Centers are just the most concentrated examples of this design practice: think neighborhoods, town squares, social districts, et cetera.
On an economic level, urban centers are just as deliberate in designing for function. In the same way centers might spawn social connection by design, they also spawn economic connection in a location-based model of productivity.4 We gather in financial, commercial or central business districts because being in the same place at the same time has always been a prerequisite for trading, transacting and collaborating with each other, and thus a prerequisite for economic growth.
That’s changing quickly.
In context, information technology is a tool of mass coordination. It allows billions of people to socialize and connect with one another from anywhere on Earth, and it enables many firms to operate with little to no physical working space. Driving this is a new paradigm of governance, self-sovereignty and decentralized cooperation made possible by the internet, and recently, blockchains. Suddenly, people can meet, socialize, work and cooperate borderlessly, trustlessly, and at zero marginal cost.
Socially, people have become accustomed to this. Text, email, social media and the connectivity afforded by smartphones have become the norm in the lives of even the least tech-savvy. What’s left by the wayside, though, is how this is fundamentally altering physical human organization. In The Network State, Balaji Srinivasan reflects on a world becoming organized by geodesic, rather than geographic distance: “…people are sharing intimate moments with others 3000 miles away, while they often don't know the names of the next door neighbors in their anonymous apartment complex…what we find is that people share values with people who are close to them in their social network...not in their physical space.”5
Admittedly, while a redrawing of social borders in the digital world has significant effects on how we socialize, it doesn’t undermine the importance of physical proximity in many contexts.6 As humans, we’ve evolved to socialize in an in person, face-to-face format. If the COVID-19 pandemic was indicative of anything, it’s that real-world interaction and sense of community is as necessary as ever, and its absence can have disastrous effects on our psyches, health and wellbeing.7 Biologically, we’ve pretty much ensured in-person interaction isn’t going anywhere, save some significant advancements that bring us beyond the uncanny valley, leaving physical and digital interactions indiscernible from each other.8 Of course, this doesn’t seem likely in the foreseeable future.
Returning to an economic perspective, while these social processes have been accustomed to a borderless existence for a couple decades, remote work has only recently been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A global, forced adaptation to avoid physical interaction made the capabilities of digital work more robust. To the surprise of many, it worked pretty well.9 Suddenly, we realized we could work effectively together without being in the same place.
With a recent pandemic as a catalyst for a remote shift, humanity collectively finds itself in a unique environment. Undeniably, more and more of the world’s social and economic activity will move online. As we increase the scope of the digital world and its control of society’s social and economic functions, we see profound effects on our lives in urban space. As what we do becomes less and less tied to where we are, the function of our urban centers begins to shift. 10
In a formal sense, there is a breaking down of 20th century quantitative functionalism, which saw a systems approach to cities: What cities were like depended on what their function was, and cities’ functions depended on the functions of other cities around them.11
Today, the characteristics of cities are more dependent on their ability to attract people than on physically optimizing themselves for social and economic activity. We see this today in regulatory arbitrage, where, in the absence of an ability to control their own weather, cities compete to win residents by creating the most economically favorable conditions. The reason for this is the same: the social and economic functions of human society are becoming less and less locally bound, eroding the functional use-case of an urban center.12 Ari-Veikko Anttiroiko provides some commentary: “At the urban community level this paradigm shift is changing the very fundamentals on which community life and related governance processes are based. The new paradigm is profoundly affected by the global-local and real-virtual dialectic. This new development logic implies that ‘local’ is less locally determined and locality bound than it has ever been in the history of urban life.”13
As a caveat, it’s important to consider that people cannot physically live at a point in space. Land is and will always be a precondition for civilization and the resources that are integral for its maintenance. In fact, many necessary resources– energy, food, water and materials for the construction of buildings and infrastructure– are just the opposite of the borderless digital world; that is to say, location-specific.
So how are urban centers shifting? Clarence Perry, a 20th century sociologist known foremostly for his contributions to the theoretical understanding of the neighborhood asserted that an urban center is ideally equidistant from all its residents in order to optimize access to it.14 Well-defined public spaces like parks or plazas have been documented as an essential component of the urban center. A financial district serves a similar function in an economic perspective. In the context of technology, an increased prevalence and use of digital spaces means the function of a center simply becomes less well-defined.
In context, this is logical. A 2009 study of residents in Brisbane, Australia surveyed a sample population on their perceptions of their city’s center and periphery. The study’s results suggested a strong agreement on Brisbane’s center, with weak agreement on its boundaries and periphery.15 This is to say, a center can be more simply defined as a place where most people choose to spend their time. Here, that shift in urban centrality can be observed: digital space is becoming the new social and economic center. As digital platforms become town squares and financial districts, physical space is itself becoming peripheral.
In this sense, online spaces are functionally eroding cities: In the face of ever-expanding and increasingly robust information technologies, the social and economic centers of cities begin to become decentralized, eroding the traditional functions of urban centrality.
Again though, a limitation arises. Though the idea of centrality is dealt with in abstractions, a main constraint lies in the physical world. Buildings and infrastructure require massive investment and certainly aren’t as malleable as software, so a solution calls for the re-definition or retrofitting of physical space, rather than its complete reinstitution. As physical space decouples itself from its function, well-defined districts begin to take on multiple uses, and we see a logical rise in mixed-use development.
So what does this mean for the physical world and the organization of our urban centers? As digital spaces make centers less well-defined in their function, the physical world becomes the periphery. Just as government and life services traditionally serve to maintain the primary social and economic functions of the urban center, the physical realm might serve to maintain the social and economic functions of our rising digital centers.16
As the processes traditionally supported by urban centrality become less influenced by geographic location, physical space decouples itself from its function. In this, the function of the urban center is eroded: the result is mixed-use development. Jane Jacobs advocated for this kind of urban development; the integration of different building types, whether residential, commercial, old, or new. In maintaining a functional approach to centers and their maintenance, one finds that physically, mixed-use developments best allow physical space to better support digital space.
In response, mixed-use developments allow individuals to partake in social and economic activity without being constrained to their geographic location. Whether they’re in a historically financial district, residential neighborhood, or town square in any given city, mixed-use developments best allow an individual to flexibly interact socially or economically regardless of location. The shift toward mixed-use developments is gradual, but undoubtedly taking place. A 2022 National Office Report by Yardi posits “a proliferation of mixed-use developments is expected to increase.”17
While an unfamiliar phenomenon, a rise in mixed-use developments might work to aid in physical interaction rather than detract from it. To turn briefly again to Jacobs, there exists an advocacy for the integration of different use-cases of buildings, both commercial and residential, of all ages and types. In her mind, cities were "organic, spontaneous, and untidy,” dependent on a diversity of buildings, and therefore a diversity of people, to foster strong communities.18 In context, the erosion of urban centrality and decoupling of location and function only strengthens the case for mixed-use developments. As buildings become mixed-use, neighborhoods and districts become mixed-use, and cities themselves become mixed-use.
Cities are a fundamentally human invention, serving primarily as instruments of creating spontaneous interaction. In this, they serve to stimulate social and economic activity. Centers, similarly, are conceptions of function that serve to spur that activity within a city, maintained by the peripheral functions of an urban landscape.
Technologically, much has changed. Information and the online world have permeated so much of our lives that the line between what is online and what is offline has been blurred— so much so that human organization has begun relying on geodesic distance, as in a network, rather than geographic distance, as the crow flies. Though the fundamental importance of in-person interaction stands, the social and economic processes of human civilization have only been further digitalized by the recent COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in an erosion of the functional use-case of an urban center.
Centrality has shifted as a result. Historically, well-defined public spaces and districts have been markers for specific functions in a city. Today, digital space is becoming the new social and economic center. As digital platforms become town squares and financial districts, physical space is itself becoming peripheral. Importantly though, many necessary resources for human civilization are location specific.
As a result, mixed-use development prevails. While urban centrality is eroded and the physical realm becomes peripheral, mixed-use development best allows established physical space to support digital space. Here, individuals, communities and populations can flexibly interact socially or economically regardless of physical location, while maintaining their ability to interact with their communities on a face-to-face basis. Indeed, these mixed-use developments might work to aid in physical interaction rather than detract from it by forcing buildings of different use-cases, ages and types, to coexist, promoting a diversity of community among their inhabitants in the process.
As the next decades unfold, our lives will become only more digitally integrated and function will only further decouple itself from location, though the importance of in-person interaction and entrenched nature of urban development will remain. Collectively spending more of our time in online spaces will serve to erode the traditional social and economic functions of urban centrality, but might result in more flexible and mixed-use buildings, neighborhoods, districts, and cities.
Thanks for reading,
Gross, Mattias. Human Geography and Ecological Sociology: The Unfolding of a Human Ecology, 1890 to 1930—and Beyond. 2009, https://engagingcolumbus.owu.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/77/2014/12/2004_Human-Geog-Urban-Soc. pdf.
2 Douglas, Ian. The Routledge Handbook of Urban Ecology. Routledge, 2021.
3 Durkheim Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: Emile Durkheim. Allen & Unwin, 1976.
5 Duncan, Otis Dudley. Metropolis and Region. RFF Press, 2011.
Srinivasan, Balaji. “The Network State.” 1729, https://1729.com/the-network-state.
Flaherty, Lisa M., et al. “Internet and Face‐to‐Face Communication: Not Functional Alternatives.” Communication Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 3, 1998, pp. 250–268., https://doi.org/10.1080/01463379809370100.
Hossain, Md Mahbub, et al. “Epidemiology of Mental Health Problems in COVID-19: A Review.” F1000Research, vol. 9, 2020, p. 636., https://doi.org/10.12688/f1000research.24457.1.
T. Geller, "Overcoming the Uncanny Valley," in IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 11-17, July-Aug. 2008, doi: 10.1109/MCG.2008.79.
Perry, Sara Jansen, et al. “When Does Virtuality Really ‘Work’? Examining the Role of Work–Family and Virtuality in Social Loafing.” Journal of Management, vol. 42, no. 2, 2013, pp. 449–479., https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206313475814.
Alizadeh, Tooran. “Urban Digital Strategies: Planning in the Face of Information Technology?” Journal of Urban Technology, vol. 24, no. 2, 2017, pp. 35–49., https://doi.org/10.1080/10630732.2017.1285125.
Duncan, Otis Dudley. Metropolis and Region. RFF Press, 2011.
Grundleger, Joshua. “How States Can Attract New Residents.” City Journal, 3 Feb. 2022.
Anttiroiko, Ari-Veikko. “Digital Urban Planning Platforms.” International Journal of E-Planning Research, vol. 10, no. 3, 2021, pp. 35–49., https://doi.org/10.4018/ijepr.20210701.oa3.
Patricios, Nicholas N. “THE NEIGHBORHOOD CONCEPT: A RETROSPECTIVE OF PHYSICAL DESIGN AND SOCIAL INTERACTION.” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, vol. 19, no. 1, 2002, pp. 70–90. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43030600. Accessed 25 May 2022.
Minnery, John, et al. “Bounding Neighbourhoods: How Do Residents Do It?” Planning Practice & Research, vol. 24, no. 4, 2009, pp. 471–493., https://doi.org/10.1080/02697450903327170.
Douglas, Ian. The Routledge Handbook of Urban Ecology. Routledge, 2021.
Yardi Matrix, Matrix Office National Report. May 2022.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, 1961.