Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Between Downtown and Dog River

Recently I've begun watching Corner Gas - mostly because the Comedy Network was running it nonstop on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day - and it's pushed my thoughts in some unexpected directions. Though I've never lived in a small town like Dog River, Saskatchewan - or any small town at all, for that matter - it's in that sort of community that most of humanity lived for most of history; it's only in the last couple of centuries that cities have really taken the prize. But things are constantly in flux; things that were once rocksteady are crumbling into dust now.

I can understand why some people wouldn't want to live in small towns - the isolation, the potential of an insular local culture, the lack of services and opportunities that exist in larger communities. That won't necessarily stay the same as the years go by, though.

The post office in Gagetown, New Brunswick, serving a population of 719

The future of how we live is something that comes up time and again in futurist works, partially because it has deep, meaningful resonance: everyone lives somewhere. Frequently, I think, the answers are deeply influenced by personal politics or the pervading assumptions of society. Take the Transhuman Space setting, one of the more in-depth looks at a potential world of 2100 that I've come across - it's a world of decivilization, where cities are being bulldozed and returned to nature in favor of arcologies and suburbs.

Honestly, I never found that particularly believable. Sure, there are active decivilization efforts right now; Detroit's leading that charge, demolishing abandoned homes in an effort to densify the city in the urban prairie. Arcologies themselves have their own problems - they remind me of postwar housing developments in a way, and I can't help but suspect that an arcology might tend to resemble Cabrini-Green more than Green Acres. As for suburbs... for me, they deliver all the drawbacks of urban and rural life, with very few of the benefits.

My theory - based on little more than my opinion, to be sure, but still a theory nonetheless - is that suburbs will be disproportionately impacted by the problems we'll face through the rest of the twenty-first century. Cities and small towns both have lineages that go back to the dawn of civilization; suburbs are more like a weird fusion of the two. Should technologies like telepresence and 3D printing become more and more ubiquitous, a lot of the drawbacks of living in a small town would disappear: it doesn't matter where you live so long as you have a good enough internet connection to remotely operate whatever it is you're operating, and 3D printers could easily make small communities self-sufficient in basic goods.

Cities have their own reasons for being, and I don't expect them to go away either.

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