Can our cities protect us from online disinformation campaigns? I believe they can, if we promote patterns of healthy social engagement between friends, relatives, and strangers in our public spaces.
In my lifetime, American news consumption habits have shifted tremendously. People once got almost all of their news from mainstream sources such as network television and newspapers. Regardless of the sort of community you lived in, everybody read or heard basically the same information. While most of these media outlets remain, countless new outlets of information and opinion have sprouted online.
Unless you’ve been living in a parallel universe, you’ve heard about attempts by Russia to use deliberately false information to undermine democracies in Europe and the US. Invariably this disinformation is spread via the internet through an unwieldy network of social media, opinion websites, and state-controlled channels. While some of these efforts target computer systems directly, many use computer networks to affect human behavior. This is the vital link where city design plays a role.
One of the first books I read as an aspiring planner was Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. In it he examines growing disconnection between individuals and the disintegration of social institutions and social capital.
While Putnam identifies a long list of potential causes for the deterioration of social institutions, one stands out to me is the changing geometry of North American neighborhoods. The conventional patterns of suburban development that emerged around the 1960s and are persistent to this day erode social capital between residents. These developments rarely include any non-residential components where neighbors may be exposed to each other informally. These developments often are built at consistently low density with a proliferation of dead ends (aka cul-de-sacs); these geometric parameters further reduce the chances of neighbors developing interpersonal connections.