November 2017
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Wifi and Livability

Internet Sign

Internet access, once a luxury, is quickly becoming a key livability issue for New York and other cities. With many government agencies providing services online and communities becoming increasingly dependent on high-speed Internet access, it is critical that we integrate access into future city planning initiatives.

Currently, in New York City, free WiFi is predominantly available in consumer/tourist hubs through a patchwork of public and private partnerships. It is through these partnerships that business improvement districts (BIDs) have been able to bring free WiFi to public spaces all around the City. These open space WiFi channels are a step in the right direction, but environmental factors make it an unreliable option for those without consistent access at home—no way to plug in a computer, glare from the sun, and lack of desk space.

Inconvenience aside, as smart phones and internet usage data are increasingly used to determine information from traffic congestion to subway arrival times it is important that urban planners consider the millions of people who are not currently connected. As Julia Ramey Serazio explains in a recent article in “Next American City”, reliance on statistical data provided by Internet usage and smartphones for civic participation in planning issues would be remiss, she writes:

“I do worry, however, that government and planners might become too reliant on technology as a tool to inform decisions about a city’s future. Relying on citizen input shared through smartphones and even a plain old Internet connection is to implicitly ignore the input of entire neighborhoods without broadband infrastructure. Technology is a wonderful means through which to call attention to a pothole, but will it lead to meaningful investments in infrastructure? Being able to use your smartphone to see whether your bus is late is great—for people with smartphones, who, for the record, aren’t usually the people riding buses.”

It is important for traditional forms of community engagement to continue, but alone they are not adequate long-term solutions—not for urban planning issues and not for livability. Planners give careful consideration to waterfront and open space access, but frequently overlook Internet access even though it can vastly improve citizen efficiency, as well as city infrastructure. For millions of New Yorkers, formerly burdensome tasks like paying bills, finding a doctor or filing taxes are just a few clicks away. For millions more these tasks remain just as inefficient, moving them further and further away from the consumer mainstream that planners are often eager to engage. Because those without Internet access have to rely on time consuming ways of managing their daily lives: the all-in costs may actually be greater than they would be if Internet access were more available.