In 1887, German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies wrote about his idea of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, two competing theories of societal organization. In the typically agrarian gemeinschaft societies, values are based around community and interpersonal relationships. In the more modern and industrialized gesellschaft societies, interactions are less direct, often moderated by technology, and directed by efficiency.
A similar debate is unfolding today almost 150 years later. On one hand, developers and technologists are pushing for smart cities and greater tech integration to build a faster, more efficient, more gesellschaft society. On the other hand, a cadre of designers, urbanists, and others is focused on advocating for something else entirely: slow design, a movement that prioritizes local-first, carefully-crafted items. At its most literal, this is a concept with support across industries. In PropTech, Hello Alfred’s Marcela Sapone recently wrote about the need to go slow to go fast; establishing a strong foundation and building from there. The slow cities movement in particular came from Italy by way of a rebellion against fast food, and it is all about engaging with the character of local spaces. In other words, taking time to stop and smell the roses.
Indeed, modern city design certainly does seem to favor the gesellschaft perspective. The buzzwords alone are telling: high-speed trains, 5G data networks, and transit-oriented development. More and more buildings feature deluxe vending machines that might offer local produce, but require zero interpersonal interaction. And while plenty of hip urban neighborhoods highlight local artisans and hometown vibes, the long-standing debate over the need for authenticity in urban spaces calls even that into doubt. The narrative of the “anytropolis” top-down urban district or the soulless yuppie mecca is applicable to cities coast to coast.
Instead, slow cities recommend another approach, with a number of usual suspect suggestions like plenty of green space and renewable energy alongside a more unique group of behavioral goals: saving space, both conceptually and literally, for slower movement and stationary experiences. Electronic displays and networks can be co-opted to offer location-based narratives, while spatial use patterns can be analyzed with the help of AI to better deliver meaningful local experiences.
While the slow city movement certainly advocates for plenty of important things, the choice to live fast or slow more often than not comes down to individual preference. The decision to stroll through a beautiful urban area at a leisurely pace or to power walk with headphones is an entirely individual one. The provision of a modern rail system seldom results in the direct elimination of walking as a transit option. These are just some of the challenges of offering practice guidelines that stretch from design to behavior.
Ferdinand Tönnies was convinced that agrarian societies operated one way and industrial societies operated another. But today, with a plurality of living experiences and preferences, modern urban areas are more mixed than ever before. Some people will choose to fly through their lives and relax with their feet up at the end of the day. Others will take time to stop and smell the roses. Perhaps there is room for both gemeinschaft and gesellschaft after all.