KevinB.me

Category: Urbanism

Pokemon Go and Walkable Urbanism

(Note: this piece was originally published in the Fort Worth Weekly in July 2016. I’ve tweaked and nipped and tucked it and put it up here on my personal site, too, as it’s something that might actually be interesting to people outside Fort Worth.)

By now, you’ve no doubt heard about the insane phenomenon that is Pokemon Go, the first time the beloved gaming/anime/disturbing fan art property has been brought to smartphones. Pokemon Go is no mere free-to-play licensed revenue stream, though –– it’s an augmented reality free-to-play licensed revenue stream.

“Augmented reality” is the process by which virtual information and objects are overlaid on the real world via a live camera view seen through a smartphone display. Pokemon Go uses this technology to let players chase the various wild denizens of the Pokemon universe around the real world, allowing you to visit, say, the local coffee shop, a famous art museum, or the United States Strategic Helium Reserve to snag the Charmander you’ve always wanted, so that you may then force it to compete in captive animal combat.

To see for myself, I downloaded Pokemon Go and headed to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. It was full of my fellow Fort Worthians, virtually every one of which had their eyes locked to a smartphone running Pokemon Go.

Walking through the garden, I passed a family – a couple of adult women, an adult man, a couple of young kids, all Pokemon Go-ing. One woman remarked to the family, “I ain’t found shit,” to which the other woman replied “It’s OK that you suck. Your family still loves you.” Minutes later, a young couple ran past me at top speed along the Texas Native Plants boardwalk. The young woman yelled to her young male friend, “Have we found your stupid Pokemon yet?” Unperturbed, the guy shouted back “We’re getting closer,” to which she shout-replied “Well, you’re stupid!” The guy seemed not to notice.

On my way out of the garden, I passed the ain’t-found-shit family again, but they were pulled out of the game by a passing twentysomething guy and his friend who were offering advice on where to search the grounds for desirable Pokemon.

The sights were the same when I visited Sundance Square, and downtown Dallas, and the courthouse square in Denton. People immersed in this virtual fantasy world of cute fighting creatures, exploring our walkable urban spaces together, offering help to each other where they could.

It’s often at this point in the narrative that writers & ranters deride Pokemon Go players for having their faces buried in their glowing rectangles, being Kids Today with their Pokeymans and hula hoops and fax machines, only taking the time to visit these wonderful places when they have the excuse of hunting Pokemon but otherwise not engaging with the REAL WORLD. (There’s been no shortage of such reactions expressed on social media.) But…I’m not so sure I can get behind that viewpoint. What makes “hunting Pokemon” any less valid a reason to visit the Botanic Garden or Sundance Square or Magnolia Avenue than “taking photos of flowers” or “grabbing a bite to eat” or even just “taking a walk because you feel like it?”

If anything, I feel like Pokemon Go reveals how important building great, human-oriented places is – and how few of them we truly have in cities like Fort Worth. From my exposure to the game, I can’t see how it would work nearly as effectively in a far-flung exurban setting where the use of a car is a requirement for mobility. It’s a game that cries out for easily-navigable grids of streets, wide sidewalks, pedestrian-oriented buildings, and parks and plazas woven into their fabric. It’s a game that thrives on density and engagement with the city.

There are approximately 63 trillion people playing Pokemon Go in urban Fort Worth at this very moment. Sure, some of them may solely be going out to hunt for Pokemon – but plenty of them are likely discovering new places, new landmarks, and new views of their city in their explorations. If capturing adorable cartoon animals to make them do your bidding gets even a small number of players to gain a new appreciation for how great human-oriented cities can be – and support further efforts to make the city into a more human-oriented place – then that’s not a bad outcome at all.

Time, Urbanism, and Cynicism

I often fear that one of the major lessons I took away from running the late Fort Worthology blog for so many years is that it’s safer to be cynical about urbanism than it is to be enthusiastic.

This is likely silly, as during the site’s run, I got to see a lot of good things happen in Fort Worth: the South Main Better Block event get turned into a real long-term plan enacted by the city, the official bike plan get off the ground, the Urban Village program get set in place, several areas around the central city become hotbeds of new activity, and more. The flip side of this, of course, is that there was a lot of bad mixed in, and after a while it became hard to see past the bad. The streetcar project died due to the nonsense jackassery of politicians blinded by windshield perspective. The transit system overall seemed stagnant and ineffective, and improvements take ages while new and wider roads seem rubber-stamped. Whatever good was accomplished in small pockets of the central city was balanced by absolutely no changes to how Fort Worth’s sprawl outside of the immediate core was designed and built. Downtown continues to be sadly reliant on subsidized free parking, to the long-term detriment of the central city.

Chalk it up to the difference between writing as a naively enthusiastic twenty-something versus writing as a more jaded thirty-something, perhaps, but it’s part of what drove that dumb site into oblivion.

So imagine my surprise tonight when I happened to see news that New York is finally demolishing the hated Sheridan Expressway, a relic of freewayphile & noted wrong person Robert Moses, to be replaced with a more human-scaled parkway.

This news surprised me because I remember hearing about this issue in 2009, in a PBS series titled Road to the Future, at which time the fight over the Sheridan was already many years old. Like so many freeway projects, it had wrecked low-income neighborhoods and contributed to their decline and poor health. (It is the regular role of the central-city freeway that it actively harms the fabric of the city around it to make it easier for residents of the suburbs to leave it.) People who lived around the Sheridan had been fighting for ages for it to be removed, and by 2019 or so, it finally will be. It took eight years from when I even became aware of the situation on top of the already-huge length of time fighting to get that freeway removed.

The push to make cities better is frequently frustrating, maddening, dispiriting, and draining. It can take years, or decades, to make a place more livable – especially when it doesn’t have a billionaire or two advocating for it. This can easily sap one’s spirit.

However, seeing news of the Sheridan’s long-awaited demise really slathered some locally-sourced organic perspective onto my mind grapes. The enthusiastic, can-do me remembers learning about the Sheridan, and the jaded asshole me is now seeing it get replaced. These things take time, and they will frequently piss you off or make you depressed, but they can get done.

When you fall into a rut writing about people opening wine bars or whatever it’s easy to lose perspective on the real, meaningful work being done. It happened to me. It’s worthwhile to step back and realize it.

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