New Urbanism's future: neighbor.com

Wired communities, like Arizona's DC Ranch, build community on - and offline.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For Brian Belluomini, this upscale desert community that affords striking views of the McDowell Mountains is all about promise and potential.

There's the promise that clings to a place where neighbors know each other better and where the word community means something. And there's the potential buried several feet below the sun-baked landscape.

That's where miles of fiber optics can be found providing the latest in techno-wizardry for residents of DC Ranch, a 3,700-acre planned community in north Scottsdale, Ariz.

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"The technology wasn't a decision factor as to whether we were going to buy the house or not," said Mr. Belluomini, a mortgage broker who moved here a year ago with his wife and three children. "But we think it could be quite useful in the future."

Developers across the country are counting on it. Wired communities such as DC Ranch and Philadelphia's high-rise Millennium Project are rising in ever-increasing numbers.

With them is rising a new twist in the New Urbanism movement. Online capabilities are becoming as ubiquitous as picket fences and porches in the planned communities, which promise a return to the close-knit relations people recall from a bygone era.

Developers are trying, in varying degrees, to fuse the Internet and planned communities in hopes of building the kind of close-knit communities people recall from a bygone era.

Some may find a certain degree of irony in using technology decried for turning Americans into antisocial hermits as a community-building tool.

But residents say it offers a quick-strike way to get acquainted and give them a jumpstart on taking the pulse of community life.

Where neighbors in the past used to catch up on sidewalks or in the backyard, residents at DC Ranch and other high-tech communities meet online.

"The technology becomes a facilitator, not an isolator," said Brent Herrington, DC Ranch's community-operations director. "People cocoon in their homes and offices these days, and this helps bring them out. It's a quick and easy way for them to do it."

Mr. Herrington, who also was involved in Disney's planned community, Celebration, says he's seen no sign that the community Intranet, a password-protected setup called RanchNet, is replacing face-to-face gatherings.

"It's not like we have an online Boy Scout troop."

Nor is the Internet necessarily an isolationist tool.

"It can be a way to expand the communication and form tighter bonds with people," says Robert Kraut, who teaches social psychology and human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "The more people who are socially engaged [are online], the better they use [the Net] to foster social relationships."

That is a marked change from five years ago, when his study showed that people who use the Internet tended to be lonely or more withdrawn than their peers.

Part of the growing social consciousness, Mr. Kraut says, is simply that there are more people online today. Also, technological advances have streamlined the ease with which people can connect.

Today, researchers say residents in these communities already arrive armed with their personal computers. People want to use them to augment their social life, not replace it.

At DC Ranch, where homes range from the high $200,000s to $1 million for custom places near the golf course, residents can buy into the high-tech world for $50 per month.

That provides high-speed, always-on Internet connections with six e-mail accounts, plus the latest in digital television. TVs and computer screens also display callers' phone numbers.

Grapevine goes online

Residents who hop onboard the community Intranet can check out such things as the latest news on the golf course, community events, or group meetings. They can discover when the next yoga class is or sign up for a dinner club meeting.

In the future, residents will be able to connect directly to their doctors and schedule appointments or contact their child's teacher and view homework assignments online.

Residents also are able to make their way through a bulletin board, soliciting services and getting feedback on various topics.

A recent trip to the board showed 59 messages, ranging from someone searching for a local dentist to another blackballing a window cleaner. Then there was the one about scorpions, seeking help in "keeping these critters out of my house."

New way to meet neighbors

Lois and Paul Rosen, who moved into their $600,000 home in September, used the community board to find a playmate for their son, Alex. He and another boy connected on RanchNet, got together, and became friends.

The Rosens say the Intranet gives them a nice way to stay up on what's going on in the community, even if they don't use it as frequently as others. "Our days are very busy, we're not always there seeing and interacting with everyone," says Lois, a sales manager for a delivery service. "I can come home and look at the bulletin board and e-mail if I want to be part of something."

Her husband, a local architect, also says that at this point, there is no way to unplug American society. "I'm not a real technophile but I know enough to know that these things are important to have," Paul says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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