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Planning the Long Tail

One of the more powerful concepts to come out of the information and services economy is the Long Tail.

Samuel Staley | November 26, 2007, 10am PST
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One of the more powerful concepts to come out of the information and services economy is the Long Tail. Coined by Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, the idea is that technology, particularly the democratic nature of the Internet, has fundamentally changed the character of the economy, the way we consume goods and services, and the types of products provided on the market. We are no longer living in a world, Anderson says, where one product fits all, one price fits all, or one distribution system serves all. The basic "imperatives" for thriving in this brave new world are "make everything available" and help consumers find it.

This is all very good news for planning and bodes well for the value of place making and neighborhoods of all kinds. We are in an economic world where diversity is valued, and people (and households) will pay for it.

In the pre-Internet days, economic success was characterized and measured by "hits"-products that would make a big splash by appealing to a broad base and generating lots of revenues. Technology and the Internet, however, revolutionized the economy to allow for an extraordinary proliferation of choice and diversity in the market place (epitomized by "aggregators" like and iTunes). Hence the term "long tail". Most products purchased on the market are no longer in the blockbuster categories. Instead, they are dramatically expanding the long tail of customized goods and services. Of the 200,000 movies, TV shows and documentaries produced each year, Blockbuster video carries only 3,000. Ninety-nine percent of the albums on the market today are not carried by Wal-Mart.

This technology driven economic transformation is creating new opportunities for planning. Despite the complaints of the anti-sprawl crowd, the "cookie cutter" suburbs have been on the way out for a long time. Levittowns simply aren't built anymore, and the subdivisions that look bland from the air are much more diverse on the ground. New suburban developments offer housing of dozens of different types with literally hundreds of different floor plans, depending on the scale of the development. Developers spend lots of money and resources up front to capitalize on amenities, whether it is a transit stop or open space.

But even these subdivisions are likely to fall by the wayside quickly as the land market responds to higher household expectations about what they want in their neighborhood. Richard Florida's "creative class" is just the tip of the iceberg in this respect. Niche neighborhoods and markets are becoming the norm throughout the urban landscape for all classes of homebuyers and households as traditional "categories" of housing products explode under the diversified demand of the long tail.

How will these diverse needs to be met? Through effective, market-driven planning and land development. Planners will be in a unique position to define how these communities will look and function, and what public resources will be necessary to sustain them. Neighborhood planning will play a far more important role in cities of all types as place making becomes an essential function of retaining and attracting households looking for the unique characteristics that meet very specific requirements and expectations for employment, culture, and recreation. Some will be looking for new places that they can make their own, others will be looking for "old" places that they can fit into, and still others (perhaps most) will be looking for something in between.

Moreover, we will likely see a significant increase in planners in private practice as developers and builders tap into these skills in formulating the kinds of neighborhoods and places that will appeal to the growing diversity of interests that will make up our metropolitan areas (and even rural hamlets and villages).

Chris Anderson's book focuses mainly on how the Long Tail is shaping the broader economy, but the implications will resonate far more broadly. Planners thinking ahead will recognize the value and opportunities the Long Tail provides their profession as it extends to the physical spaces that the digital generation will inevitably inhabit and make their own.
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