in Politics and Plans, Urban Density


Metro = Megacity/Megacorp + OBDC
Earthday, urban land use, and management in the 21st century

Without a national land-use policy, America’s formation of regional megacities in just over fifty years logically requires some metro-management — a metro-megacity-corporation. Planners have criticized our “land-of-a-thousand micro-governments” for decades, but something has changed that may add traction to solving the problems caused by the design practice that forms these places. 

The fear was that if such a thing did exist, it would function with the same level of accountability offered to outfits like Enron, AIG, or SNF SuperBigXcorp of your choosing.  The political will is To keep these behemoths at arm’s length requires political attentiveness, fiduciary and forensic, but preferably the short kind that hangs from the sides of lobbyists. 

Then comes this change. The widening availability of huge data-sets can be used to define the nation’s 300+ mega-cities. The nation’s 50 state image is just that – an image. Turning the states into regional management corporations is becoming a politically palatable idea only because that is happening anyway.  

The governors have a whole basketful of Public Benefit Corporations (PBC) developed by the business community in infrastructure to bridge state lines. One thing that seems only missing is a little federal oversight — in the national interest.  It was the National Defense Highway act that put the nation on the mega-city path. In the words of a well-loved Yankee ballplayer, Yogi Berra, “You have to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.”

The states would not be in financial collapse, and budgeting would be balanced by regions if the principles of Smart Growth laid out nearly two decades ago by Anthony Downs (April 2001, Planning) had any traction (to see how it all started: click here). Back then, too few knew that the use of mega-corporate level data was something the states could already obtain but unlikely to share regionally across their borders. The framework was correct, but it could not hold a soupçon of clout against existing tax policies. Smart growth has a website, there are reasonable policies, but only a small portion of the garden is in view, giving the invasive species free rein.

Perhaps one of the reasons there are so many registered lobbyists working with the unregistered is to keep this fact a more valuable commodity.  How would a business interest play the rules and regulations of one state/city as leverage with another? The idea that the micro-marketing wars are only launched by business every ten years is a similar misunderstanding of the changing role of data systems.

“Only the small secrets need to be protected.   The big ones are kept secret by public incredulity.”

Marshal McLuhan

Businesses large and small are too busy protecting their interests to worry about regional planning or urban design, but they do file their tax returns. Sharing rapidly developing megacity data is not crazy from a large business point of view. After all, the small business and the mega-corporate entity is driven based on a daily consumer voting process. The information on consumption is vast and, until recently, largely unused by states for regional economic analysis and planning.  Once consumption is linked up to the vital statistics, and social characteristics of  “a region” brought to you by the Bureau of the Census, Department of Commerce,  the sheer power of it all belongs without a doubt in a public realm because it is a design problem.

Get a Handle

To get a handle on this, see Good Guide. It went offline beginning June 1, 2020. The explanation for this is a new eagerness to explore additional ways to bring its technology to the market. When it first opened, ideas like “industrial ecology” for access to data streams that get beyond the “green branding” phenomena to the cold, hard facts gave readers chills. That we define who we are and where we are going with products includes a frightening mixture of chemicals to entice. Being defined by what you buy every day, even who you vote for every few years, you might wake-up one day smelling the coffee or the kool-aid. Others know the weight of it all, down to the ounce and rate of consumption per day.  The guide was a counterweight for checking a brand product for its “earth” friendliness and a choice to act accordingly.  The idea is simple — these digital tools allow the consumer to be in charge, shorten the caveat emptor cycle, and even alter a large company’s culture. On the other hand, its loss and failure to return may also signal a curiously selective catastrophe to prevent adding power to the consumer.

Resources such as these are described with terms such as “open database connectivity.” It is examined as a powerful new tool for decision making in another post (here). It is the jargon of data systems that offer highly detailed product ratings that align consumption choices with values (even an iPhone app). Individual consumption data tools that account for environmental impact comparisons among consumption choices put consumers into the action of added purpose. In the ecology of commerce that Paul Hawkens talked about in 1993, the cycles are getting shorter between consuming for its own sake and motivation. Something is working.

To put this consumption handle in its “class,” several books on data crunching by business rejoice in a new and vast capacity to regress to the mean. The Wisdom of Crowds outlines the “no one is smarter than all of us argument” with clarity.  On the other hand, almost all of the algorithm concepts expressed in this book are pulled from datasets where the data providers were clueless — they had no idea they were contributing to a massive “regression toward the mean” expression of smartness.

The three central promises of progressive planners still need to be pursued with some urgency. The promise of sustainability has already become a hope for resilience. The promise of compact urbanism includes the horror of displacement. The promise to eliminate disadvantage remains so poorly understood that the goals for a city of purpose seem impossible to write.

The Club of Rome

The Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution’s Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet hosted a one-day symposium on March 1, 2012, celebrating Limits’ 40th-anniversary Growth.

By 2012, the scenarios offered in the first report proved correct. Published in 1972, the Club of Rome’s truth is now evident. There will be a managed solution by putting a price on GHGs to pay for new energy solutions. The second truth is a bet made and one assumption. There will be a series of catastrophic resolutions with severe social, economic, and environmental “chaos costs” in the world to create needed change. The thing about ecosystem services is the bill always gets paid.

Whether it is business, national or local politics that provides for the action needed, most of it is of little consequence because it is too late to achieve sustainable development for five reasons.

  1. Public discourse has difficulty with subtle, conditional messages.
  2. Growth advocates change the justification for their paradigm rather than changing the paradigm itself.
  3. The global system is far above its carrying capacity.
  4. We act as if technological change can substitute for social change.
  5. The time horizon of our current system is too short.

Therefore, governments promote endurance, and businesses support investment in resilience. Since Dennis Meadow estimates 3% of global GDP for a stabilized and sustainable world, the price has gone up. Resilience will cost more than that, but now there is no choice.

Finally, this is how fast the data is moving. The 2012 symposium ended with a thought-provoking panel discussion among the speakers on the future of building a sustainable planet. The symposium was webcast and archived for later viewing. An event program was available for download, but it is no longer. The data and lack of movement are documented here accurately. The data has changed more radically than anticipated. If you want to chase it down, these were the links:

Limits to Growth Dennis Meadows and Jørgen Randers Smithsonian and YouTube Presentations as follows:

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