The Synergy Project

The answer has been right in front of us all along. What matters is the place, and what happens in a place. The earth is big, as a system, it is described best in terms of its solar system. It is better to make sense of the earth in small ways, one with people we know who want and need to create good places.

Rex L. Curry

Our Compacity

Density is a science term. Compacity is a measure places like the New York Metropolitan Area. New York City on the other hand has a fairly distinctive line around it, and that defines it reasonably well.

People know exactly where they are in the NYMA and when not. Boundary lines separate one thing from another and the stuff that makes the NYMA separate from everything else is tied to the density of things per unit of land or water. At some point, the area is not dense enough to be called metropolitan. These many densities combine to form measures of compacity, of everything we know and to the detriment of humanity, it still remains a vague notion.

Politics and Plans

Lines are also the subject of power. I am a researcher more than a practitioner. The lines in the world of politics and plans distinguish one leader’s area from another. Leaders may be political representatives or other types that reveal areas of distinct responsibility for services such as police, fire, and sanitation or how water, gas, electricity, and bytes serve your community. The lines are multi-linear they can define you by your zip code or the train line you use as equivalent to career routes to and from places that shape human life.

The Synergy Project

The premise of combining stories and writing about the compacity of urban life and the many opportunities it offers includes elements of personal political leadership essential to educate and inspire the will to create change on a scale so massive it appears impossible. It is not.

Economists & Advocates

Economists have value systems, just like other people. To the economist, the affordability of housing and its price is relative to the cost of production, not the ability of people to buy or rent. The economist also knows that housing is essential, however, when the cost of production exceeds a household’s income capacity for acquisition or rent by over 50%, the value system of the housing rights advocate is activated.

Demands for public intervention by the economist or housing rights advocate occurs in the political economy. The result is a range of subsidies or incentives for people seeking housing and the corporate producers offering it. Economists have long lists of variables affecting a household’s capacity for mobility on a spectrum ranging from a positive transition away from being “rent burdened” to outright homelessness. The failure to intervene in some markets leads to displacement from high cost to lower cost areas and most evident during extreme disruptions observed around the world. The refugee crisis is stimulated by violent conflict, the refugees in the United States go unnoticed, and wrongly defined as individual human failures and certainly not as victims of an evil force or the soft violence inherent to capitalism.

The experience of both economists and housing rights advocates intersect on the selection of interventions. The economist uses sophisticated formulas based on whether units are valued below or above construction costs over specific evaluation periods. The national economist concludes this analysis with a description of a healthy and affordable housing market in the nation as a whole. The housing rights advocate within smaller regional markets points to downward pressure on wages and the costs of household displacement. These are difficult social costs to measure because the impact is in neighborhoods and displacement cycle data is decennial. In tight markets, weak wage growth and displacement costs can be severe enough to fully separate householders from their homes. The evidence base for this remains largely anecdotal but rises from one tragic number. In New York City, and every year for decades it sits at 40,000 people, mostly women with children who are homeless and as it stays at this number year after year. Only one conclusion is possible -homelessness a production function of urban living.  

New York City’s first homelessness crisis arrived suddenly in the early 1980s and like the voices calling out, the “subprime crisis” warnings were unheeded. When buildings throughout Manhattan known as SROs (single room occupancy) became marketable for more profitable uses, hundreds of people fell into the streets. The burden of that shift fell on the city agencies heavily and its large of WW I and WWII armories became shelters. As the crisis matured, many supportive housing programs formed followed by the construction of low-cost hotels throughout New York’s five boroughs supported in part by city funding for families in short-term distress. The enormity of capital that was in part responsible for causing displacement and homelessness averted a humanitarian crisis but it did not solve the problems of displacement, it absorbed displacement to further urban reinvestment processes.

The tragedy of capital and its workings are easy to spot in the eyes of the housing rights advocate. In looking at the issue of housing and community development through their eyes it is easy to see why the literature on democratic socialism has become more and more abundant. Quotes from the socialist literature such as the following appear in internet discourse and as widely as Season 5 Episode 5 of “The Americans.”

His labor is therefore not voluntary but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.

Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Karl Marx “Estranged Labour” Source:

Affordability advocates point to the 80+ percent increase in visits to since 2009 (statistics) as an indicator of people searching for answers. They would argue the rising cost of shelter is not only separating families from their homes but from their local economies as well, creating food deserts and deteriorating conditions in services where there should be vibrant neighborhoods. The economist might agree on these facts but would argue the call for political change is not built successfully on distress factors.  The percentage of income for shelter is only a benchmark of affordability. This factor does not define the problem well, only one of its symptoms. The economist’s definition examines the range of construction costs associated with housing and the correct response to affordability would be to build more housing to increase supply while also acknowledging the frustration of housing rights advocates regarding existence of affordable housing, that is not where people need it or have low-cost access to it or from it for jobs.

Economist says the social cost of new housing cannot be lower than the cost of construction it is because it impinges on gains accrued when the price of housing is significantly above the cost of construction. To the economist, the social costs are those imposed on consumers for which they are not compensated or charged. The housing rights advocate, on the other hand, cannot easily quantify social gains attached to a course of inaction only the action that prevents loss. Numerical values are not readily assigned for food needed but not eaten, child care services not provided, transit unavailable or the costs of displacement from one home to the next and the next or ultimately into institutionalized shelters. Built into the tragedy of capital lies the misfortune and heartbreak of people made invisible.

Dense housing markets suggest to the economist that supply limits are due to high costs for land and construction. Another view sees high costs in regional suburban markets where land is abundant, that restrictive zoning, fees, review and approval processes are the principal causes of increased construction costs. Both definitions of the problem seem accurate, leading to the question of how it is possible to produce more housing in both markets when paired for comparison of initiatives in specific regions? Housing markets such as New York City and San Francisco are unique because conditions of demand create a significant divergence between prices and costs. Adaptations in dense markets alter the ratio of height from 1:7 to 1:17 (see Park Avenue.) No such change in ratio occurs in lower density regions. Dense markets increase rent pressures on low-and-moderate income households, however, safety valve measures such as Rent Stabilization reduce these pressures with triggers tied to inflation and specific capital improvements. These practices slow the problem but do not stop its pace.

While low densities often associate with upper-income demand for amenity and land these costs appear to have more to do with zoning than the marginal cost of land. Economists admit that data linking zoning to production costs is difficult to develop. The Wharton Land Use Control Survey (1989) has been followed up and subsequent publications under the title of Wharton Residential Land Use Regulation Index (WRLURI) provide added support for this position (Joseph Gyourko). For the housing rights advocate, the regulation connection to high development cost is a plain fact on the heads side of the housing coin but in the game called “heads I win, tails you lose,” the regulatory protector on the tails side (the game).

Paul Davidoff (1946-1985) was one of those housing rights advocates who recognized the cost structures imposed by zoning and other land use regulations mattered a lot. He opened the Suburban Action Institute in the late 1970s and transformed it into the Metropolitan Action Institute in the 1980s. The idea was to conduct research and prepare litigation everywhere in the metro-region that would increase access to suburban communities for people with disadvantages by breaking down exclusionary zoning rules. He saw them as unfair, regulatory constructions that refused to understand or plan to serve the needs of people already holding a set of comparative disadvantages. In this sense, the nation’s affordable housing crisis would not exist if advocates for change could exhibit and expose the injustice aimed at young people, minorities and women, further aggravated by skin color. Effective change requires an attack on the barriers built by human prejudices that continue to remain unchallenged decades from the passing of leaders like Davidoff.

For the economist, the price of housing across the nation remains close to the physical costs of construction Edward L. Glaeser examines the “plenty of affordable housing in the wrong place” issue as one of the economists who routinely parses housing data with highly refined tools. His lean toward density as a provider of affordability links to data that strongly suggests how zoning, and other land-use controls, are more responsible for high prices and exclusion. The title of his most popular book tells the story people need to hear –  Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.

Davidoff’s instincts placed the burden for change on the urban planning and architecture community and he criticized its lack of leadership. He brought about changes in the professional planner’s code of ethics accordingly. Davidoff knew that planners and architects have a capacity for envisioning futures that people can share, believe in and fight to achieve and yet failed to take a leadership position remains. Turning to litigation and legislation for political social change is the least powerful route without a dedicated political movement back by professionals that know how to change prejudicial behavior and correct wrongs. Legislation and litigation are rarely dispositive of any question without the strategic use of political action.

The economist takes social and economic change as a matter of professional observation, that all things require a sense of equilibrium to achieve useful observations of human economic behavior. For the economist, the evidence is always suggestive and never fully definitive for changing policy. For the housing rights advocate its more radical forms of resistance to oppression, social injustice is needed. Both actors are sensitive to the outright chaos embedded in the postures of conflict from financial bullying to dirty little wars. Both, on the other hand, are capable of a “facts are friendly” approach to the demands for social change.

Financial Herd Immunity

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg (NYC’s Mayor 2002-2013) is one of those “facts are friendly” leaders. He combined the problems defined by the economist and the housing rights advocate by going directly at zoning and in a big way. In reviewing his options for a housing strategy he looked at the Federal Budget and reportedly said, ah bupkis, and then examined the steady boom in the NYC’S residential real estate market and went all in on the “inclusionary zone” idea already well advocated by the city’s nonprofit housing advocates. In this New York City model, “if you give a little” in this case square feet of floor area, you could, “get a little” in almost affordable housing. It would prove to be the displacement force of his era. Even with the 2008 Recession in his headlights, NYC’s housing market rebounded dramatically and the price, regardless of the impact of the Great Recession would continue the agony of homelessness.

His background in the production of econometric data for sale on the “Bloomberg Terminal” put him among the 1% wealthiest. (see Writer’s List and Timeline). In becoming mayor, he took a special interest in housing, but rather than turn to the city’s housing agency for answers, he moved to produce significant reforms aimed at housing production through the Department of City Planning. In this agency, he could produce incentives for private development and expose the facts of housing production cost, leading to a ten year battle for his Inclusionary Housing program that would become mandatory for the entire city built on the proof of its success.

At the end of Mayor’s third term his administration could take credit for 175,000 new and rehabilitated housing units, the pace of which has not lessened in the administration of Mayor De Blasio. (2014, 2020, and a possible third term) His administration of the Housing New York (HNY) plan claims 109,766 affordable homes financed since its inception in 2014 through June 2018. The prospect of a floor area addition within strict design parameters for new housing through zoning created ways include 20 percent or more units of a project for modest income households. This factor alone outweighed the constraint of production costs as the supply of new and rehabilitated housing amounted to over one million units of housing over the first two decades of the 21st century. (Assuming 20%= 380,000 units, then 100% is well over 1million.)

New York City’s housing history from 2000-2020 should tell all observers that balance can be achieved in the eyes of the economist. In the vision of the housing rights advocate serious affordability questions remain. In this plan, 80% of the housing is unaffordable to a couple with two kids if they earn less than $85,000 a year when affordability is measured by 30 to 35 percent of income used for housing. The number of households below that threshold (such as two rookie cops in 2018) will either gain the skills to compete for these incomes or stand quietly in the line leading to the day to day battle against the deterioration of their shelter, routine harassment and the specter of displacement and the threat of homelessness.

Policies that reduce production costs do well with zoning reform incentives. LEED/SEED environmental incentives lower operating costs as do tax reductions. The direct production of deeply subsidized housing occurs using those tools and substantially reducing (or eliminating) the cost of money. This is useful for two reasons.  It sustains an in-house knowledge base of production costs and it serves the city’s most vulnerable populations with hope. Building small numbers of heavily subsidized housing units has a trivial impact on average housing prices but it is a win-win for all city’s with large and flexible capital budgets.

New “York’s also has a “city within the city” managed by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). The deterioration of 175,000 apartments in this arena for a very low-income and aging population is a growing concern. NYCHA’s situation is emblematic of a national predicament. The nation’s legacy of social housing has become a kind of “trap” based on race, poverty, and destinies defined by zip code.

The movement toward a reform zoning regime in high-cost areas facing greater stress in their capital budgets in suburban areas face consequences on two fronts. The first is knowing full well that the deterioration of the older single family stock and supportive infrastructure is ongoing and likely to absorb displaced households from their core cities as prices/rents fall. The second front is to make zoning changes politically feasible through initiatives such as mass transit based high-density housing development. Other forms of compensation regarding the reduction in housing prices due to this change in low-density areas are therefore likely, but less palatable.

The NYU Furman Center is an excellent source of independent, evidence-based analysis of housing and its affordability.

Furman serves the core data analysts as well as the ordinary concerned citizen of New York City with training that helps Hithe housing rights activist drill down to neighborhoods of specific concern for information.

Well-reasoned articles on issues such as the effect of migration of higher income residents on displacement in specific areas are plentiful at the Furman Center. The rise of 19th c. macro- and. micro-economics from economists such as John Maynard Keynes describe how the demand for housing creates housing. Others such as Jean Baptist Say describe how the supply of housing creates its own demand. These worldviews have been injected into public policy for many decades and both are being severely altered by the idea that differences of degree matter greatest in the small things that alter human life or all life. The interest in growth continues to castrate the truth, degrade the environment and destroy beauty. This is where the numbers lie despite their accuracy. Affordability will soon become a far greater function of location and the energy function of “buildings” among all the other buildings. Attendance to community needs will require a radically altered view of growth. We live in cities yet have only the vaguest idea of what they are now or must become for generations to come. 

The next post in this series (GND) will of necessity look at housing within its larger systems and within which our homes will be rethought. The Green New Deal (GND) is a comprehensive idea to counter the worst ideas under the heading of “climate denial.” A draft is here as a Google Document outlining the creation of a select committee. An excellent summary of its content and potential is from the Haas Energy Institute (here).

Dealing New Green

The glory of American style politics and the power of its global businesses and industries is unchallenged. They have yet to respond to the demand for a strong public investment in mitigating the risks associated with climate change.

Failure to act is not the question; thousands of ideas are flowing in the digital winds; hundreds of ideas are being demonstrated. The current stream of investment is significant but confusing, as if finding a technical “one-off” or a strategic “winner” may be at the heart of the problem.  There is no magic bullet.

Without Salmon, the forest will not flourish.

Without the coalescence of tactics specific to every climate region of the earth, the failure will be confirmed by the earth, its rising seas, violent storms, floods, and fires. The choice to select a positive climate future has not been made. The choice offered is to wait and have it forced upon an unknown, potentially terrifying percentage of the population. Only one choice is rational and humane.

The Green New Deal (GND)

Only a political risk is implied by this unknown. Taking steps toward ideas like the Green New Deal is a risk because it may or may not prevent the displacement of the American worker by the technology needed for success. No action could be politically deadlier, but post mortem condition in Congress is not the problem. If political representatives are unwilling to bring America’s climate regions closer to a sustainable future, then the task is simple: to elect leaders who have courage. 

This is no ordinary battle. Every representative in the House will be pushed or pulled in this direction through 2024. A rough first draft of the legislative role is a GoogleDoc (here). It outlines the creation of a select committee recently named Crisis Climate Committee.

The GND goal is to decarbonize the economy with Keynesian style short-term bursts of large scale public investments, coupled with federal employment guarantees. The GND will be implemented as an evidence-based, outcome-driven, and performance measurement process. The FDR Library well documents the New Deal’s development as an idea for its time.  The depth of its creativity in the public interest was in response to a complex set of human needs, environmental challenges, and opportunities. The library created an Interactive Periodic Table of the New Deal for the study of its history. Readers are invited to bring reviews and comments to this site regarding its relevance. 


The first step toward a GND as a public initiative requires a big preemptive warlike change in policy. That change is planned to occur for full implementation by 2020. Achieving the goals implied by the GND implementation will result in a national, energy-efficient carbon-reducing energy grid built on a massive expansion of renewable power sources with an evidence base built on the current use of and implementation of all known systems designed for the use of renewables.  These sources will define a rate of x% percent per year to establish outcomes to predict when renewable sources serve 100% of the national power demand.

The performance measures of individual renewables will determine future combinations of private and public investments. Specific energy conservation steps will contribute to goal accomplishment implemented through an energy use inventory of all residential and industrial buildings. Steps to ready all buildings for state-of-the-art renewable energy systems will be the measure for reduction levels by climate sectors of the United States as follows:

  1. Climate Sector reports will establish baseline reductions in GHG emissions through manufacturing, agricultural, and other industries processes.
  2. Climate Sector reports will define, locate, and score specific infrastructure investments to repair and improve the nation’s transportation grid and related infrastructure that yield the highest reduction in GHG emissions.
  3. Climate Sector reports will examine the water. Too much or the lack of it is at the center of climate change impacts. High priority investments in local-scale agriculture in communities across the country will include infrastructure to ensure universal access to clean water and protection from the damage it can cause.

The goal of decarbonizing the economy will include methods for a GHG drawdown process. Investments in known and proposed measures will define the potential for GHG mitigation. The evidence and performance measures for this determination are abundant.

If an ordinary, albeit intense blog such as the Urbanist (here) can demystify the process, a practical public process can be implemented.

Support for investments in green technology, through industrial, professional, and scientific expertise, and in the creation of products and services of a 100% renewable energy economy in the United States reimagines a new theory of “economic base” (Charles Tiebolt). It is worth trillions in global trade volume, if (and this is a big f’n “if,”) a viable and useful understanding of the growth of metropolitan governments occurs and develops in regions throughout the United States (read here from a half-century ago).

The media outlets Vox, The Atlantic, The Intercept, Axios, ProPublica covered the early efforts to create a GND. The field is wide, from its millennial “this changes everything” upstart sunrise movement organizers, to blue wave reps like AOC, and the support of the old, such as Al Gore. Ultimately, the GND is subject to the instincts of Nancy Pelosi where the idea for a GND fell into the lesser priority world of Congress like the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, and one hot button later became the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis headed by Kathy Castor (FL 14th) an unchallenged seven-term representative from Tampa Bay.

Crisis (danger + opportunity)

I don’t know when the idea of global conquest seemed possible or even thought of as accomplished in history. I do know it as the conscious decision of many actors over four thousand years or so.

The distinct spheres of human decision-making occur through deep social and cultural connections built on a cognitive view of evidence widely shared but rarely proven. These views can be right or wrong but consistently perceived correctly by the party that holds the view. Think of that sphere as “Pinky.” In another sphere, which I would like you to think of as the “Brain,” are the decisions made in professional silos. As an example, economists will influence decision-making based on combinations of economic factors such as costs or benefits, profits, and losses measured by currency and a period.

Perhaps the most useful decision making sphere is the one that drives for a big transformation.  The impetus is drawn from exposure to incorrect, “Pinky-like” beliefs established by the first sphere’s cultural recurrences.  The stimulus for specific action draws from the second sphere’s failures, where “The Brain’s” leadership reveals how traditional practices’ collapse. Whether the market for these experiences is in currency, ideas, or both, the demand for something new and transformative takes hold. The geologist’s understanding of time and the anthropologist examination of humanity have suggested we name this transformation the Anthropocene.

“The era of geological time during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate, and ecology of the earth.” Oxford English Dictionary.

Andrew C. Revkin’s lifetime of reporting produced a perfectly tuned review of his global experience as the observer of the growing pains of humanity as follows:

Greta Thunberg’s argument “listen to the scientists” speaks to the quality of her education at her young age. It is not “which scientist” it is recognizing how the body of evidence is established. It takes time, criticism, and continuous improvements in their methods and conclusions that eventually become indisputable.

“After tens of thousands of years of scrabbling by, spreading around the planet, and developing tools of increasing sophistication, humans are in surge mode and have only just started to become aware that something profound is going on.

Andrew C. Revkin — An Anthropocene Journey.
The message: “how dare you,” and “we will never forgive you.”

“It’s surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.” “The truth is: the natural world is changing. And we are totally dependent on that world.”

David Attenborough’s conclusion is clear in these two quotes. We now exercise power to “create a planet” and remain unknowingly dependent on those changes.

Urban Speakers

The authors in the following (long list and growing) visit New York City routinely. Perhaps they would enjoy a sponsored conference or a workshop on persuasion. The question on persuasion is direct. Who among them make the most sense on the “design” for change. No matter how smart they are if nothing happens the design and implementation was about book sales. Sad. Comment here or the LinkedIn site here to participants.


Recall Robert Gutman

I would like you to recall Robert Gutman to start off. The point being, to define measures of inequality in design practice. The intellectual rigor of his research has much to offer. In Architectural Practice he established useful controls for a wide range of factors that affect “life in architecture” such as poverty, residential mobility, and education.

Thousands of practitioners in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry may have been influenced (albeit briefly in a classroom) by Robert Gutman’s ratio of professionals to the urban population (Princeton Arch Press 1988). The central point was about 98% of the population never gets to meet or talk with an architect or engineer – ever.  To set a relevant tone for making urban design a contribution to sustainability, re-read and update the legacy of Robert Gutman.  

Questions such as the following should be aimed at people such Adolfo Carrin Jr.,  White House Office of Urban Affairs (a planner) or Shaun Donovan, an architect (HUD) and their global counterparts .  Believe me, they are familiar with “bottom feeding” architecture and planning. There is no courage in this industry outside an undergrad jury room. The question is whether this weakness should be allowed to continue as an acceptable part of the overall community development puzzle.

Question One: 
How possible is it to locally (if not globally) alter fee structures to represent a new set of values (carbon reduced, energy saved, life cycle defined) and to implement levels of public leadership that will effectively produce massive changes in the “live-work/play” behavior of humans over the next century? If not, why not? Get a handle on that, and the second question might be definable within architecture, engineering and construction (AEC).

Question Two: 
How can this industry change the existing contours of civic representation? Without a doubt, we live in a house that we all build, but unlike the other service professions, AEC produces places for million of people in recurring development events in increasingly massive domains that are interspersed with isolated, poorly linked and evaluated public realms that advance human capacity beyond “the hive”. The built environment is becoming tragically illogical by failing to address a greater sense of balance in the market of ideas for living if not, a broader social system for full participation in life itself will not take place.

The Global Urban Challenge

The first stage of a humanitarian crisis is the general denial of facts. As a result, defining the first question offers hope for finding and accepting new methods for recognizing resilience as the first step toward sustainability. The second stage is aimed at all biological beings facing short- or long-term ecological crises. The focus on the technology of  “life, work/play” will not define ecological problems. Essentially, there is no fix without a vastly broader sense of responsibility.

Given this foundation several other questions require development as follows: What policy changes within New York would the following folks recommend? (fiscal, land use, zoning) How would they implement a regional strategy?

Ecological Intelligence
Daniel Goleman

Position: Consumer-driven change will work, given the right iPhone type app at the right time.

To understand the full impact of a single consumption choice, the question “Is this good for the Earth?” is impossible to answer for the lack of life cycle data. The moment of consumption is well past design, or production and ahead of use and disposal.  Daniel Goleman defines this “being good” problem in his book, Ecological Intelligence and describes “industrial ecology” as way to act ecologically – confronting a complex global challenge that is embedded in personal consumption choices and in doing so, alter the forces that drive design and production, as well as, demand new cycles of responsible disposal and retention. Did you just think of all that plastic floating in the Pacific? I did, it was not about waste, it was about currents.

The Entropy Problem is the Solution

Beyond advancing the bonded rationality embedded in individual consumption choices, the virtual backbone of consumption remains the connection between railways, expressways and the power- and water-grids.  Will the ecological intelligence approach work to improve the quality of decisions that will make the 50,000 miles of national expressway infrastructure less dysfunctional, or 225,000-mile national rail system useful, or does it keep 200,000 miles of national grid power from routine catastrophic failure or plug up a very, very leaky water grid? Maybe as an intellectual exercise, but politically no f’n way.

The scale of coordination among states and multi-state regions to address these questions is well beyond the power of individual consumer choice. The mega-city structure of these regions and the mix of private, government and public benefit corporations serving as ad hoc,
impromptu, expedient, makeshift, cobbled together regulatory bodies do not appear to have a capacity for rational thought, let alone ecological intelligence. The timing of their failure requires study, nothing else.

Sustainable America
John Dernbach

Position: Sustainable development will make the US livable, healthy, secure, and prosperous.  Ten themes are developed by Dernbach as follows:

  1. Ecological footprint system integration
  2. Greenhouse gas reduction programs
  3. Stimulate employment for unskilled persons in environmental protection and restoration
  4. Stimulate or get stimulated by NGOs to play a major role
  5. Organizing government using sustainability principles to prioritize
  6. Expand options for sustainable living to consumers
  7. Advance general public and formal education
  8. Strengthen environmental and natural resources law
  9. Lead international efforts on behalf of sustainable development
  10. Systematically improve access to data for decision making

Released 1.12.2009: Order from Island Press.  Also see: Stumbling Towards Sustainability

With the Ten Items Above in Mind

Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan said it best in Ecological Design when they contrasted sustainability defined technologically as opposed to ecologically (pp. 18-23) Here they summarized David W. Orr’s position on ecology.

First, people are finite and fallible. The human ability to comprehend and manage scale and complexity has limits. Thinking too big can make our human limitations a liability rather than an asset.

Second, a sustainable world can be redesigned and rebuilt only from the bottom up. Locally self-reliant and self-organized communities are the building blocks for change.

Third, traditional knowledge that co-evolves out of culture and place is a critical asset. It needs to be preserved, restored, and used.

Fourth, the true harvest of evolution is encoded in nature’s design. Nature is more than a bank of resources to draw on: it is the best model we have for all the design problems we face.

Technology is zero sum when placed in a priority higher than these four principles of change.

Do Not Forsake the Following

Peter Droeg finds the question of technology is useful but probably secondary.  He is the author of The Renewable City: A Comprehensive Guide To An Urban Revolution and offers up the tool kits on city greening cities that have been around since the 1970s. The kicker is they were not implemented for the lack of “payback” and other reasons.

Mitchel Joachim seeks to integrate ecological design, but Dr. Joachim wins Time Magazine’s Best Invention (2007) for work with Smart Cities Group Compacted Car. As a partner in the nonprofit design organization Terreform, Fab Tree Hab project, an so on, he baits the Sprawl vs. Urban Center debate as a choice: is it better to spread over the landscape or produce dense compact cities. It depends.

Aside from the “unstoppable both” answer and the more jargon than juice issue, is anything going on here other than too much talent chasing after too much money or is it more hubris.  I’m talking about the kind of technology that is embedded in Tom Perkins’ Maltese Falcon (the $100M sailing ship that can be sailed by one person) Even he is embarrassed.

Mike Davis would seriously disagree about the “urban solution” to the “global challenge” question in Planet of Slums.  As an urban theorist Davis takes a global approach to the poverty that dominates the planet’s urban population.  The list is growing from Cape Town and Caracas to Casablanca and Khartoum. Davis argues health, justice and social issues associated with gargantuan slums like Mexico City’s estimated population of 4 million seem invisible in world politics.  He writes,

“The demonizing rhetoric of the various international wars on terrorism, drugs, and crime is so much semantic apartheid: they construct epistemological walls around gecekondus, favelas, and chawls that disable any honest debate about the daily violence of economic exclusion.” 

Mike Davis in Planet of Slums

Statistics showing the number of “mega-slums” or “when shanty-towns and squatter communities merge in continuous belts of informal housing and poverty, usually on the urban periphery” have been forming since the 1960s. Davis paints a bleak picture of the upward trend in urbanization and a severely negative outlook for urban slum-dwellers. Can you say, pandemic?

Matthew Kahn wrote Green Cities: Urban Growth and Environment to frame the process of rapid urban development and sprawl as a source of concern about economic exclusion and environmental health.  Are they mutually exclusive? Most policies pursue both, but Kahn suggests it is naive to do so.  Is Kahn the best person to ask the tough questions about the costs?

Douglas Farr’s recent publication, Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature (2007): Wiley ($75 – 304 pages) is his admitted first “draft”. The debate is open, case studies are available, but the initial steps toward a neighborhood-based “excellence” process on the long list of techniques worthy of implementation are outlined well.  Doug will be the first to tell you that it is “hell” out there, especially after spending a decade on a relatively simple process of trying to make it easy to walk from one place to the next. New Yorkers know intuitively that so many solutions to the problems of the glog lie quietly inside our tiny realm of thought islands.  (glog? – the blogged globe).

Peter Newman and Isabella Jennings most recent work, Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems, Principals and Practices. (2007) explores urban design as a resource for streaming energy, materials, and information into a new urban system.  Newman and Jennings recognize that “a system” can only be described in terms of larger more complex systems.  In this brief introduction (296p), urbanization as a system presents a series of human/non-human “man against nature” interactions that are being inexorably overwhelmed by the larger ecosystem. Nevertheless, Newman and Jennings make a case for an urban solution to the global challenge that is compelling.

Christopher Leinberger work, The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream. (2007)  Chris is within driving distance of Detroit and must, therefore, be compelled to write a book with this title.  Top on his list of problems to solve is the lack of affordability in communities where walking to most services is available and mass transit for the remaining specialized services affordable and comfortable. Concerns regarding recent land use policies in NYC now support as many as nineteen different forms “drivable sub-urbanism” in New York City that seriously challenges the existing walkable urbanism structure. Local leadership is failing as developers (who only know how to do it their way) continue to be very pocketbook persuasive with policymakers. What is that other book – Retrofitting Suburbia?

Kim Moody has prepared a detailed summary of political/fiscal policy From Welfare State to Real Estate: Regime Change in New York City 1974 to the Present. (2007). The book summarizes the transformation of political and fiscal power by the Financial Control Board following the 1974 Fiscal Crisis. Since then, the budgetary powers of New York City Planning Commission and the Department of City Planning’s are in the hands of the New York State government whose “fiscal order” has become a national embarrassment.  Several questions require development as follows: Even though he believes it is “nearly too late” to make policy changes that would effectively address the economic “bifurcation” of New York, we are compelled to ask what might be done?  How would he implement a regional strategy that also recognizes the impoverishment of older urban centers throughout the region?

Other options:

Collaboration in Urban Design and Planning was recently extolled in Part III “The Design and Planning Components (Levels of Integration)” in the second edition of The Built Environment: A Collaborative inquiry into Design and Planning (2007) edited by Wendy McClure and Tom Bartuska, Washington State University.

Glenn Beck and Kevin Balfe wrote An Inconvenient Book (Threshold Editions, $26.) The tough solutions to problems such as global warming, poverty, and political correctness are described.  Many weeks on NYT bestseller list.  I suggest following it up… via James Lovelock vs. James Hansen? Panel and workshop?

ULI’s Army (always used their Dollars and Cents series but this caught my eye)

Getting Density Right: Tools for Creating Vibrant Compact Development. The tools for compact development, are in place for New York City, yet walkable communities remain strangely incomplete.  What is missing? According to NMHC, the key to improvements in leadership from local officials and neighborhood activists. The “frontline” obstacles to compact development are many. A review of this resource is needed.  Get it, read it, report and review.  It is $40 with a DVD of startup presentation materials.

Robert Wright in Nonzero – The Logic of Human Destiny (New York: Pantheon Books 2000) draws parallels between the trials and errors in the evolution of life and the determination of human culture to form a moral architecture.  The competitiveness for “place” through the manipulation of resources ultimately demands a social, if not a moral framework for trade and exchange.

For the most part, this relationship is the stuff of embedded knowledge – that which we “just know” but don’t talk much about in our day-to-day discourses.  Wright suggests this social data frames the trajectories of community through selection.  Well examined, these processes become predictable and will ultimately lead to nonzero.  Why? Our capacity to produce increased system complexity is grounded in the reality of trends in the evolution of organic form.  It is also a confirmation of the inevitability of convergences in the emergence of civilizations.

Life as we know it emerged from the inorganic to organic, to biological, and ultimately to physiological specializations producing the psychological – the mind.  In this continuum, the next stages of human history will be defined by the globalization of trade and communication technologies. Yet, is the human transcendental destiny defined by expanding our potential to shop?  Is this a world with meaning, is it worth having? Where is the glue to bind these survival and pleasure imperatives to a moral reality? The argument in Nonzero is the application of design as the teleological determinant.

The nearly irredeemable corruptions of systems that would process and manipulate physical material, including DNA may be balanced best by seeding human capacity with the information management resources to see, feel and define the spiritual transformations that are interwoven into these choices. We are now entitled to answer “of what community am I and my family apart?  We should also be entitled to ask and answer “of what community will I become a part by the making of these choices?”

Witold Rybczynski

In Makeshift Metropolis by Witold Rybczynski allows his teaching interests to lay down a lecture without admitting that at this stage in human history — people really need to be protected from what they want — Americans especially. As other top-level designers who succeed in a big way, I think Rybczunski writes to compromise with the realities of success as a teaching moment, nothing more. You see it in the choices he makes — to think once again on his own terms, or at least free of his client’s terms in a way that justifies the work of being incremental in a failing urban landscape.

The urban world is a physical and intellectual experience that fuels periods of vast prosperity, civic responsibility, investor confidence and an intangible sense of “pride of place” regardless of economic status. Cities are the catalyst for millions of experimental expressions of human thought and desire. They range from the myopia of projects for rapid capital returns to the grand visions of civil self-reforming society freely admitting mistakes and moving on with confidence. Within these many experiments, perhaps the greatest question confronting the expansion of global urban-ism is whether it is capable of containment. Is the city a physical entity that can stop expanding.  Were this possible, it would give the city-entity a new ultimate purpose to focus on the intellectual capacity of humankind and to recognize one key priority.  Protecting the diversity of the wilderness requires this separation.

We tend to forget that the market is never right until it corrects in what some call the race to the bottom in corporate governance. It also suggests that the aggregate of individual decisions eventually become overwhelming in every system.  Turn the econometric function of this fact on the earth as a whole and the rate of resource consumption is approaching the equivalent of 1.4 earth per year in 2011 and takes approximately 18 months for the Earth to regenerate what we use in one year. The level of correction this model suggests is painful to contemplate with a new sense of enjoyable abundance.

I fear, like so many before him, that Witold Rybczynski will force himself or will be forced into the survivalist fringe of Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti or the anarchy of Larry Harvey’s Black Rock City to be true to his word. One is physical proof of intellect the other is a call to the intellect for proof, both illustrate how messy humans will get just to make a disjointed point.

More? Really?

The Planner’s Network Book Club also selects great readings….check them out… A parallel group and an occasional joint session could produce excellent results. Please consider participating in the development of this resource.

Ah, so you’ve scrolled to the end breezing through all of the great thoughts of the thoughtful and yes, nothing has happened in the physical world, save a few hints here and there.

See Writers Wanted if you would like to continue this punishment.

Urban Obama

Watch and pull out what might be essential ideas for the urban agenda.   All of the good ones are tucked away in this now famous Vox series (here).

The Watchdog People

American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS)

Defenders of the values enshrined in the U.S. Constitution – human dignity, individual rights, and liberty.

Center for Public Integrity

As participants aligned with the Shorenstein Center’s Single Subject News Network and colleagues at The War Horse, The Marshall Project, The Trace, Chalkbeat, The Hechinger Report, ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting they are part of a network for sharing information.  The Center is keenly interested in how nonprofit and independent outlets in communities throughout the nation can engage readers and encourage activists on specific issues

Center for Progressive Reform (CPR)

Interdisciplinary examination of the legal, economic, and scientific issues that challenge the health, safety, and environment of people.

Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) follows the money and track its effect on public policy.

Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics (CREW)

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington see to end the sacrifice of the common good to special interests.

Common Cause

Organizing people to participate in democracy based on common issues.

Government Accountability Project

Anti-corruption hawks in federal government. FCG does not tweet. Accountability through defense of whistleblowers and activists.

National Security Archive

Research Institute and library at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Publishes declassified FOIA documents. No tweets, facebook, just history.

National Security Whistleblowers Coalition (NSWBC)

National Whistleblowers Center

Whistleblowers support on questions of security weaknesses; and vulnerabilities in intelligence agencies and a long list of critical energy and arsenal facilities. No tweets, facebook, etc. just hard work truth. No tweets by NSWBC

Project on Government Oversight (POGO)

Disclosure of governmental abuses and environmental damage through lawbreaking. Waste, fraud, and abuse in federal agencies due to special interest political money.


Sunlight Foundation

High technology makes government more accountable and accessible.

Tax is Spending

Tax is spending, and therefore the question of many organizations is rightly on the subject of what and then on who. A 2013 report by the Congressional Budget Office (here) illustrates a modestly progressive tax structure.

“In 2013, average household income before accounting for means-tested transfers and federal taxes was $20,000 for the lowest quintile and $292,000 for the highest quintile. After transfers and taxes, those averages were $33,000 and $215,000.”

Congressional Budget Office (Here)

Nevertheless, income in the top 20% is highly skewed toward the very top of the distribution. Among households in the bottom half of the highest quintile (the 81st to 90th percentiles), average income was only $157,000; among the 1.2 million households in the top 1 percent of the distribution, however, it was $1.9 million. Much of this is due to exclusions, deductions, preferential rates, and credits in the federal tax system. Revenues are therefore much lower than they would be otherwise without a structure of tax rates riddled with individual and corporate “tax expenditures,” a term is used to include all redistributed revenues.

The earned income tax credit paid to low-income households is significant. However, the mortgage interest deduction (MID) even with the new $10,000 cap is an annual expenditure far greater than the annual budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Similar tax expenditures include many forms of financial assistance for specific activities, entities, or groups of people (see amounts here).

When the phrase “squeeze the middle-class” is heard, the table below is what it looks like by quintile. The table summarizes the federal role in managing income distribution. Two significant transfers are involved, one is designed to prevent starvation and related forms of desperation in the lowest quintile with average incomes around $20,000 as a matter of humanitarian policy, the other is aimed at the higher quintiles in the hope that added revenue in the hands of the wealthy will sustain the middle 60% of households.

Source (here) from Congressional Budget Office

The 10 major tax expenditures considered are distributed unevenly across the income scale. Over half of the combined benefits of those tax expenditures accrue to households with income in the highest quintile (or one-fifth) of the population.  CBO estimates find seventeen percent goes to households in the top 1 percent of the population. In contrast, 13 percent of those tax expenditures will accrue to households in the middle quintile, and only 8 percent will accrue to households in the lowest quintile.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) passed 2017 shifted the benefits of tax expenditures to higher-income households in a variety of sophisticated ways that make it look like the ordinary household is getting a break, however, it is the percentages for the top income groups in the distribution that make it unfair if balance is used as a measure.

Tax Groups

Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) / Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP)

Advocates for tax laws designed to benefit ordinary households and attempts to reduce the impact of lobbyists working for corporations and the wealthy.

Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency Coalition (FACT)

This outfit organizes about 100 state, national, and some international organizations in the design of fair taxes and combats corrupt financial practices.

The Tax Policy Center


The Tax Policy Center (TPC) is a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution. The Center is organized to provide independent analyses of current and longer-term tax issues. It communicates its analyses to the public and to policymakers in an accessible manner.

American’s for Tax Reform (ATR)

On the other side of the coin be sure to look at radical sites such as this one from the libertarian right.

Control Balance

“Congressional control by political party is deemed necessary because agendas are set for the day-to-year influence of expenditures at home and the world through the administration of billions in revenue, and trillions in the structure of investment debt.”

Rex L. Curry

The Evidence of Power

Political power is evident in the 98% incumbency rate for the House and Senate, followed by the seniority rule that determines agenda powers through committee leadership by the majority party. The average replacement rate of a member in either party is in the mid-twenties in the House. That known, very little changes in Congress other than the fight to obtain a majority in the Senate where only a third of its members are challenged in six-year cycles and replacement is through death.

Political power is evident in the quality of American life from that of the neighborhood down streets from where you live to every remote military outpost on the earth and in space. America has not known the horror of war on its doorstep, but it has known the death of its children over two world wars, and a nearly countless number of other little wars. The traditional controls used to manage balance are losing the maintenance of ordered power. Following is a brief four-paragraph history of politics over the last decade to illustrate this concern, so don’t let your eyes glaze over. It tells you what makes thieves giddy.

  • Just as the warnings of a Great Recession took hold of the economy in 2008, the Democratic Senate seat number in January 2009 was 55 Democrats plus 2 Independents equaling 57 Senate seats.  (Kennedy D-MA was dying, and Franken’s D-MN election is in a recount delay). During this time, efforts by the Obama Administration (2008 to 2016) to pass a reform package defining the abuses of the FIRE sector and stimulus funding to repair the damage.
  • No Republicans in the House voted for the stimulus, but it passed. However, in the Senate the Democrats didn’t have 60-vote “control” to pass this legislation, three Republicans (Snowe, Collins, and Specter) voted to break a filibuster to move toward passage creating the conditions leading to a strong recovery. Nevertheless, it was in 2009 that close observers began to worry about the quality of governance in our democracy. A plan began to make Obama a one-term President.
  • When Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) recovered from ill health, he returned on July 21, 2009, but even then, Democrats still only had 59 members. Kennedy’s empty seat was temporarily filled by Paul Kirk but not until September 24, 2009, to give Democrats 60 votes (at least potentially) in the Senate. Democrats did have “total control” of Congress, but it lasted all of 4 months, from September 24, 2009, through February 4, 2010.  Control by Democrats ended when Scott Brown, a Republican, was sworn in to replace Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat marking the beginning a Republican takeover of congressional power following the 2012 re-election of Obama.
  • In 2013, the Senate’s two chiefs were Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).  McConnell’s effort to make Obama a one-term presidency failed and a long series of Republican filibusters against his agenda and nominees began along with a sense of unyielding discord. To force the issue, Reid invoked the ”nuclear option” to “get work done.”  For the entire history of the Senate, a two-thirds “super” majority was required to amend the rules or pass legislation. The “nuclear option” allows the Senate to override a rule with a simple majority.  Parliamentary rules are conflict-reducing devices. One of the most critical aspects in the Senate is the belief in the 60-vote rule to close debate or end a filibuster.  The value represented is clear – discussion debate and occasional obstruction achieve consensus and reasonable agreement on the use of power.  The simple majority (51) turned the process into a blunt reduction of conflict instrument and little else. Observers of the process continue to critique the failure to govern.

Though the 2014 midterm election, the Republican majority control of the Senate and the House was complete. The 2016 election also put the Presidency in the Republican wing. Unlike the Democrat’s four months of “total control,” the Republican Party has held “total control” for two years and has conducted its business without opposition until the midterm elections of 2018.

The Republic failure to repeal the laws offering an opportunity to provide health care for all Americans was followed by a massive tax reduction for the wealthiest Americans and two appointments to the Supreme Court. Half of the new law’s tax break for ‘small business’ will go to filers earning over $1 million according to a report for a Senate hearing prepared by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation (HERE).

The facts, on the other hand, are covered-over using the following types of incomplete comparisons in governance via Tweet.  In this context, and on the point of taxation, the flow and purpose of information aimed at the people could not have become more deviant.  For example:

“The Tax Cuts are so large and so meaningful, and yet the Fake News is working overtime to follow the lead of their friends, the defeated Dems, and only demean. This is truly a case where the results will speak for themselves, starting very soon. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!” @realDonaldTrump

The facts are the rate of job growth in the United States has remained the same as it was in the last two years of the Obama administration after reforming banking regulations in trade for chunks of bail-out cash.

Control Balance Desirability

I don’t think this is a strange idea. Life holds a hammer. Take a long look at the social psychology of Congress using the control balance theory. This may help to account for personalized aberrations of congressional and presidential behavior as a ratio related to the seriousness of their actions in group membership. Our 535 members are not the high-minded disinterested purveyors of intelligence, but they do not fail to come to terms with what is happening in their moment when conflict is inevitable.  In this condition, power can only be challenged by power.

The control balance idea was developed by Tittle 1995.  In 1995, the idea of control ratio imbalances theorized the seriousness effect of deviance if it was removed from individuals. His subsequent book,  Tittle 2004,  Major Revision replaced this idea with “control balance desirability” of groups.  If this could explain the types of deviance of powerful actors such as government officials, elected representatives, and agency staff it could light the way to keeping the Republic whole.

Control balance measures the increase in deviance as “control ratios” become imbalanced. The effect of imbalance in control ratios is reflected in other variables such as how irregular motivations relate to constraints on deviant acts. Examples abound under the heading of corruption.

The concept of control ratios applies to chemistry, even architecture.  The ratios occur by dividing one type of flow into another. In the social psychology of government, these flows form in media and can be defined as positive or negative by measures of observers. As a currency for ideas, facts, and opinion the flow may range from the detailed critiques of “think tanks,” to the degrading insults and slurs of the “bot-driven” Facebook and Twitter platforms. The data across the board thereafter exhibits the desirability of control balance as defined by increases or decreases in conflict.

Conflict is inevitable. In the world of words alone conflict is acceptable within the limits agreed to be rational discourse. Deviance is an instrumental behavior often employed to improve the control ratio. The introduction of a theory of “control balance” on the other hand, provides new explanations for deviant behavior of actors with a typology by which different individual acts suggested in the flow of words become categories. These acts will group as either repressive or autonomous actions.  In the context of seriousness (e.g. not joking) each will function in a range that will stretch from serious “working papers” to “twitter feeds.”

Now, look at Congress and center on its perceptions of control via majority. The acquisition of a desirable control balance provides a data flow ratio in the governance entity. It has exact measures of the amount of control exercised relative to the amount of control experienced. Given the impossibility of rational objectivity in social situations, the challenge to accept is to establish a realm of reasonable conflict.

Senate Republican Watch

Andrew Gounardes (D) bested incumbent Marty Golden (R) to become the next Senator for New York’s 22nd District covering Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Marine Park, Gerritsen Beach, Gravesend and parts of Sheepshead Bay, Borough Park and Midwood.

House Democrats Watch

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can’t afford rent in DC until her salary kicks in.  Her comment on this situation said it all. “There are many little ways in which our electoral system isn’t even designed (nor prepared) for working-class people to lead.”

One of the contradictions for Ocasio-Cortez is the average income for a congressional representative is now over $1 million but the annual salary is under $200,000.


“Until Tuesday, I will be focusing on the existential elections we face, helping to take back the U.S. House of Representatives and the New York State Senate.”

Democrat Mathlyde Frontus won the competitive race for the open 46th Assembly District seat against Republican opponent Steve Saperstein. The district includes Coney Island, Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and a portion of Brighton Beach.

Remember Muir

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911, pg. 110)
Sierra Club Books 1988 ed. See all of Chapter 6 on the Sierra Club website.

At the close of the century, the World Watch Institute’s call to “minimize consumption” and “maximize well-being” set the best tone with the fewest words. Dense environments can reduce consumption — per cap/per km/per day –24/7/365. The dense city alters the structure of consumption on many levels. So how do we create a renewed sense of abundance in life using these constraints? Remember John Muir.

Urbanization takes about a third of the earth’s surface and about forty percent for food. The remaining twenty-plus percent is the trickiest as a hodgepodge of fragmented spatial leftovers, it is a “SLAP” in the face to everyone from John Muir to those who walk in his footsteps.1

Beyond deserts and high mountain ranges, there are seeds for change, thousands of accessible places, Alaska’s wild glory, and “parks” from New York City’s Central Park all the way up to Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. Our land use policy tends to give “the wilderness” a boundary and, most vexing of all, nearly ignores the simplicity of our need for it as a thing separate and untouched.

Photo: Carleton Watkins – University of the Pacific digital collections,.

The name John Muir is synonymous with the importance of wilderness.  The tool was to be conservation, but today the river that cut the Grand Canyon no longer reaches the ocean. Muir put it this way in my head, the wilderness is the only way to look directly into the face of God and like it. He could not have imagined we would turn that privilege into our most vulnerable link to the incompetent use of land, labor and capital

1. SLAP — space leftover after planning