The authors in the following (long list) visit New York City routinely.  Perhaps they would enjoy a conference…a workshop…sponsored by APA Metro UDC and others.   The question to the UD committee is who among them make sense on the “design” for change issue. Comment here or in the UDC website or the LinkedIn site.

Recall Robert Gutman

I would like a member of the committee to recall Robert Gutman to start off. The point being, to define measures of inequality in design practice. The intellectual rigor of Putnam’s 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 a sustainable earth, re-read and update the legacy of Robert Gutman.  Then work with me to address questions such as the following to 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 both very familiar with “bottom feeding” architecture and planning. A key question is whether they continue find it 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 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 AEC.

Question Two:  Without doubt we live in a house that we all build, but unlike the other service professions, AEC produce places for hundreds, even thousands in each development event in increasingly massive domains that are interspersed with poorly linked, and unevaluated public realms.  How can this industry change the existing contours of civic representation in AEC?  AEC is tragically invested in so few that is seems illogical not to address a greater sense of balance in the market if not, a broader social system for full participation.

The Global Challenge Question

The first stage of a human crisis is generally denial. As a result, defining the first question offers hope for finding and accepting new methods for living on a sustainable earth.  The second question is aimed at biological beings facing an ecological crisis that is not short term. It must be made quite clear that a focus on the technology of  “live:work/play” will not define these ecological problems effectively. Essentially, there is no fix, without a establishing 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 by 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 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.

The Entropy Problem

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 functional, or 225,000 mile national rail system useful, or keep 200,000 miles of national grid power from routine catastrophic failure or plug up a very, very leaky water grid?

The scale of coordination among states to address these questions is well beyond the power of individual consumer choice. The mega-city structure of these regions and mix of private, government and public benefit corporations serving as ad hoc regulatory bodies do not appear to have a capacity for rational thought, let alone ecological intelligence.
Sustainable America by 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 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 coevolves 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 principles of real change.

Peter Droeg also believes the question of technology is 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 “pay back” 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. Aside from the “unstoppably 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 are 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.”  Statistics showing the number of “megaslums” 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.

Matthew Kahn wrote Green Cities: Urban Growth and Environment to frame the process of rapid urban growth 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 for asking the tough questions about the costs?

Douglas Farr’s recent publication, Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature (2007):Wiley (and a whopping $75.00 and 304 pages) is his admitted first “draft”. 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 islands.  (glog? – the blogged globe).

Peter Newman and Isabella Jennings most recent work is, Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems, Principals and Practices. (2007) This book explores urban design as 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 recent work is , 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 challenge the existing walkable urbanism structure. Local leadership is failing as developers (who only know how to do it their way) continue to be very pocket book persuasive with policy makers. What is that other book – Retrofitting Subburbia?

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 best seller 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 is 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.  Its $40 with a DVD of start up 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 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 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 a part?  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 ability 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 this success as a teaching moment.  You see it in the choices he makes to think once again on his own terms, or at least free of his clients terms in a way that justifies the work of being incremental in the 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 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 a civil self-reforming society. Within these many experiments, perhaps the greatest question confronting the expansion of global urbanism 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 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 becoming overwhelming in every system.  Turn the econometrics of this fact on the earth as a whole and the rate of resource consumption is approaching the equivalent of 1.4 earths per year.  It now (11.30.2011) takes approximately 18 months for the Earth to regenerate what we use in one year. The level of correction suggested in this model is painful to contemplate.

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.


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 participation in the development of this resource.

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  1. Development As Freedom by Amartya Sen, New York: Alfred A. Knopt. 1999

    The 1998 Nobel Prize in economic science was awarded to this Master of Trinity College in Cambridge for his examination of capital market economics and its relationship to the humanity of political decision-making.

    The chapter that caught added media attention focused on the crucial role democracy might play in preventing hunger by pointing out that a functioning multi-party democracy has never experienced a famine.

    His search is for processes that link freedom and democracy lies somewhere between the power of central planning and the “race to the bottom” produced by the inhumanity of unbridled capitalism. Raising people’s income may be less important than a foundation of political rights that guarantee expression without fear. This freedom allows for the provision substantive exressions that help societies come to terms with economic realities and when needed “choose” protective security such as an expanded public sector employment and in-come subsidies.

    Economic and political justice is a promise to not obstruct the full exercise of the individual’s capacity to make the best of themselves, not a guarantee for the achievement of a specific or state predetermined lifestyle. Sen asks, “Why should the status of intense economic needs, which can be matters of life and death, be lower than that of personal liberty?” It is the expression of these needs in the political arena of decision-making that injects an ethical dimension to the choice of methods for solving economic problems.

    With this underlying principle, the measures taken by political systems that are grounded by democratic pluralism seem to offer the world the best bet at making economic prosperity a recurrent phenomenon. With this kind of common sense built into the public realm, political actors may be given the opportunity to be more like Sisyphus and less like Caesar.