Artists of various urban futures are fond of envisioning the easy movement of people and goods as a visually exciting urban benefit. We see crowded, yet free-flowing shoulder-to-shoulder sidewalks, sweeping multi-layered elevations serving every possible land use linked to a landscape capable of moving everything from the fruits of a 24/7/365 vertical farm to thousands of colleges students from class to internships across regions.
The visions such as the image (above) presented on the Foster Foundation’s website have begun to meet the technology needed to implement an extraordinary integration of movement with architecture. Three broad questions must be answered to establish a foundation for this vital parts of urban design.
Where would it be best to attempt this expand and integrate free-flowing movement?
What are the political mechanisms for linking the movement of people and goods to the architecture of places?
How does movement infrastructure merge with the architecture of buildings and the layout of cities?
The first question on where this vision might be implemented were examined by the Foster foundation and others using three city typologies – Mexico City with 16,000 residents per square mile as a high-rise, high-density city core, London with 7,000 residents per square mile as a medium-rise, high-density city and the region surrounding the 47 square mile City of San Francisco involving 7 million people in nine counties and 101 municipalities representing the spreading typology of a low-rise, low-density metropolis. Surrounding counties such as Sonoma have about 4,500 residents per square mile while Marin has a resident population density of around 200 people.
Most observers know from experience that the low cost of land and lower population densities occur from the center of their nearest large city outwards in a pattern of uses best described as the fragments of leapfrog development. They also knew they live in one of those fragments and protecting its value is important. The link below reveals an image depicting evacuation zones based on the threat of extreme weather in a dense urban setting, however, the fragments of safe locations remain unclear.
The urban world is clearly observable as uncontainable. The image above can stretch to every coast south. Like most things that grow and behave this way, they begin and end, grow and decay. Nothing shows how wasteful urban development is like big storms and fires.
Natural systems that react to storms and fires leave nothing behind that does not have a use in the renewal of the larger system of which it is a part. The detritus of urban decay is not an abnormality or malfunction without use or function; however, corporations such as Waste Management (WM) do not fill critical observers with confidence. The best, yet sad statistical example is in WM’s 2106 Sustainability Report that suggests a 36% waste recovery rate (see: Video below).
“Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.”R. Buckminster Fuller
On the other hand, if the city is a container with a firm geography, bounded like a water bottle or one of WM’s containers, the city defines its users. Accordingly, it will develop to assimilate severe challenges, but not without a preset of physical parameters. Whether water, waste or something else, if not organized for use in a container of some kind, some remain unknown. Of necessity, the city must become renewable as a whole with reusable components.
One of the people working to get from the unknown to the known is Michael Storper, author of Keys to the City. He is an economic geographer contributing to our understanding of urban life. He separates “growth” from “economic development” using quality of life and standard of living measures such as real per capita income (nationally), distribution of revenue (locally), and social structures as they attach to income levels nationally and locally.
Storper’s data rich keys are from highly urbanized places in the United States and Great Britain. The information reveals combinations of urban structures that describe the impact of innovation, agglomeration or clustering that produce stable urban economies that also offer amenities (e.g., schools, tolerant neighbors, recreation, mobility) to produce choices. Some come with hard economic data for analysis about the softer measures of preference. An obvious top preference is affordable housing in urban areas. In NYC, inclusionary housing loans and square foot zoning bonus rules produce housing for low- and moderate-income households for occupation in the same building and market alongside high-income families.
Two families of three, one earning $63,000 and another $280,000 (2017) will have rent they can afford in the apartments of a multi-family building in a city and neighborhood where the skills of both households are interconnected (See ELLA and Inclusionary Zoning). Using a thirty percent of household income as a measure of affordability one rent would be around $1,500/month and the other would be $7,700/month. Arguments examining the drawbacks and benefits of this arrangement are ubiquitous in the urban sociological and economic literature. No matter, the depth of each argument, the designers of the containers defines the contents.
Innovations such as inclusionary zoning and similar programs push standard market forces toward choice with civility in a workable urban proximity. Stroper’s observations regarding this kind of urban development identify regional land use patterns as “territorially unequal” exhibiting two types of inequality. The first is that urbanization is itself a form of extreme unevenness: it packs people, firms, information, and wealth into small territories.” It also concentrates poverty, many types of physical deterioration, and social inequality.
Both empirical and statistical evidence of social fragmentation and economic displacement recurs with routine persistence. In the case where low- and moderate-income households live successfully “next door” to higher income households who help assure stable economic settings is a product of policy. The housing market is a “teacher”, but in the experience of a lightly contained city such as New York, it takes far too long to recognize and separate the right lessons from the wrong.
Stroper’s second type of unevenness in urban development is statistically observable over thirty to forty years. Individual metropolitan regions throughout the world undergo considerable turbulence in their fates, rising and falling in the income ranks, and gaining or loosing population at different rates. None of this is bad. Ever since the invention of capital, this behavior is the world’s most successful development process. Trial and error, up and down, back and forth, here or there is how the world works. Stopping the human part if it is stupid and besides, it is not doable. Turning the earth into a machine is well underway. The application of conservation of energy rules, on the other hand, says there is no way to isolate the energy of a machine system. While theoretically possible, conserving energy within a machine is not possible. In short, it stops.
I have a plan for 2,000 dense urban places, with 20,000 people each connected to high-speed communication systems. Each is an urban core offering specific opportunities for unlimited growth in a limited area. If they do not alter their boundary until 2160, I will give each one of them $20 billion dollars today over and above existing federal fund commitments.
Rex L. Curry
Imagine the nation re-designed in this way. Should it be 2,000 places with 20 million each, limited in area, but not in growth? All those left outside of the bonus core would become stewards of the environment and wild place caretakers and have only a few hundred people per square mile, a bonus in its own right. This solution will happen. It is the answer to every problem that would end the disordered phase of urban development. The right question is how do we get there?
Infrastructure investment in the United States is approaching a classic line in the sand of public policy. On one side of the line, federal legislators support a policy called, “catastrophic resolution.” especially if their eye is on the eventually paying for a big-ticket investment that actually offered a big return. On the other side of the line, legislators stand for “whatever my constituents want and need” leaving only a thing called the “debt ceiling” problem. The former sees 100-year-old tunnels that if they crumble, cripples the northeast economy for a decade. The latter will support rebuilding roads and highways leading to failing big-box shopping malls.
In this form of federal leadership, infrastructure failures of any kind need a critical mass definition of crossing the line. How many horrifying (or just ordinary) deaths cross the line? What is the national dollar amount tallied up in general revenue losses due to a breakdown in transportation or unstoppable forest fires or floods? The thing is no one knows and no one will classify or designate a line condition. This is the pornography of public policy – they will know it when they see it.
A grant from the National Resource Defense Foundation (NRDC) brought a video to the public in 2014 that sums up one element of advocacy by Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 that guarantees $20 billion as a solid investment in America. Take a moment to watch it.
There you have it, a basic set of economic facts about why density works. Similar snippets support ideas about building a better federal leadership lever, others describe the power of diversity, and still, others offer new concepts of growth. All of these ideas are worth debate and analysis and tossed to the wind because the American landscape has a seriously undefined problem. It can absorb substantial levels of damage on a regular basis and no one seems to have a line on how much damage might be too much.
The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED)keeps the data for the world. Much of it is made available freely, but short of making some kind of “end of days” speech, there is no line drawn that will change the trend in the general direction of trouble. Below is a brief example of just four kinds of trouble.
Define and solve catastrophic resolution problem beginning with data from CRED, and there may be a pathway for building a viable urban America, that becomes resilient, and with some luck, sustainable. There is one other table, and it looks at U.S. Federal Disaster Declarations in the same period below. The trend is as real as it can get. What needs to be added is a number in lives and dollars.
So now what?
I am developing a list drawn from the general advocates of public well-being. It will include some of the specifics offered by environmentalists, revolutionaries, scientists, architects, urban planners, all kinds of real estate developers, community organizers and political scientists.
Practically everyone lives in an urban area and practically all those who do not feel urbanized see their world threatened by urbanization. Both share a vague notion of what cities must become, and that is the central issue because creating a clear vision for one means will save the other.
Facts for why 2,000 dense and well-contained urban centers will be needed will become very apparent, very soon. These metrics can be trusted and if that can be made to occur and recur, that will lead to a sense of shared control. A language that will communicate based on these facts will be found people from the feds on down and our roots on up. If this communication occurs the proof will be whether or not we as a nation will be persuaded to pony up the 20 billion each urban core.
We live in a culture that embeds information, and where the most important things tend to go unsaid. All of us put information into machines that will retrieve data on practically anything imaginable from an alarm clock to an AI for more complex decision-making. A recent Rolling Stone article by Jeff Goodell (Flooded City) does not make this point but exhibits its results with great clarity. Goodell talks about flooding in New York and high or low ground with storm surge or microburst variables. The unsaid stuff defines a vast combination of intellectual and architectural ramparts outlined as plans in a series of locations throughout New York City.
A general presentation at the New America Civic Hall (9.15.16) proved to be very un-civic but managed to remain polite. All New Yorkers will look at a sea rise map, make a quick am “I in or out” assessment and log that in for a personal assessment of risk. Many of the people attending were outside the walls, wet on the map, had an obvious self-interest with the prospect of land poverty, but could not express them over all the talk of the new walls, ramparts, bounded rationality and cognitive dissonance in the presentation.
I have a suggestion on how to escape the Chicken Little problems the “flooded city” approach creates. The last half of the American century has offered two promises (maybe three). The first is the promise to eliminate disadvantage as discovered by the individual, the family, community, and nation. The American vocabulary, its literature, art, law, and architecture present an exquisite language born of the poetry and forums of each for change and communication. The framers of the Constitution strengthen us. We have been given the tools, created the space, and found ways to speak truth to power. We are skilled in the dialogue. We remain encouraged by each battle for social justice and civil society. We on this continent are routinely encouraged to confront the world’s history in ways that will keep that promise alive.
The second promise while not as refined, adds powerful new energy to the promise of eliminating disadvantage. It is the promise of sustainability. From the Club of Rome to its reflective twenty-five-year reunion at the Smithsonian, a more accurate word, Resilience, now communicates the correct challenge as well as imply a variety of post-trauma conditions. We now deploy resilience officers throughout the world, but their task is not to look at high water and low land. The resilience mission is different – find ways to draw a line in the sand. It matters far less about where there will be high water until we know how to draw that line in the sand. There is no crystal ball. Point to facts and describe where a part of the sky has fallen. Right now that is more useful than if it will fall. American’s do not avoid tragedy we wait for it.
Historically, when it comes to a resilience challenge, there is the “duck and cover” hedge and the old MAD way. The worldview of mutually assured destruction is also composed of private investors who are very active in their demand for public dollars to drive down risk. We need a much broader outline of ways to invest publically in resilience that may come down to clearly explaining the difference between the circle and the grid in urban design as we see it in the national highway system and the urban crisis.
The content embedded in the promises leading to fairness and sustainability can help us to recognize the architecture presented to date is in fact composed of walls and ramparts that encircle something. There is an inside and an outside. Without injecting these two promises into the process, the design of the walls and ramparts may do more damage than any violent storm. Future articles and public discussion should take a lesson from Elizabeth Kolbert. Her extraordinary review of the science of global change over the last half-billion years defines our entry into the Anthropocene epoch, the knowledge of which might save us all.
It is time to get practical about the local impact of global problems. I would apply the Isle de-Jean Charles Climate Change Refugees to a New York City example: The action taken in Louisiana occurred when they were down to the last two-percent of their land. Can New York or any other city afford to set that standard or hedge that bet, that way? Un-rough the math here, $100 million in relocation funds for 20 households applied to the 35,000 families in let’s say, Canarsie, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. The bill would come to $175 billion. Resettlement at 20HH/year would take a millennium. At 500 HH/year, the cost would be $2.5 billion/year, and it would take 70 years. Buy the property, strip it of its toxins, wait for the ocean to come and you have an artificial reef over the foundations, counter the acidity and make seafood. An investment of this kind protects the future. It would prevent the “land poverty” plan currently in play that will reflect the tragedy of the ramparts, not the water. For a place like Canarsie, or the Rockaways (the natural rampart), the test should be whether a quid pro quo is in place, or just another caveat emptor slap in the face, aimed at people of color.
Truth to power, you cannot get that pitiful amount today for a place like Canarsie. The policy for change remains in the MAD world of catastrophic resolution. The Chicken Little approach does not have a chance unless you do one simple thing. Put that line in the sand and be a little scary. Draw the wall, present its ramparts across the landscape of NYC or any other place on the planet, and have the courage to ask and answer two questions. Who’s In? Who’s out? Straight up, without weapons, humans are not built to kill, no claws or fangs, but when one group of humans is forced to say to another group facing a life-threatening condition “you are not selected” now or even in the evolutionary sense, I do not know which group is worse off.
A third promise awaits development given an implementation plan. The positive side of the formation of ramparts and walls is the opportunity to recognize a dense, contained urban life offering new forms of growth. The challenge is to put a stop to the grid humans have drawn on the earth. The grid is a symbol of the infinite. The sphere or circle is limited. The fuel of unlimited growth within this circle (ramparts and all) is to develop methods for all that enters the encircled urban world will leave in a non-toxic form. Today over 80% of what flows out is toxic.
Today the planners, engineers, architects, and climate scientists assess the impact of the sea rise, storm surges and micro bursts pounding down the Hudson River Valley on the city’s property. The Flooded City article points out the big picture these professionals paint for owners and policy makers. For example, a rise in sea level far less than a meter places 71,500 buildings and $100 billion of property in NYC’s high-risk flood zones. Sea rise is not a complex assessment. Remote earth sensing devices can measure elevation to less than a meter. Some devices calculate small fluctuations in gravitational forces, and for any area in question, can do so in real time. The ramparts and walls encircling vulnerable properties using these tools also exhibit a variety of wrongheaded priorities of great value for reforms and the discussion of fairness.
The below ground world of tunnels and conduit (vehicles, gas, power, clean, gray and black water) of New York City is not climate proof. Given the positives of the walls and ramparts, the capacity to fragment infrastructure systems to function independently is implied, but the policy is dishonest unless the question “who is in and out” is answered.
Global processes are geologically instantaneous events in the context of the last half-billion years. They occur daily but remain well outside of human experience. We are unlikely to “duck and cover” or step back from the waves of an unobservable rise of the ocean at the base of a massive river basin. Creating the incentives to do so is the challenge of our time.
Nevertheless, insisting the acquisition and removal of toxins from NYC’s waterfront and flood prone zones may be the best plan of action for no other reason that it will take a century to accomplish. The planning work as it stands today favors protecting property in the short term. It emanates from the boardrooms and public conferences in the old way. It is about producing jobs through relatively high yield, short-term investments under the heading of resiliency. The discussion of the toxins therein encircled by these old ways should take on a wider context and a sharper focus by its critics as each place could be chemically, biologically, and most importantly, financially toxic.
Declarations develop an emotional capacity for change on behalf of family and community, a town or city, a state and nation, province and commonwealth. The following declarations describe qualities of life known to the people and organizations of the dense urban environment. Each one strengthens the purpose of ‘the city’ for more effective technology, continuous innovation, informed public policy, and global urban leadership.
Produces High Levels of Collaboration
Establishes the Essential Boundary
Defines Human Abiotic Interdependence
Assures Well-Being, Viability and Resilience
Dense Urban Places and Collaboration
Governments tackle the complexity of urbanization on the drifting structures of accountability. Harnessing the interests of people who take actions that assure a recurring measure of certainty and security, love and family require environments that support collaboration. Measures of accountability attempt to determine the need to renew leadership. Implementation builds contracts between the structures of governance and the collective power of community action. Collaboration is how and why places matter. The benefits of collaboration are expanding rapidly.
The development and preservation of a neighborhood is an ancient practice. The physical conditions required are well developed. The social contracts guiding implementation are renewable. We know how to advance combinations of physical and social processes and with them, sustain lasting human relationships. Yet, there remains a far-reaching list of huge urban failures built on this hubris. What is missing? It is the belief in the power of small change and equally important, the ability to capture the knowledge of all of them, all at once. This is described best as the fierce urgency of now. Nevertheless, I believe we have reasons for renewed hope.
Dense Urban Places Sustain Micro-Change
Micro change is a substance people must know and feel to achieve goals. Setting objectives creates the instruments of action. In dense urban places, goals and objectives are immediate; occur in continuous succession and produce substantial results. The achievements of multiple micro-change makers reduce the pressures inherent to adaptation. In this sense, they have strategic control. This new reality of connective governance will grow.
Imagine a neighborhood filled with demolished building sites, and abandoned places. Then witness the arrival of small groups who are planting gardens, attempting to occupy and rebuild abandoned housing and demanding accountability for the cause. The authoritative role of government in this context includes developing legitimacy for these actions as a direct means of assuring public safety that includes the preservation of rights for all concerned. Preservation efforts describe many New York City neighborhoods from 1975 to the early 1990s. Many global factors have brought investment to NYC since then, but the most important and creative are community reactions to failure. A vast range of micro-change makers exhibit the vitality of diversity through moms, dads and kids, students of many professions, artists, visionaries of all kinds and cultures imaginable. This new reality of connective communities and cultures will grow.
Urban Density Establishes Firm Boundaries
Even though the strategies for adapting to change are mainly personal, the larger organizational demands for enabling conditions remain. The progression from individual to the group may occur in a vast expansion of urban places or the isolation of just one, but the opportunity for goodness is only evident with the assurance of survival for both. The complexity of individuals and organizations is a good thing, but due to a lack of boundary, the goodness acquired dissipates. There needs to be a firm urban boundary.
Imagine how creative a city would have to become if it had a firm and fixed boundary within which the goal is to encourage unlimited growth. What remains of the wilderness outside of this boundary and from which humanity ascended to its present condition would stand. Humanity must know and learn that there are many more lessons of natural diversity on offer. Each of them will be essential and prerequisite. The wild/urban duality requires full development if either is to survive with dignity.
Abiotic and Interdependent
Life emerges in environments that make intelligence possible. Change is upon new life instantly and upon its place among many others in a vast array. Whether it is the rise of the industrial revolution’s black moth or the loss of Bengal tigers in the shreds of the wild, urbanization is the chauffeur in the express lane of change. Human awareness of this includes the emergence of a global knowing, that the city is truth about being human, yet we stand in its shadows with only a vague notion of it. Nevertheless, the city links ideas and turns them into action. It injects a bright optimism into the shadows cast by doubters that prefer to stay alone in the wilderness of our past.
Recognition of actions in the common good occurs instantly and they are most frequent in dense urban environments. Now imagine holding this data among a group of people with great power and knowledge. Suddenly, you recognize one of the decisions by the members of this group will announce to another group – natural selection discards you. You are not selected. The horror of this is evolutionarily unknowable, but were this a real act, it destroys everything.
Dense urban systems collect the experience of the whole with great rapidity. It can sense justice and injustice instantly. The new collective nature of it leads to a pathway of action that adds balance to the human development landscape. Prefer this to the acquisition of power alone.
Urban Density Creates Intelligence
Platforms that link everyone to everyone else on every imaginable question embrace the joy of problem solving as a natural extension of human emotional experience and curiosity. The arduous and combative nature of hard science, on the other hand, can suck the oxygen out of a room and in that same moment reveal the importance of helplessness. When it comes to environmental intelligence, the rules of common sense provide balance by adding the reflections of ordinary observers. Social networks support immediate innovations that do not have the patience to await the proof of science. Platform technologies support small changes in quick succession. They build consensus for action and because of this, control discards the “big stick” of efficacy in favor of simply knowing how to make goodness recur.
Imagine the way science introduces complex questions about genetically modified organisms (GMO) or greenhouse gases (GHG). The demand from the commonplace grows loud with uncertainty regarding the injection of these things into their lives. At this point, govern the strict rules of science with rules of common sense. In this realm, the placeless structure of social networks will select physical places with the resource allocations needed to implement a vital social action, resolve an urgent economic problem or define routine political questions. The cycle of knowledge from experience to reflection is whole. This is a new form of intelligence. It is prompt due to the connected activity of people and organizations in the dense urban place.
Urban Density Advances Diversity
Our ability to adapt our place in the world and to meet our needs depends on the structures of leadership built into our society. The expertise born of this legacy facilitates the acquisition of skills and presents them without compromise to all observers as thresholds onto pathways. The policies on how or why any of them would open as a choice to everyone have changed to favor diversity without the dissolution of differences. This idea is on a near equal footing with the legacy of privilege. It will bond them in a powerful new way.
Imagine ways in which the history of leadership that formed the legacies of society will change to become acts of inclusion. The services required that enable accountability are those derived up from the roots of adaptation. Continuous and unrelenting investment in the social capital formation and community-based organization is a combination capable of changing the traditional practices of urban preservation and development. It will build powerful sets of helping relationships that will bring reciprocity to the urgency of thousands of teaching and learning situations that require immediate and useful action
Density Supports Well-Being, Viability and Resilience
We build to control, but we only control what we can make recur. The urban habitat is destructive of complex natural systems. Unlike the human habitat, natural systems operate on sunlight, recycle everything, reward cooperation and rely on diversity entirely. The human pathways to this end remain ineffective, but there is hope because the challenge to secure human well-being has never been greater.
Imagine the drive for urban resilience as the prerequisite for sustainability. The dense urban environment fully isolates natural system habitats. A new urban world can form in ways that are far more protective and respectful of the wilderness. We will build the means to leave the wild. By making this so, doing no harm will recur.
Summary in Fifty Words
Dense urban environments offer high levels of collaboration that support quality micro-changes within physically firm, yet flexible social boundaries. Fueled by diversity and interdependence, this forms a unique urban intelligence in the abiotic and human world of urban life, and there is just with one rule. First, do no harm.
NOTE: Please forgive these explorations if you have stumbled upon them. These platforms force clarification of weak ideas.
How does density save the wilderness, support sustainable agriculture and a do no harm purpose? If the problem is defined within the global colonization and destruction narrative then the promotion of investment in every technical solution required to sustain centuries of powerful economic growth is driven by population, but not the quality of life. Density offers quality in every aspect.
Population growth is without a technical solution as it demands of humanity, even for a review, a postponement of morality[i]. Nevertheless, immoral processes continue as a known reality of human behavior that is exhibited this way: one group says to another, “you are not selected.” The main difference today is the globalization of this statement is how it will put terms on the conditions for survival starting with basics, such as food and water.
The arrival of a world food production and distribution market system provides the most insight into globalization. Like the known environmental impacts of the global energy market, industrial agriculture is also open to similar levels of disruption assigned to human error or lack of restraint. The dangers linked to one-crop production failures are well known but on a balance sheet, the cost vaporizes easily by mitigating threats with cheap poisons and GMO technology and crop insurance.
Two True Observers
Helena Norberg-Hodge (link is to video) examines the status of profit vs. growth in agriculture. The path sustained thru 10,000 years of human development has depended on the role of water and air to “sweep away” the detritus of human effort and endeavor. With urbanization, a new path is required as the smoke of one place is in the wind of another.
The arguments for change on this subject are plentiful but spend just twenty minutes with Helena (video via TEDx) as she sums up the chief complaints and neatly outlines the work required to advance the human capacity for re-adaptation and diversity beginning with food. It needs to be close and thus local. It needs to be part of life, not a store shelf experience with store shelves.
Martha Noble’s presentation (link is to video) at the National Conference to End Factory Farming in October 2011 presents the devil in the details of an impending catastrophe that underlines the Norberg-Hodge argument. Simply put, the third largest fund and single largest program of the Farm Bill is crop insurance acquired by the largest farms.[ii] Put directly, ‘the people’ will pay for failures and add starvation to the ledger as the assigned risk of the people served.
Ms. Noble’s general observation of the USDA came in a closing remark paraphrased as follows: In 1995 when visiting the USDA for the first time with some questions about the agency, she was proudly handed a pamphlet that explained how Iowa farmers could now receive food stamps. The national policy governing the finest farmland in America subsidizes people’s access to fruit and vegetables while assuring cheap feed grain for cows and pigs.
When an action in response to a loss (such as a majority of sustainable family farms) turns into a reaction to an unknown, the change caused is well known. It begins with denial, often followed by anger. After that, a process of bargaining begins to stimulate an assessment of potential losses that include the possibility of total forfeiture. This condition is the known psychological state of an individual facing a crisis. Without a doubt, this state is shared by many groups of people who fully understand the metrics of devouring world resources at exponential and incommensurable rates [iii]. Finally, there is the group hell-bent on serving this ability with industrial technologies.
Coming to know that the earth has a “limited carrying capacity”, and becoming able to do something about it locally is the prime existential question of human history. William Vogt put it this way.
“Until this understanding becomes an intrinsic part of our thinking and wields a powerful influence on our formation of national and international policies we are scarcely likely to see in what direction our destiny lies.”
William Vogt on “carring capacity” (15 May 1902 – 11 July 1968)
It is as if we are asked to choose between two roles. The first is that of Donald Worster, who documents a careful celebration of Nature as a vital behavior. The second is that of Edward Abbey, who demands that our responsibility includes scraping the scum off the top of Nature’s brews, starting with people that do irreparable damage.
Given the continuous growth model and a market system designed to serve every need, the threat of a global “overshoot” is trumped far too easily by the governance question. When every need that can be satisfied with capital excludes public reforms and protections, the growth process begins to fail at local markets that eventually ripple nationally. The warning T this perspective holds true.
The dangerous impacts are proven, a conciliatory approach that keeps the spread of urbanism within a limited area can gain strength as a mitigating activity. The trade-off offers what people want. A tightly designed suburb with quiet natural areas with a “walkable downtown surrounded by small farms capable of meeting 80% of its food needs.
Within this environment, the unknown upper limit of the earth’s population becomes a matter of selection within a human decision-making framework that serves each life to the fullest. The vital aspect of this potential is how it offers a way to overcome the mistaken sense of natural selection not because we see it as inhuman but the process involved involve thousands of years. The more generational and corporate side of this coin is how starvation can grow to be a very big business.
Retaining the urban potential for unlimited capital growth is grounded in housing and the design for urban living. This formation of an “unlimited inside” also gives way for an “unlimited outside”, and like the vast diversity of the wild from which humans rose, the potential for an equivalent natural urban diversity not only becomes possible it can be guaranteed. The process of balance and trade within dense urban communities becomes the primary focus of the human experience, food included.
I would argue for a millennial process that would, in one millennium. allow for the “unlimited outside” to become a dramatically untouched wilderness. The challenge is to keep within the urban framework all of the energy resources required while expelling little or nothing into the wild. A vision such as this and all attending “ifs, and’s and buts” need the comparison to the existing conditions briefly described as follows:
The demographic dominance of cities coupled with rapid lateral expansion has led to the present “mega-disorder” status of urbanization. Vast cohorts of social inequality embody the leapfrog fragmentation of personified settlements. Recent increases in natural and human settlement disruption and destruction are producing higher rates of transnational and regional migration. The lack of formal structures that can accept public and private sectors in problem-solving roles on this issue is critical. At present, there is nothing to enable urban development planning that mitigates health insecurities or reduces crime by means other than incarceration. The most serious of these mega-disorders is the narrowing of pathways for a growing portion of the global population to experience freedom from the fear of (fill in the blank) policies.
Cities appear on the global agenda for the first important time at the 1976 Habitat I in Vancouver, Canada. An effective urban place agenda has yet to form in the United States as it remains stuck in the spread city quagmire, seduced by cheap land and money, and hopelessly addicted to oil. The urban agenda has a chance to develop from these initiatives, but remain an unlikely source that would force the city to look in on itself.
The editors of an excellent book on the subject of Food and the Mid-Level Farm make a very useful point of the importance of limiting urbanization. At farm sizes increase, the main source of economic strength for the small and mid-sized farm is through direct market operations. The growth of farmers markets in major urban centers retains a level of honesty and accountability that the immense, corporate farm, production and distribution systems cannot provide. Also, the land held must be nearby and small and mid-sized farmers can be paid for “back-loading” urban products, and a wide range of conservation services and practices that assure ecological diversity, clean water tables, forestry and land management. Leadership on the principles and practices of sustainability began with local farming. Not sustaining the value of this fact presents a grave threat to the quality of all urban life.
[i] See “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin, Science, December 13, 1968Website: http://www.garretthardinsociety.org
[ii] Despite the industry’s spin, concentrated animal feeding operations are not the only way to raise livestock and poultry. Thousands of farmers and ranchers integrate crop production, pastures, or forages with livestock and poultry to balance nutrients within their operations and minimize off-farm pollution through conservation practices and land management. Yet these sustainable producers, who must compete with factory farms for market share, receive comparatively little or no public funding for their sound management practices.’ Martha Noble, Chief Policy Associate for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Website is here.
[iii] As defined by Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyeraben (1962)
Human cognitive mapping abilities are well documented. The addition of GPS devices to this research yield maps of everything that moves in the urban world among the stuff that doesn’t move. Adding urban spatial knowledge from multiple sources to private or individual navigations demands the anticipation of synchronicities that will lead to the design of higher quality urban densities.
The members of 21st c. communities gain a unique spatial knowledge of the earth. Until recently. they were a long term minority but today share an enormous responsibility. Why? New, high-quality urban densities will connect to a variety of larger urban systems. Urban dwellers carry sophisticated cognitive mapping abilities and recognized the importance of connecting to larger urban systems using a variety of mobility services.
Learning the patterns of our solar system, or knowing the feel of heightened winds or the sight of darkening clouds allows us to grasp ideas about a possible weather future. The human brain makes sense of the world with increased sophistication, but in evolutionary terms, space/time pattern recognition and the creation of new patterns combine as perceptive elements that yield unending knowledge.
With prediction comes a sense of hope and security, comfort and ultimately, the idea that not only can we design worlds where everything works together, but the inclusion of unexpected, surprising events also offers a promise of imminent insight. This is the joyful, frightening novelty of knowledge the human space and it leads to the main issues of human changes. Following is a rock-solid, case in point example:
Williamsburg’s new apartment towers developed in the late 90s along the East River. The towers provide enough density to support a waterborne transit across the East River, however, the “L” Train provides transit for thousands of commuters with access to a vast network of urban places through a tunnel below the river to a huge transit hub at Union Square. In Williamsburg, the trip from the Bedford Avenue Station is 10 minutes and from the Greenpoint Station seven minutes. With these headways, thousands of people can arrive at these destinations per hour. Over 200,000 use it daily and it has potential to double that volume.
As the tunnel reaches its 100th year, the call for an 18 month shut down to prevent the possibility of catastrophic failure brought chaos, and eventual capitulation to that possibility. The neighborhood’s housing rents and prices dropped, some businesses moved to more stable locations during months of public hearings and MTA stimulated anxiety.
The public mandate is to run the subway system based on commuter fares of about $6.2 billion. In fat round numbers, it costs 15 billion to run NYC 24/7/365 transit system. The gap is made up in a complex arrangement of dedicated taxes, drawn from a 12 county metro-region fund, and relatively small combinations of gas, mortgage recording, and payroll mobility taxes, along with a portion of the fees paid in tolls, taxi fares, and vehicle registrations. A growing list of revenue opportunities is constantly explored. The details (here) expose the recognition of a far broader responsibility for the health of this system among all people moving through the region to access its many advantages.
When an engineering alternative to an 18-month repair shutdown was developed by Columbia and Cornell’s engineering departments, two issues were exposed. Aside from revealing a wealth of urban university brain power, the first reaction was relief with trepidation followed vast criticism of the MTA inept rollout of the issue for public review. There many reasons for major capital development planning to occur as if agencies were in a “running from the bulls” contest. In 2018, the MTA:
…operates at a deficit larger than manly nations — $32 billion projected to climb indefinitely.
…has a century-old system, with a “fix when broken” $350 million track/signal repair plan and a long term need for $6 billion in major repairs.
…its strategy to upgrade all 468 stations only has 51 left but line failures continue to threaten passenger’s sense of well-being. (Twitter search #fucktheMTA for proof)
…has many masters with controls over a revenue stream embedded in a quagmire of bureaucratic decision making.
Finally, there are many more reasons for community development and transit planners to dissect for system improvements but the central reason for this chaos rests squarely on the lack of vision about what America is today at the Federal level. The United States is a metropolitan nation. It is not well-defined by the 50 states, its power is comprised of over 380 multi-state regions that represent most of its economic capacity (Details here).
Complex urban systems the United States has developed must be looked at in the same way scientists examine the heavens to discover the earth and measure its atmosphere to predict its weather, the dense urban regions a similar level of knowledge, but this time it is about us. I have questions that need answers:
How do we acquire specific kinds of spatial knowledge as individuals in communities and use these abilities to make creative spaces?
The spatial knowledge expressed by the skills of an athlete is a good example. If these abilities are specialized in a community of athletes a team is created. In this context, high levels of spatial control will occur in a prescribed space such as a “field of play” with a boundary of some kind.
What happens when urban designers, planners, and architects face the task of rebuilding and restoring a place for a community?
The set of skills acquired and deployed in connecting design professionals to this ‘field of play” require many specialized abilities and a wide range of teams. Surely, something more than laying out the dimensions of the field of play is needed.
To begin a brief exploration of these two questions, an idea expressed by William Wordsworth (1770–1850) in “The Prelude — Book Seventh” is useful. In this long poem, he reflects on the experience of his residence in London and about midway comes to the following extraordinary observation of life in the big city.
How often in the overflowing streets, Have I gone forward with the crowd, and said Unto myself, ‘The face of every one That passes by me is a mystery! Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed By thoughts of what and whither, when and how, Until the shapes before my eyes became A second-sight procession, such as glides Over still mountains, or appears in dreams;
Just over a century after William Wordsworth wrote of London, Arthur C. Clark’s first novel described human potential and the city as inseparable in The City and the Stars (1956). After a billion years the earth had two cities, one of Nature (Lys) and the other of technology (Diaspar). At about the same time J.G. Ballard’s Billennium (1962) saw “…ninety-five percent of the population trapped in vast urban conurbations. The countryside, and such, no longer existed. Every single square foot of ground sprouted a crop of one type or another. The one-time fields and meadows of the world were in effect, factory floors.”
In the center of the century bracketed by Wordsworth and Clark, we find Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Their popularity rests on an American ideal wherein the preeminence of the individual spirit may be in need of a collective vision. Yet, in the process of trying to accomplish this, the individual is weakened, even destroyed. We are reminded by many at the end of this century to remember that the earth cannot “know” of such desolation but if it did, it could smell regeneration in the moist breath of decay as its source of renewal.
The city is a historical exaggeration made contemporary. The old image is a complex of high buildings surrounded by a broad white apron of single-family, tree-filled towns. The smell of carelessness spills out of day-to-day business affairs and workers grow more downtrodden and ever more desperate in their daily travels. The city defined by vast lunatic growth, managed by torrents of savagery disguises a flimsy gentility, the criminalities of wealth and the wastefulness of a cancer budding from a few wild cells. It is not the cancers cells fault, it is the nature of the beast.
A more contemporary view of the urban world is to see stop, take stock of itself and end its spillage of waste and poisons into land, sea, and air. Once encapsulated, teams of powerful individuals will build, restore and develop the city. They will not be part of the massive social collective much feared in the past, but they will share a common goal, to create a way for the wild to be forever wild, one that glides over still mountains and appears in dreams.
The idea of creating a Lys, Diaspar or something else, cannot be accomplished by an organization or groups of them. A network is better at defining the complex layers of urban life. A network can discover and establish the framework of values essential to successful change. Networks are better at improving access to basic resources, essentially people with information, ideas, advice, and connections. Networks influence decision makers on policy questions in time with sophisticated combinations of analysis and advocacy. Finally, networks are a lasting, self-renewing driver of its own theory of change.
The network of which I am a part and seeking a larger system is focused on one issue and one word. The core of it is the catastrophe of urbanization as it stands today and the one word forward is “density”.
Being in the Network on Density
Networks have multiple scopes of work and thinking that produce new “linked-scopes” with considerable ease. The overall rapidity of these actions creates the capacity for evaluations that advance the goals of dimension leaders. The linked-scope form of structure yields a direct measure of energy. Each connection represents a flow of information that had an enabling property through the exhibit of a real-world example as the desired effect in the moment or in the creation of a specific component.
Standing alone objects such as the tunnel from Brooklyn to Manhattan for the “L-Train” become digital objects of the urban core. As objects, they can be added to as “tags and categories” of a network. Each tag becomes part of an exponential encouragement for similar levels of change. The connections made from one to many align to form pathways built on community adaptations that respect cultural differences and sensitivities.
Whether a change is in a language or a material thing, a law or a professional practice, networks respond to social change agents as capable of shaping active social systems. A booklet from a nonprofit network group in cluded in a presentation entitled Net Gains is available here: www.in4c.net
Have a look if you want to have your team (or just you) become part of a network on the question of urbanization and Density, leave a reply to suggest a role.
From 1800 to 2000, planning, engineering, and architecture, served to create a vast expansion of the urban world. It was not until the beginning of the 21st century that the consequences of this work turned elusively unpleasant.
Rex L. Curry
In 2010, over eighty-five percent of Americans and half the world live in the midst of the urban world and yet it remains a vague notion. Despite the super-usefulness of dense urban living, the word “city” stays threatening. From low-density suburbs to the towers of Manhattan’s east side the city has to work, it is all we have and they don’t work very well.
All settlements have finite political boundaries that yield the average number of people (or workforce) per square mile, kilometer, hectare, or acre per year or decade by day and night. Density is a ratio of a building’s size to lot area. It can include a percentage of total floor area expressed as green space, parking lot, setback, even balcony. Determining the potential of density in these places starts with measures of mass in volume and the services of well-being. The integration of self-awareness with community awareness in this way demands the urban world to stand before Nature and an essential, untouchable Wilderness, bow and ask forgiveness.
Medically, the term “critical” means ‘short term’. Its frequent use in the 21st century is telling on many fronts. The epidemiological characteristics of urban settlements present a series of disasters. I see novelty and opportunity here because only a third of the earth’s landscape is urbanized and each part of it is instructive of an adaptation to restraint. The densest regions are near a natural resource and an ocean. They range from heartbreaking failures to soaring enclosures of fully actualized human potential. This duality is now squarely before the change makers.
The densities of metro areas such as New York or Los Angeles are abstractions as they are without a stable boundary. The purpose of the articles that will follow loof for ways to make that boundary, to draw a line around “the city” and to stop it in its tracks. Everything inside that line will become super urban with unlimited potential, all found outside will become less and less so. A win/win for all is implied.
New York City’s newest set of proposed zoning changes will re-write rules to remove impediments to the construction and retrofitting of buildings in every land use.
The objective: reduce urban energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) production. The bottom line is the $15 billion/year spent to heat and power buildings that represent 80 percent of the city’s carbon emissions. Reduction in consumption improves well being.
Can zoning regulations reduce the urban carbon footprint and lower energy costs? Assuring buildings have a good air-barrier and insulation on the exterior will yield energy performance. Why is encouraging a good air/insulation barrier, (four to eight inches) a zoning issue?
The added bulk to get energy efficiency is counted under existing regulations. This reduces the usable space within the building and ends up in a cost/income trade-off and it tends to build in a substandard “triple net” energy cost transfer from the developer to the lease holder or owner. The new regulations will exempt the added bulk in relation to floor area limits (FAR) and open space regulations (OSR).
Will this reduce the TDC/ROI energy trade off? (total development cost to return on investment ratio)
Solar panels, rooftop greenhouses will also be exempt from FAR, and height limits in some cases, as long as the greenhouse is on top of a building that does not house residences. The result of these changes will be slightly bulkier, somewhat taller buildings that are more energy efficient.
A number regarding the discount from $15 billion in today’s energy cost and the reduction of GHGs also requires an estimate. The cost of confirming compliance is yet another public responsibility. This requires a factor as well, that is sufficiently off set by penalties that are equal the obvious incentives.
The City Planning Commission process began December 19, 2011 with the submission of the new regulations to the five borough presidents and the city’s 59 community boards. The goal is to formalize the new regulations by Spring 2012.
Metro = Megacity/Megacorp + OBDC Earthdays, 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 kind of metro-management — a metro-megacity-corporation. Planners have been criticizing 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 behemouths at arm’s length requires political attentiveness, feduciary and forensic, but preferably the short kind that hang from the sides of lobbyists.
Then comes this change. It is the widening availability of very large data-sets that 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 politically palatable idea only because that is what 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. On thing 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 ball player, Yogi Berra “You have to be careful if you don’t know where your 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 reign.
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.”
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 on the basis of 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 doubt in a public realm because it is a design problem.
Get a Handle
To get a handle on this see: Good Guide , and look up ideas like “industrial ecology” for access to data streams that get beyond the “green branding” phenomena to the cold, hard facts that define who you are and where you are going. It is defined by what you buy every day, not who you vote for every few years. You may wake smelling the coffee, others know what the weight of it down to the ounce and rate of consumption per day. Then check the brand for its “earth” friendliness and act accordingly. The idea is simple — these digital tools allow the consumer to be in charge, to shorten the caveat emptor cycle, even alter the culture of a large company.
Resources such as these are described with terms such as “open data base connectivity”. It is the jargon of data systems that offer things like 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 on sake to doing so with 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 in a massive “regression toward the mean” expression of smartness.
The three central promises of progressive plannners that still need to be pursued with some urgency. The promise of sustainability has already become a hope for resilience. The promise of compacity has become the horror of displacement and the promise to eliminate disadvantage remains so poorly understood, 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 the 40th anniversary of Limits to Growth.
By 2012, the scenarios offered in the first report proved correct. Published in 1972 the Club of Rome’s truth is now evident.[i] The first is 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.
Public discourse has difficulty with subtle, conditional messages.
Growth advocates change the justification for their paradigm rather than changing the paradigm itself.
The global system is far above its carrying capacity.
We act as if technological change can substitute for social change.
The time horizon of our current system is too short.
Therefore, governments promote endurance and businesses support investment in resilience. Since Dennis Meadow’s estimate of 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 dat is moving. The 2012 symposium ended with a thought-provoking panel discussion among the speakers on future steps for 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 is documented here accurately. The data has changed more radically than anticipated. If you want to chase it down, these were the links: (http://si.edu/Content/consortia/limits-to-growth.pdf) along with the PowerPoint presentation from Dennis Meadows (http://si.edu/Content/consortia/Dennis_Meadows.pptx).