It is about what we do

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 act turned elusively unpleasant.

Over eighty-five percent of Americans and half the world live in the midst of it and it remains a vague notion. Despite the super-usefulness of dense urban living, the sound of the word “city” stays threatening. From low-density suburbs to the towers of Manhattan’s Eastside, the city has to work, it is all we have.

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 the 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 on the other hand stands, before Nature and an essential, untouchable Wilderness.

Medically, the term “critical” means ‘short term’.  Its frequent use in the 21st century is telling on many fronts as the epidemiological characteristics of urban settlements present a series of disasters with opportunities.  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 regions such as New York or Los Angeles metro areas are abstractions as they are without a stable boundary.  The purpose of the articles that follow is to make one, to draw a line around “the city” and stop it in its tracks.  Everything inside that line will become super urban, all found outside will become less and less so.  A win/win for all is implied.

People throughout the world with an interest in building instructive measures of density have many challenges — vehicle type per square mile of impermeable surface cover, people per kilometer of rail-transit, per gallon of water or gasoline.  How about “hotness” in bytes per second exchanged into “meet ups” per acre? The use of location aware communication devices coupled with geographic information systems (GIS) develop exciting trade relationships and innovations. Internet protocol (IP) addresses and their linguistic sisters, ordinary street addresses, combine to demand density and mobility as a product superior to all others.

The dimensions of density offer two important instruments for human development – a vibrant city and a self-sustaining wilderness. Density is a way to assure the “wild” remains vast and unfragmented. Without prescribed boundaries for “the city”, urbanization will retain “wild west” rules and march right up to the edges of disconnected fragments of natural space.  Regardless of size, this is no different than the edge preserving Central Park in New York City. If the wilderness is no more, it is to our peril.  The boundary belongs around “the city” and nothing else.

Attaining traction on the usefulness of density as a conservation strategy requires one major proviso. Change the frontier spirit idea as an argument for “moving-on”. Like density, “the wilderness” is worthy of strong emotions. But now, the freedom to escape political or religious oppression or even the smell of a nearby campfire is a myth. Historical relevance remains, but the frontier is not “out there”, it is rising within the urban boundary of self-imposed restraint.  If held firm it will yield unlimited possibilities.

An axis connects points to define symmetry and locate coordinates along a line. The earth turns on an axis, the line from which a tree branches has one. We all carry one that runs from our head to the base of the spine. From leaves to information, the purpose of “an axis” is to have a basis for creating and organizing everything with a placement in thoughtful space. If the urban form is to thrive as a receptacle of humanity we will need to firmly establish this urban axis.

Sirius, 2006, by Lita Albuquerque, photo by Jean de Pomereu  (Go to: Domus)

The urban axis shifts the perception of growth from ideas of “limitlessness conquest” toward an alternative landscape revealed by one compelling question. What are the limits to the action of all of us?  Some would give it a number, say groups of 150 and if that is it then so be it. Small groups will find hundreds of answers to this question for the “ten billion” because they must.

Attempts to a draw line around “the city” and stop leapfrog growth has begun because it might save the wild and keep low residential densities where we really want and need it, or because meandering sprawl is unhealthy. Expect Maginot Line breakdowns in the groundbreaking efforts of “smart growth” in Maryland and the glorious “urban boundary” of Oregon. From this there is much to learn. Others sense progress in efforts to contain growth by inspecting the body of law on land use choices. Nevertheless, ideas that support a super high-density and a super low-density will encourage an unfragmented wilderness but only if a boundary can be formed.

The new frontier is finding ways to create dense, compact, efficient cities. The knowledge of its vast wonders requires a sense of awe equal to the adventure once held for the natural world. The idea of hyper-dense places supporting unlimited human potential is without doubt as great a mystery as the wilderness itself. Draw a line in the sand for making an urban world and a pure wilderness, if it is not, the wonder of both will be lost.

When given a fixed boundary, dense urban centers like all bodies offer axial mechanisms that contribute to evidence based, outcome driven, and measurable performance practices. Using our own bodies as an example, our axial skeleton holds the essential systems such as the vestibular structures for balance, the eye for site and proprioception for awareness. Hundreds of muscles and joints in the human body bring forth extraordinary abilities demonstrated in millions of ways.

We simply accept like the recurrence of a sunset and we know we have control if we can make recur. We place data from these recurring systems in a constant detection mode. Our axial center (balance, vision, timing, awareness) is both the core of the human body and a sense of humanity. We may walk around the block, but we position that block within a vast conurbation and extend this capacity to move from what we are to all we might become.

Dense cities like New York or modestly compact like Portland, bring ideas into eye contact with a handshake just long enough to prove consensus about the ability to create a shared endeavor. In our infancy, the neural network absorbs sounds and images for the purpose of forming patterns that repeat. The most common of them form the basis for interpreting everything else, distinguishing new from old, bright from dark, or soft from hard until awareness forms to coordinate all the action required to transmit signals from one part of the body or city to another.

The city offers up the illusion of stasis in its skyline, yet we know it changes in the blink of an eye. These many changes matter without exception, but as they recur within the core of the human experience, they have a meaning that is urban in importance. You will understand the content of urbanized knowledge by standing alone in the wilderness. The symmetry of the urban axis begins on this special duality.


The acronym EBODPM is “evidence based, outcome driven and performance measured” and a continuous practice. Here is a simple example that occurred to me because of where I live. New York City is old and dense.  It has developed capacity to rebuild itself while being used. It rebuilds its bridges, tunnels, buildings, roadways and in constantly doing so, it adds resilience to old systems to accept new challenges. The skills developed in contract practices, scheduling, innovative use of materials, budgets and so on, all stand for performance evaluations from day to day, and year to year. Retrofit processes sustain the means for keeping a city vital by meeting short-term productivity demands as it moves toward quality of life goals.

Si se puede

The phrase si se puede has a long history and describes why this work wants to be part of it. People that require action in the fierce urgency of now say it with pride. Few know this better than those who add value to their community. The phrase can be recognized in the “Yes, we can!” of President Obama’s first presidential campaign. In my life, it was, “What do we want? Peace!  When do we want it, now?”

Imagine a scale. On one side, the great value of urbanization and on the other a wilderness of equal value. The most effective actions on either side of this scale create stories that assure a tale is taken home because the quality of the narrative it created.

The best stories recount the experience of individuals who embrace effective action and replace error with efficiency. Three questions are helpful in defining actions that affect the impact of urbanization on the wilderness:

  • If I am not for a limited urban presence on the earth, who will be?
  • If I inform myself on this question in solitude, will it make it so?
  • If I do not act now, when?

These questions build a personal stance, but they lack the mechanisms to change unless the “If I am” (first person) becomes “we will have” (future perfect). Turning an “I” into a “we” need a set of recurring trial and error experiences to yield organizing structures. The main elements are, 1) willingly accepted delegations and, 2) a widely held responsible for the impacts of implementation.

Typically, this strategy is strong on delegation and weak on post-enactment accountability. When both are fully active, combinations of skill in the distribution of tasks increase the potential for exchange and trade. In turn, this broadens authorization and allocation cycles that fund increasingly successful plans. In all of this, life-long community learning becomes strong. The lessons are frequent enough to continue implementation with confidence.

As kids, we learn to swim, but first, we learn how not to sink. Similarly, two key structures keep an organizing process functional, 1) the way information is transmitted and 2) access to it and the resources it describes.  Decisive questions can be defined such as;

  • Can mass cash replace the cash of assigned/special interests?
  • Can an activist public produce facts to sustain truthfulness?
  • Can the acceptance of bonded rationality make a compromise?

When “groups” create and control social structures, the authority is diverse, flexible, open, and temporary, but in the democratic sense of consensual participation, a group may also define “a cell” carrying very different connotations.

Margaret Mead settled this question by telling us not to doubt that small groups change the world because this how it happens. Yes, we can, but the actions of an actualized interest group (or cell) can be good or bad. Finding ways to assure a greater number of the former over the latter is the central challenge. The kids who learn the most are the ones who learn to share.  So, I only ask one thing of you, read and then share, copy and paste, reveal and steal this book, all 20,000 of you.

Introduction to Your Responsibility

The urban world holds the earth in its palm and probes it with its senses like any other curiosity. The truth of this possession remains treasured and yet, unclear.

It may be possible for people interested in the urban world to speak from a shelter nestled in fifty acres of wooded land. Others might speak from a shelter among 40,000 others sharing one acre; nevertheless, both are urban, “city-like” and interdependent. Building the dense form successfully demands one thing, the concerted analysis of many specialties, but none of this is as important as the quality information produced upon which people are motivated to act.

Harnessing the electromagnetic spectrum in the 20th century made 21st-century communications like this useful. The transition in communication from low-cost one-to-one conversations to the high cost of one-to-many presentations has become a “many-to-many” exchange. This exploration of urban density hopes this “many-to-many” form will build vital and compact urban places filled with pathways to full potential without damage to others or to our host – the earth.


To dive right in, click here to complete a twenty-question survey.  It will assist you toward a method of participation with a global community that may not have common values but retains the rights of common interest.  The survey will begin with a standard communication network to outline the creation of a new one, and a new one after that, and so on. I have written the following to get this started.  

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