in Density, Sustainable Resilience

The Urban Planet

“The social contract for authority is at the center of money, politics, and religion. No surprise there. Each center’s loci has confirming elements such as the high priest’s temple or another supreme power object represented by the elite and their agents. These three realms are carefully designed for the acquisition of wealth. The purpose is to create predictable rates and periods in a political or religious mix. Because it is expected, these failures also predict products such as, when to buy low, followed by the distraction of an intractable political confrontation.”

Rex L. Curry

Money, politics, and religion have yet to recognize the earth as a place. Photographs from the moon made it an island in space ruled by the sun. Still, of the billions of people on the earth, only a small percentage realize the Earth’s location in a solar system of a galaxy, among many. The “Earth Rise” and “Blue Marble” photographs taken a half-century ago from orbit and the surface of the moon through all of the Apollo Missions (1968 – 1972) takes us back a mere five hundred years ago when Galileo began to figure out the earth’s place in our solar system (1600). The first contact with the universe’s vast nature must have yielded a compelling sense of spatial abundance. Galileo would be surprised by how limited it is today among our finite planet’s “knowing” observers. It is the way Galileo used his mind that should be remembered by the scientists of today. Read of his thought experiment (here).

Mountain ranges and vast oceans compare to a sea of galaxies in the opposite sense. The earth’s density is close and personal. It begins with roughly 100 people per square mile and climbs to nearly 150,000 people in dense clusters. How do these two experiences “of the earth” and “the city” fit together? That “fit” is oddly similar to the earth in the galaxy.

New York City’s Manhattan island has a residential density surrounding Central Park of around 67,000 people per square mile (2000). Should Yellowstone National Park experience the same fate in another few centuries? After all, the argument for the investment in a “central park” increased adjacent property values. The United States averages less than 85 people per square mile. Methods to evaluate this range became of interest following the 2000 Census with specific new definitions of density in the Census Bureau.

The designation “urban” has long been in the bureau’s lexicon, but the term “urban area” is new Census 2000 terminology. It is a way to include everything from small urban clusters (less than 50,000 but at least 1,000 people per square mile) down to “at least 500 people” per square mile, in areas immediately adjacent for the cut-off to not urban something else like exurban. Establishing the urbanized area (UA) category and the “urban growth area” (UGA) is helping policymakers to identify areas where urban development regulations predict/prevent growth. Maryland and Oregon have closely monitored examples.

A UA benefit is how it reveals “low density” settlement patterns (less than 100 people per square mile). The presumption that these areas do not alter ecological systems comes from the lack of understanding of either system. Yet, they shape the nation’s mega-regions as we know them today. Low-density areas can be hotbeds of hidden environmental degradation without boundaries. Could such places be given a border? Where would the challenge draw a line fall? Would it be at the <100 thresholds or at the edges of a <50,000 or within a community that is >100,000 population per square mile? It comes down to perceived value and the primacy of private ownership in confrontation with public interests. (Bundy)

The change in the urban definition of places and census-designated places led to a mild refinement that splits a UA population between urban and not-urban components based on 500 people per square mile. The Census Bureau estimates this change may classify an added 5 million urban people in 7 percent less area (about 6,600 square miles. How much “less area” will continue to be a central question in each recent population census. It may be too late if a policy of urban unification and the wilderness’s defragmentation becomes a recognized priority.

In the Bureau’s decennial cycle, these refinements contribute to local and national policy changes’ poor timing. The American Community Survey may resolve this problem with an equally accurate predictor of annual population characteristics and vital statistics. Growing trust in its sampling technology could help sustain the ecological balance between urban and the remaining landscape. Being able to establish a strategic difference will be crucial.

Fire illustrates the importance of understanding an urban area strategy best.  It is possible to let a forest wilderness fire burn, but less so when the wild is also urban using the 2000 definition. The Paradise Fire in California, 2018 is a clear example of needing a strategic difference policy. Extending this sense of difference to when a river breaks its traditional banks and expands into a flood plain, but far less so when the river upland of a river basin still requires dikes and channelization as seen across the entire Los Angeles basin or bayous of Louisiana.

I do not believe that our sense of fragile earth in a vast galaxy and the sense of ongoing calamity in the world is going unnoticed. Trillions in costs driven by environmental changes to which humans are making a substantial contribution are closely monitored. The “Man versus Mother Nature” series by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Finance and Development in March 2014, Vol. 51, No. 1 by Nicole Laframboise and Sebastian Acevedo make the case quite clear.

This photo of “Earth Rise” over the lunar horizon was taken by the Apollo 8 crew in December 1968, showing Earth for the first time as it appears from deep space.

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