Monday, February 28, 2005

Idea for the future: Ruralization

The UNplanning Journal is going to try and balance the subject matter between a discussion of our problems and an introduction of some potential solutions. Spending too much time dwelling on our problems without offering solutions can lead to a feeling of despair. One such positive idea worthy of discussion is ruralization.
This idea, discussed by Folke Günther from the Dept. of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University suggests the slow dismantling of larger settlements over time in favor of numerous individual settlements of around two hundred individuals in population. These settlements, called Eco-units, would be pretty close to self sufficient in food supply in order to keep the nutrient flow and energy consumption as localized as possible.
Navigate to image Eco-Unit:

This settlement type would result in nutrient flow localization and reduced energy consumption since the vast majority of the agricultural production would be consumed where it was produced, resulting in no transportation energy expenditures and little need for industrial scale agriculture, since the local fields are sustaining around two hundred, not a global market place. Community Solution put forward a similar idea called Agraria. Though their description does not identify a target population, it appears to be similar in scale to what Gunther proposes.

These ideas are not only sound, they may represent the only way to maintain some semblance of civilization as available energy decreases. As discussed here in the “Our Agriculture Future” posting and in full detail elsewhere on the Internet, Industrialized Agriculture is not a sustainable enterprise. It is heavily dependent on vast quantities of energy to turn crops into food and results in a linear flow in nutrients from the fields to the cities. The further away those cities are from their food supplies, the worse the energy and nutrient equations will be. By depopulating the large urban areas and increasing the number of self-sufficient rural settlements, we can significantly reduce the amount of energy required to sustain our existence. With intelligent planning, these rural settlements could be arranged on existing or newly constructed transportation links, permitting easy travel between the individual communities and the remainder of the urban area. The urban area itself would be made over, incorporating areas within the former city for agricultural production for its own needs.

The cities would not need to be completely depopulated. They could retain some of their administrative, manufacturing, and cultural applications. Furthermore, with cutting of the global supply lines, the urban area can provide two additional valuable functions: become a point of production for a renewed manufacturing base and a source of raw materials. New (and revitalized) manufacturing operations can located in any number of these remnant urban areas in shells of abandoned big box chains, malls or warehouses. The manufacturing processes utilized would not resemble anything like what we are familiar with today; they would be small-scale, labor-intensive and local market responsive (producing ONLY what is locally needed). Trade between the urban area and the surrounding settlements could occur, with the settlements supplying extra food, fiber and biomass crops (for ethanol, biodiesel or methane production) for use in manufacturing in exchange while the urban area would supply finished goods. Of course, those houses, roads, dumps and commercial establishments that were abandoned or rendered economically useless by declining energy could be scavenged for metals, glass and plastics for eventual reuse. In the grand scheme of things, this is not an entirely bad position to be in. Significant energy had long been expended to form that glass window, create that aluminum can or build that store. Recycling requires less energy than fashioning the same product out of virgin materials.

Gunther envisions change slowly over the period of about fifty years, whereby residences and business are slowly abandoned and converted to parkland or put directly into agricultural production. Fifty years is a long time to transition to a low energy lifestyle, perhaps too long. With all of the financial, energy and agricultural crisis looming just five to ten years out we may not have a half a century to transition. Consequently if we are to maintain some urban (small-town) elements of civilization, we need to proceed to building these agrarian settlements as soon as possible. This would require a whole ideological change of mind on part of local governments and the local populace, to allow this to happen. Ideally, ruralization would be implemented at the county, borough, or parish level to better create the proper ratios and relationship between the soon to be depopulated city and the newly formed agrarian settlements.

It is unlikely most county governments would go for this plan prior to any sign of trouble, so provisions need to be made to implement this and other civilization-survival techniques as soon as the first wave of crisis occur. Educate. Prepare. Implement. Survive. Follow that and we may still have a chance.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


Physics provides us with an apt comparison to the situation we find our civilization in. Newton’s first law of motion states that an object in motion will tend to stay in motion unless acted upon by an opposite force. An object’s inherent tendency to resist changes in motion is referred to as inertia. The larger the object, the harder it is to stop. Planning, like many other elements in modern civilization is slow to change. Today we are facing several pending crisis on a number of fronts. These range from local issues such as water shortages and air pollution, social issues such as a failing healthcare network and population growth, a whole host of economic issues such as excessive debt growth, budget and trade deficits and declining currency exchange rates and global issues such as climate change. Exacerbating all of those problems is our looming energy crisis. Never the less it is business as usual and the planning field is no exception. Every week, developers and business owners file new projects with project review divisions. Long-range planners continue to plan for future growth. Most, if not all, are not aware of the looming challenges and their likely implications.

After all, would a business owner invest in an expansion that needs at least 15 years to pay back its original investment, if he or she knew that the economic situation would render that impossible? Would a government agency continue to pursue a highway expansion that would cost several hundred million dollars and be able to handle three times as many vehicles by the year 2030 if they knew many vehicles would be idled for a lack of fuel? Would utilities continue to invest in natural gas fired generation units if they were aware of the extent of North American gas depletion?

You would think not, but…

Simply understanding our predicament does not make things easier. Planners are often asked to evaluate, provide input and shape projects that have a 20-30 year time frame, responding to questions like: “will this project meet the 20-year projected growth amounts” or “will this project negatively impact the anticipated traffic flow in the year 2030?” To answer those questions, project reviewers and planners must rely on some general planning assumptions. Usually those are: growth rate estimates, economic projections, and anticipated infrastructure investments. All of those are predicated on the availability of cheap sources of energy. Conventional energy projections themselves are predicated on the belief of an infinitely increasing supply, fossil fuels in the near term and some (as of yet) unspecified mix of alternative energies in the more distant future.

Changing those firmly held assumptions is an arduous task. Peak energy goes against many assumptions and even if the core arguments of depletion are accepted, the implications are seldom contemplated. A mix of optimism and ignorance usually accompanies many individuals that do grasp the concept of fossil fuel depletion. Very few planners realize the extent of the truly hard choices that need to be made. Specialization is responsible for some of this. In large counties, you will have planners responsible for transportation, agriculture, community development and so on. Each focuses on the problems and challenges in their specialty. Most do not look beyond their area and will be caught unaware by an outside problem. The planning field needs to be a lot more holistic in its approach to problem solving. Rearranging that mindset however is difficult to impossible due to the sheer size of most jurisdictions and the bureaucratic and political resistance to reorganization.

If the planning field is difficult to change, the private sector is almost impossible. Most people simply do not want to hear the message that things cannot continue as they always have. A message of growth limitation—or worse—curtailment and reduction just does not sit well. Without the presence of a bone fide crisis, resistance to change, even in the face of obvious warning signs is fierce to insurmountable. People seem to continuously assume that progress will continue to happen (as it always has) and that something will come along (again like it always has) and resolve the situation. And if there IS nothing to rescue us, fatalism among many individuals reigns supreme. The attitude that “oh, there is nothing I can do, I may as well not worry about it” is just as hard to work around as those who say, “it won’t happen.”
In the end, the combination of ignorance, denial and fatalism seems to prevent any concrete steps from being made to take steps to mitigate the impacts from our looming energy crisis. These elements of human nature in combination with the economic need to continue with business as usual gives industrialized civilization an enormous amount of inertia. It is looking increasingly likely that rectifying civilization’s flaws ahead of any crisis will not be possible. We will end up crashing into the reality of energy limitation first.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

When a three-car garage is not enough

In an earlier posting, UNplanning discussed the proliferation of garages in modern residential developments. No longer content to offer just the “standard” two car garage, a number of developers have taken to building standard three-car garage house subdivisions. Now whole neighborhoods sport an endless line of garage door faces. But recently UNplanning became aware of another brilliant idea in the development scene: the RV garage. No longer must you relegate that poor RV to life outside in the harsh elements while your cars live the high life protected from the weather. Here is a picture of one in all of its glory:

In reality this is yet another example of this nation’s excesses, a horrible scar on the urban landscape. For starters, the recreational vehicle is a particularly wasteful means of vacationing, whereby the occupants are “shielded” from having to travel and stay with strangers in a strange environment. Why share an airline ride with other travelers and stay in hotel bed that others have used when you can take it all with you, including the kitchen sink? RVs can get as little as 7 miles to the gallon (less if you tow) and take up a sizeable amount of road space. They also pose other potential environmental impacts including added air pollution (they are after all, glorified diesel busses) and sewage waste that needs to be—but isn’t always—properly disposed of.

Now you have a form of housing that incorporates and includes the RV as an element of the structure itself. This takes a bad aesthetic situation (the blank face of garage doors) and makes it worse by grossly distending the scale. You have what is essentially a commercial garage door similar to what you would expect to see at a firehouse or a body shop stuck right on the side of a residential building. In the above picture the RV garage door is the single most dominating element, despite being set back from the rest of the structure. Visually, the living quarters are more or less an afterthought to the vehicle storage for this structure. By obscuring the actual entrance to the house and downplaying the rest of the front elevation, it promotes the vehicle as the most important element in the design of this house.

Modern suburbia has long been designed for the motorized vehicle, though at times you will find some architects and developers that at least gloss over that fact by hiding the presence of vehicles by locating the garages at the side or over-accentuating the front entryway. Most developers however cannot be bothered and peddle the usual bland collection of copy-cat designs.

Unfortunately for the developers who build these monuments to cheap energy and the schmucks that buy them, energetic reality catch up with them and render these and other artifacts of industrialized civilization as useless as those haunting statues of Easter Island.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Turning away from the Community

One of the interesting hallmarks of contemporary suburban development is its detachment and retreat from the surrounding environment. Prior to the war, most development proceeded on some form of modified grid pattern or free-flowing organic network of streets. Housing and commerce were focused on the street and everything took a more pedestrian scale. Neighborhoods just flowed together, yet remained distinct. Everything was more compact.

Post war developments saw the segregation of land uses and a wholesale reworking of street networks to the hierarchical network so typical of modern suburban development. This effectively began the process of separating the individual from the community. Suburban jurisdictions spaced land uses further apart, designed them only for automotive access and included subtle psychological strategies to deter passerbys, visitors and undesirables. These strategies included limiting access points and laying out confusing street networks. The individual developments also did their best turn inward as well, often by constructing decorative gates and solid walls against the property lines (ostensibly for sound control but more likely to further reduce outsider presence within the development). Additionally these developments remained separate from other adjoining land uses. Different residential neighborhoods developed at different times or for different socio economic groups seldom connected to each other and many times saw sizable structural barriers errected. Residential uses butting up against commercial uses received similar wall treatments. In effect, the functioning mixed urban neighborhood was replaced an efficient but soulless subdivision.

Alienation didn’t stop at the subdivision level. The introduction of the garage added yet another element. Earliest subdivisions included car storage often as a single car freestanding garage somewhere in back. Later on the single car garage got attached to the house directly, first as a single car, then double and more recently triple car garage configurations. In addition to visually polluting the streetscape with excessive driveway paving and an endless series of blank garage door faces, this redesign of the house permitted the homeowner to pull directly into his or her house with out having even being seen in person by their neighbors or having to stop and talk to them. Just drive right into the house and never worry about stopping and talking to your next door neighbor.

What do these characteristics of suburbia have to do with community alienation? A lot in fact. When combined together, the Unplanning view is that our built environment has led to our own isolation and antisocial behavior. We have literally designed away elements of a true community. Books and articles have been written about the decline in American community values (though that is admittedly a vague concept unto itself) and causes and solution suggested. We should look no further than our built environment for some answers.

Ultimately, we need to relearn how to live with each other instead of living in spite of each other. Human survival throughout history depended on the existence of close knit communities and villages. No one could survive long without this community support, while the existence of too many villages too close in proximity tended to result in conflict. While our industrial civilization has provided us with modern technology to render human relationships obsolete, this way of life is highly dependent on the availability of cheap energy, something that will be in increasingly short supply in the coming years.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Mauled in America

One of this country’s contributions to the world was the development and marketing of the indoor shopping mall. First seen in Edina, Minnesota, this new phenomena quickly spread across the country wherever convergence between major arterials, cheap land and under served residential neighborhoods could be had. As was the case with most things in modern American history, these projects started small and were mostly utilitarian in design before morphing into the one million square feet plus behemoths they are today. No matter what form the ultimate design took, one element remained consistent across the country: acres upon acres of free parking.

Southdale Mall in Edina Minnesota after its opening in 1956

Like everything else in post-WWII suburban development, the shopping mall owes its existence to the presence of cheap and abundant energy. Malls are enormous structures with huge infrastructure demands from construction to everyday climate control and are more often than not situated where the only form of access is the automobile. Many of these structures originated in the heady days of real-estate speculation where developers competed with each other to reach every last retail dollar possible. Once that speculative atmosphere finally died down by the 1980s, it became evident that some areas had become over-malled. As a result, more than a few failed in the ensuing years and others were forced to evolve to meet the latest big thing in the retailing world: the big box store and the power center.

Capitalism, in ruthlessly efficient form dictated that the malls grow, specialize or die. Many malls went on an expansion binge, growing new wings or adding a second story, updating the décor and wooing that specialty anchor. Others redirected themselves to serve niche markets, redesigned themselves into a genuine town center or simply converted themselves into a big box center. Those that did neither strategy fell on hard times and failed. So now, halfway into the first decade of the 21st century you can find one in almost every major urban area in a variety of stages of failure. Thus an UNplanning precedent is already being set.

If malls across this country are failing for purely economic reasons, try and imagine what may become of them in a post-peak energy world. The inevitable economic downturn will finally put the breaks on mindless consumerism, taking out many boutique retailers in the process. The pain of course will spread everyday retailers as both the US consumer will be able to afford fewer goods while disruptions in global supply chains ensure that fewer products even reach our shelves in the first place. Plus, since we have traded the accessible downtown shopping area with the auto-oriented shopping mall, we face the situation where most if not all potential consumers are no longer able to easily access the shopping center.

Finally these behemoths themselves are not particularly energy efficient themselves. Those large buildings require huge climate control systems and thousands of light fixtures to effectively operate. Due to their huge floor areas and limited access points, only modern HVAC equipment really is capable of handling the load. Contrast this to a downtown district where each individual shop or small building can control their own temperatures as needed while more effectively able to utilize daylight (courtesy of their smaller sizes) instead of interior lighting. In periods of warm temperatures, the small shop keeper can still survive with no AC with the help of passive cooling and active ventilation strategies. A mall without AC will become an oven.

So, what will become of our beloved shopping mall? Well, the future is always hazy but the UNplanner is not optimistic for the mall’s continued survival. For the reasons stated above, most if not all will fail. (This holds true for Big Box retailing as well). The energy-driven UNplanning process will dictate that the structure be either adaptively reused or scrapped altogether. Considering the energy predicament we will be in, the value of the processed “raw materials” incorporated into the mall structure will outweigh any reuse potential. Thus malls, like any other excessively large building will be seen as a veritable strip mine of sorts where many of civilizations metals and other materials can be had. Over time the structure will get picked a part for the steel, copper, aluminum, zinc and silica (glass) that have been conveniently left for us in a high value, pre-processed condition. This process will continue until there is nothing of value left. Depending on the local availability of aggregate supplies this may mean anywhere from a pile of unneeded cement blocks to nothing at all will be left for future generations. The former site however will more likely than not will remain for some time after abandonment, yet another scar in our collective urban landscape.

Dixie Square Mall in Harvey Illinois, 25 years after closure

Saturday, February 05, 2005

What IS UNplanning?

Well according to the dictionary, no such word exists. The prefix “un” typically adds the meaning “not” to the word it modifies. When the adjective “planned” acquires the prefix “un” it transforms to mean accidental or spontaneous. Unplanned growth is of course spontaneous and fits that definition perfectly. Now when the prefix is placed in front of words such as “done” or “assemble” it changes the meaning to imply a reverse action. Taken together, the definition could be broad enough to cover both the lack of functional planning followed by the ensuing reversal of that action due to any number of reasons. Got it?

So what IS unplanning from a practical stand point? The way I see it, it is the perfect way to describe the actions taken by many planning departments and planning commissions in the name orderly development (regardless of what should be placed there), followed by any number of corrective efforts to rectify the impacts created by the original decisions. Short term benefits at the expense of long term goals followed by ad-hoc decision making. In the real world the unplanning process may begin with a developer pitching a new development near the intersection of two country roads. The land is zoned residential and true to form a subdivision is proposed. Before long other landowners jump on the bandwagon and before long the formally rural area is home to several hundred families. They of course need public and private services so the jurisdiction has to scramble to locate a school and widen the road. Meanwhile another developer pitches a commercial development to serve the new residents and utilize the newly improved road. Unfortunately as there really was no true planning between any of these projects, none really connect with each other so residents are constantly entering and exiting onto the ever busier arterial to get from point A to point B. Thus the pressure is on again to widen the roads, further enticing development on the remaining parcels. Thus you have successfully "unplanned" suburban development wholely within the normal planning process.

The unplanning process is by no means complete at this process. Unplanning should not be seen as a straight trendline but rather as a parabolic series of events from an area's conception to its ultimate demise (presumably of its own making). As we know from the natural world, nothing can continue for ever. Built environments are no different. Normally when buildings have outlived their usefulness or reached the end of the usable lifespan they were replaced. Since World War II, however development was reoriented on a number of axis. Mass production replaced individual construction, quantity replaced quality, single use replaced multiple use, private space replaced the public space, the automobile replace just about every other mode of transportation and so on. In many areas, the active development phase had long past and left the area to slowly decay with successive waves of disinvestment.

This disinvestment and decay are only to increase from here into the future. Currently most decaying built communities suffer from an economic decay. As global energy supplies dwindle and decrease, almost all communities will suffer the ravages of disinvestment, decay and finally outright abandonment and scavenging. You see, as energy becomes increasingly scarce, it makes increasingly less sense to support our current model of development. In fact, even maintenance becomes impossible past a certain point. It would just take too much energy.

As a consequence, expect to see within your lifetime (perhaps even within a decade) the complete unravelling of suburbia.
Unplanning in action.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Is this really Planning?

According to the Webster’s dictionary there are six definitions for the word “plan.” Of most interest to us is the first one: “A scheme, program, or method worked out beforehand for the accomplishment of an objective.” Webster’s goes on to elaborate the verb tense of the word for this very definition as “to formulate a scheme or program for the accomplishment, enactment, or attainment of.” Hence the word planning. Drawing the obvious conclusion then, one who engages in this activity would probably be known as a planner.

The modern profession of planning seldom lives up to that definition. Frequently, that individual finds him or herself stuck right in the middle of trying to do the “right thing” and doing the “expedient thing.” The planner has to balance the demands of the developer, the land owner(s), the activists, the NIMBYs and of course, the politicians. All too often during that process, principles are compromised, ideals are set aside and the pre-existing plan for the area ignored.

The plan itself, be it a general plan, master plan, community plan or whatever, winds up being a flawed document. Two different processes are at work here. General or community plans conducted by public agencies, more often than not wind up taking a final form that is the least disagreeable to the most number of people. Privately proposed plans such as a resort town, master-planned community or some other large scale project too often reflect the financial goals of the developer. Where they coincide with the agency’s goals, fine. Otherwise watch out.

In the end, most plans fail to anticipate an area’s true needs. Take housing for an example. Many jurisdictions are loath to permit high density residential projects. Why? Because too often they are fiscal losers for the city coffers. High density residential, most often represented in physical form by the apartment complex or condo units, typically are more affordable than single family housing and as a result can attract a lower income contingent. Now the city has to build more schools, parks, transit facilities and the like while gaining little financial rewards in the form of higher property tax assessments. So as a result, many plans are short on affordable housing. In fact some jurisdictions are short on housing altogether. Many of the “edge city” centers have intentionally or not, been allowed to gain far more jobs than residents. That imbalance leads to long commutes, wasted energy and increased pollution.

And I can go on from there. Modern planning too often fails to ask those killer questions. Do we have enough water to build this? Is there enough housing to balance the new jobs? Are there jobs for all of those new residents? Can the transportation network carry the new traffic loads? Are there sufficient energy resources to maintain that form of development?

That last question is perhaps the most crucial. Rephrase it if you must. “Is the plan of development you are proposing sustainable if the available energy to maintain that lifestyle is hard to come by?” Of course that question is never asked. Most people just assume that energy will always be waiting for us at the flip of a switch or the turn of a key. But as the financial investment industry is always telling prospective investors: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Just because oil supplies kept growing with our population in the past, does not mean that will continue on in the future. Yet, despite mounting evidence of profound changes in energy availability coming down the pike, we mindlessly march on with nary a concern with the future.

After all, an energy crisis is not in our plans.

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