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.

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