Thursday, May 26, 2005

California's New Towns

Mountain House, California - circa 2015 . . . ?

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood
and probably will themselves not be realized. Make big plans;
aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble,
logical diagram once recorded will not die.

- Daniel Burnham

In the field of planning, you cannot get much larger than the development of a whole new city. Not just another suburb, but a whole new independent community. Currently, in California there are at least three such communities in progress as we speak, if not more. Communities that when completed, will house, employ, educate and entertain thousands of new residents in what used to be farming or ranchlands just a few years ago.

Planning in California is not for the faint of heart and the planning of entire town from scratch is pretty close to extreme as you can get. Developers must commit to an arduous, time consuming process that involves thousands of pages of studies (water, air quality, traffic, etc), countless hours of negotiations and hearings, millions of dollars of mitigation and in many cases an unlimited supply of opponents and legal road blocks. As a consequence, only the developers with the deepest pockets even attempt to under take this process. So when a developer announces an interest building one, people sit up and take notice.

A Mountain House village as constructed (phase map)
Of the three mentioned, The Mountain House Project (pictured above) is the furthest along. Situated just west of Tracy CA in the San Joaquin Valley, this nascent town has been advertised as the Bay Area’s newest community (despite being more than 56 miles away from San Jose). This town plans to grow to an eventual 44,000 residents. Construction has already begun on several subdivisions and commercial developments, with an even faster pace of development set to commence. Complete with boasts of technology, twelve schools and a high quality of life, the project’s website even includes a snazzy video of the eventual community.

Centennial California ultimate build-out plan

Centennial California, situated in the Tejon Ranch at the north edge of LA County is still undergoing environmental review, with a targeted start-up date of late 2006. This project, if approved will be absolutely huge, with 22,000 housing units proposed at ultimate buildup, constructed at the rate of 1000 per year. Conservatively, that would translate into town of 50,000 to 60,000 thousand residents. As this project is located in what is now the last undeveloped gap between the northern most suburbs of Los Angeles and the City of Bakersfield, the town planners also propose an employment base of up to 30,000 to alleviate what would otherwise be a 45 mile community to the nearest suburb (Castaic) to the south.

Artist rendition of a future street scene

Finally, the developers of Chula Vista’s sprawling East Lake subdivisions are proposing the creation of a new town in Tulare County in the heart of the Yokohl Valley. Like the other two projects, this would be an entirely new town, away from existing cities. This project is still under design with even the developers unsure of the final form. What is clear however, is this community will have at least 8,000 housing units, which would make it one the county’s larger cities.

Under normal circumstances, some details of both new towns give me some hope for the future. Both Centennial and Mountain house are striving to be complete cities, with a balance of jobs, housing and commercial opportunities. Each have positive elements of New Urbanism, particularly with their downtown areas. Consideration of all needs was contemplated prior to construction so that as development proceeded, the requisite services (transportation systems or educational facilities) could be provided in a timely and efficient manner.

Both towns still remain wedded to the conventional manner of development. Single family homes and a hierarchical street network continue to reinforce the dependence on the automobile for most individual residences. There may be some improvements on the typical suburban development model, but strip away the downtown area and the new urbanism veneer and you will be left with Suburbia USA.

Developments like those discussed above is further evidence that most people (including the very wealthy investor-developers) just do not grasp the fact that declining energy supplies will radically alter this state’s future prospects, laying waste to the best laid plans of TriMark (Mountain House) or Tejon Ranch (Centennial) corporations.

Soon, as the energy crash engulfs California, depriving motorists of gasoline, residents of heating and cooking gas, and business with a stable supply of electricity the development of these communities will grind to a halt. It would be unavoidable and all that much more unfortunate.

Just imagine if one of these master-planned towns would have considered energy from the point of inception. The whole design could have been different, a grand plan to maximize energy investments and planning prior to construction. Housing could have been built, smaller, closer together on a tight grid or modified grid network that encouraged pedestrian and bicycle transportation. Most residents would become accustomed to walking or biking and require fewer cars (perhaps one or less per household). Multiple households could even share cars as is the case in some large cities. Each home would come standard with both photovoltaic and solar heat collectors, rainwater harvesting and composting toilets in super insulated structure. Cooling would be provided by efficient 2-stage evaporative coolers. Commercial activities would occur in the central part of town, also arranged in a pedestrian friendly format. Many establishments would participate in a local currency system whereby money-or credits-circulate internally to the community. Most people would be members of Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) arrangements and receive much of their foods from farmers immediately surrounding the town. Locally grown crops not immediately consumable would be processed and sold within the community. The farmers in turn would receive the green waste and compost from the community and eventually return it into production. Everything would be smaller, more compact and would try to capture every possible efficiency improvement.

By no means would this solve this state (or world’s) energy problems. It would however be a Grand Plan for successful adaptation to the future.

New Town planning still has a future in this world. It is increasingly important that such large scale planning take into account energy availability. Otherwise, why bother making grand plans if you no longer have the energy to carry them out?

proof that not every new town is destined for success . . .

Monday, May 23, 2005

A Conversation with Denial

After almost a year of research and six months of badgering, the quest to open up the discussion of energy in planning beyond my very small circle of colleagues smacked headfirst into what appears to be an immobile object today. That object, also known as the planning director, flatly rejected all ideas of energy scarcity or even limits. Moreover any discussion of the issue by me or anyone else is from here on out not deemed to be relevant to any county planning matters.

In his opinion, there never was or will be an energy crisis.

Today was supposed to be my day to preview my “optimistic” take on energy issues and their likely impact on our county over the next thirty years. I rounded up every good source I could find and together with my presentation went to the prearranged meeting with the director and my immediate supervisor. It was not a good omen that the existing meeting was running late and the lunch hour looming in just five minutes. But it was into this setting I stepped into. The director, who has been with the county for more than 35 years, began first.

“I think the gloom and doom take on energy is unwarranted”

Not wanting to get baited into stammering out a thirty second peak oil spiel, I just responded “So how do you figure?”

“We’re not running out of energy. It’s not possible”

“But — “

“I am not going to worry about energy—it all flows to dollars.”

“Flows to dollars?”

“Yes, as long as there is money, there will be an energy supply”

Holy crap, it’s worse than I thought at this point. The director is apparently is a card carrying member of the School of Lynch. I have had colleagues that rejected the implications of Peak Oil, but to date none rejected the science or geological aspects.

“But the laws of thermodynamics ultimately dictate the —“

“I don’t care what the laws of energy say. Energy is all around us and will always be. There is abundant energy out there (motioning toward the cornfields to the south)”

“A growing body of scien —“

“Look, I am not going to worry about energy during the next thirty years, when farm lands will be irreversibly converted to non agricultural uses”

At this point I was about to smack my head. So freaking clueless… But the anti-energy venom continued.

“I have read too, and we have options. Take for example the Canadian Tar Sands. Up north in Canada they have these — ”

“Yes, the oil-sands operations. The problem is they do not make much effect to the overall situation”

My supervisor, who is Canadian, added that these operations have huge environmental implications

I was ready for this argument. I had downloaded an ASPO report that put the operation in perspective to the global oil situation (with charts). I whipped out the SynCrude production curve in perspective to Canadian Oil and World Oil production curves. I was not ready for the response.

“Look at this, there is no way the [SynCrude] production will offset the global production problems.”

“I don’t care about any production curves. There is energy everywhere, it all flows to dollars”

“It isn’t just oil, electricity is also a problem. The ISO is forecasting shortfalls as soon as this year and increasing from there”

“I do not care what the ISO has to say. We WILL BUILD MORE power plants” (anger level increasing)

“How? Our natural gas supplies are depleting rapidly”

“Look, there are no energy issues, we will just use ethanol”

“But how? It takes a lot of energy inputs to grow and raise the corn and natural gas to—”

This last comment set him off the deep end.


Yikes. I backed off after that last exchange. He didn’t look too pleased with me at this point. Remember now, this wasn’t even the formal meeting on energy. I asked at what time he would be able to discuss the matter in depth. I did not get any firm responses.

Even better yet, I was asked to close the door behind me as my supervisor and director discussed the matter after I left.

Later my supervisor mentioned to me that she told him that in all likelihood events would bear my point of view out. But for the mean time I would have to do a little cutting to my presentation.

Like lose the words “oil” and “depletion” and any discussion of those topics.

Hope is not completely lost. I still have one more afternoon to try again to get my whole discussion back on the commission agenda. If it does not go through, I will pull the presentation rather than talk about the only two “approved” topics—potential electrical shortfalls 2005-09 (without discussing their causes) and natural gas pipeline capacity constraints (without being able to discuss gas depletion).

It’s not like I am going to offer any “solutions.” I just want to inform the decision makers of potential pitfalls in the future. I got sucked into this damn mess when my former supervisor had me research the availability of key resources over the next thirty years.

If we cannot even discuss well documented scientific evidence that calls into question assumptions of our future, we really are fucked.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

That vision thing

At recent Board of Supervisors meeting in my county, my boss was updating on recent events pertaining to the General Plan update. This update included discussion of the constraint analysis workshop conducted a few weeks back (which I wrote about earlier). After presenting the findings and a list of possible constraints (including energy) a supervisor chided the county’s focus on constraints. In his opinion, the county’s role should be formulating a vision for how things should be and not focused on possible constraints. According to this supervisor, we do not know what the future will hold but whatever obstacles we face, they could be overcome with human ingenuity. Therefore the county should be in the business of creating a vision for the future of growth.

That’s it, that’s what’s been missing; a vision. All we have to do is think good thoughts, toss some happy overarching themes and sprinkle the plan with buzzwords like “smart growth” and presto: you’ve got a general plan.

If it was only that easy. Human ingenuity can triumph over a lot of difficult situations, but the laws of physics is another story. There is only so much energy available to us and once it is gone, it is gone. No vision of human progress—save fusion perhaps—will trump that fact. But yet, here we are approaching limits to growth on a number of fronts and all that we can muster is our vision of what the future should be, without any consideration if it is even possible.

Well Mr. Supervisor, I have two visions for the future of our county. Either we accept the inevitability of declining energy availability and plan accordingly to transition to a low energy existence or we maintain the status quo until we run out of gas and crash.

Given that an energy shortfall will inevitably affect our current way of life, we could choose to change our ways. We could back away from following the same old development patterns of low density suburban sprawl and refocus on neighborhood/small community development. Instead of pursuing the “race to the bottom” and focusing on the development of one or two low-cost, high-volume industries and large scale retailing we could strive to re-establish low volume manufacturers of many goods for local consumption. The goods that we do produce should be more durable and when they no longer have any use, can be easily re-used or recycled. In fact this vision of the future would have us re-using or redirecting most items or materials that we now consider “waste.” No longer would we merely toss—or flush—our waste. Our crops, like our manufactured products would return to hand cultivation without any fossil-based chemical and energetic inputs. The harvest yielded is consumed locally with much of the organic wastes from the cities and towns that consumed it would return back to the rural lands from which it came from. Finally we would look inside ourselves to realize that unfettered growth will eventually drive us to ruin. To that end we would begin to limit our consumption and ultimately our numbers to a level that is ultimately sustainable for each location. This does not have to be a negative vision. We just need to realize our future will—or should be—a much simpler place. It will necessarily be focused to the community level and promote the value human labor over mechanization (which ultimately cease to be sustainable in most cases). Most people will work with their hands out of necessity, but primarily for their community’s greater good (sustenance and basic good production).

Idealistic? Utopian? Probably so. Is it out of our reach? Definitely not. This vision of the future lets us take into our own hands the difficult decisions that could let us adapt to declining energy supplies. It doesn’t hold out for a miracle solution or try and force yet another technological solution to a perceived problem.

But if we do not change our ways, I could see another vision for the county. This one attempts to continue the status quo and encourages continued mindless growth until we crash headfirst into an energy crisis. The vision turns dark after that in both a literal and figurative sense. The lights will go out, rendering our economy and our homes useless. We will be left stranded when the price of gasoline surges beyond the middle class’s reach and shivering when our natural gas supply depletes below the level needed to meet even a basic level of demand. Our food supply will get increasingly expensive, tougher to get and eventually interrupted by energy shortages and skyrocketing prices. Our social order will disintegrate into widespread crime, looting and eventually desperate survivalistic raids. How this vision ultimately will play out is still debatable, but in all likelihood it will result in increased violence, strife, disease and death. Ultimately, fewer people will be left behind to pick at the wreckage of our civilization. Not a pretty vision but entirely plausible.

The vision thing is important. Understanding what we will see in the future and why is more important.

Monday, May 16, 2005

How Doomed are We?

I have been pondering that question a lot of late. On the grand scheme of things, everything has an end, from our earthly existence to that of the universe. But more immediately pressing is the continued viability of our global industrial civilization. Human history is littered with the remains of previous civilizations, with each major civilization having collapsed due to one or more factors that usually included resource depletion and population overshoot. There is no reason why our current civilization will be any different. The only difference will be the scale of the collapse; this time, no place on the planet will escape its effects.

Having acknowledged the inevitable, the big question I have been wondering about is whether the “best” aspects of human civilization will prevail to whatever comes next. Richard Duncan postulated that humankind will devolve its way back to a Stone Age existence due primarily to a complete and an utter depletion of resources. Unplanning taken to an extreme… His argument based on the effects that declining energy availability will ultimately have on the shape and nature of civilization. Ultimately, according to Duncan, we will once again find ourselves living in balance with our environment again, but never to rise to the same level of development due to a fundamental lack of energy. Richard Heinberg echoes this in the Party’s Over, when describing how declining oil supplies will ultimately cut short our technological progress by denying us access to technology, electricity and pharmaceuticals while leaving us impoverished and famished. Again, the implications are bleak; one hundred years from now, our descendents could conceivably standing around a fire amidst the wreckage our civilization, keeping warm by burning useless items such as cheap plastic toys.

On the other end of the spectrum are the techno-optimists. To them, there are no problems, just opportunities for new solutions. Their omnipresent sense of optimism has led to an unshakeable faith in human ingenuity being able to arrive at a solution to the “problem” of Peak Oil. In their eyes, past challenges to human progress has always resulted in a solution that warded off past predictions of impending shortages or collapse.

The answer (hopefully) lies somewhere in the middle. Personally, I am more inclined to believe the Duncans and Heinbergs than the optimists and without a change in of direction by our civilization, we could very well end up that way, particularly if the pending energy shortfalls trigger resource warfare and nuclear exchanges. With planning and a truthful acknowledgement of the magnitude of the problems that we face, the worst aspects of collapse (the loss of beneficial technologies, knowledge and culture) could be prevented or mitigated. Unlike Duncan, I think we could still avoid Olduvai Gorge fate, though the path to any sustainable existence would almost certainly still result in death and destruction on an unimaginable scale.

To wind up at a low-energy but civilized existence, I think the following things have to be in place:

* A true understanding of “limits” in every sense of the word
* A coordinated effort to retain vital knowledge and processes.
* A shift in accounting and measurement of income and expenditures from fiat currencies or precious medals to that of energy based measurements.
* A review of all tasks and processes from an energetic efficiency stand point
* A coordinated effort to re-localize trade within much smaller regions to reduce or eliminate most forms of trading.
* An abandonment of a philosophy of never ending growth (in both population and economic activities)

I am almost certain that additional elements could be added. Whether or not any of them are followed on a global or national basis will remain to be seen. It is much more possible that smaller communities or groups may successfully transition to a low energy, civilized existence than the state and national governments could manage. The only question that I have not resolved is would those nascent communities and the ideas they embody spread upward and outward or would the chaos and disruption spread to the point to which they would engulf and extinguish those settlements.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Thinking Smaller

Just like our population and average waist size, our homes have been growing as well. After World War II, the average American home measured only 900 square feet. Today it is over 2,100, despite a decrease in the size of the average American household. Pictures tell part of the story.

The original Levittown model had two bedrooms a kitchen/dining area and a living room. Built with limited frills, the developers raced to construct them at previously unheard of rates. Most units only had what we would consider basic appliances, while the garage was not even in the picture.
Compare that to this picture.

This model, the Kensington is offered for sale a couple of hours away in New Jersey from the original Levittown community. This home, at close to 2000 square feet, is fairly close to the current national average. Most new homes today have at least three bedrooms, two full baths and a whole gamut of new features that homeowners after the war could only dream about.

Take for example, high ceilings. Many homes today have ceiling levels that routinely are built at over nine feet in height and soar more than 15 in the family/great room/common areas. That is a huge volume of air that now needs to be climate-controlled. Contrast that to the original eight-foot ceilings offered in the late 1940’s and you can see how that not only the floor space that has grown, but the enclosed space as well.

Speaking of climate control, original suburban homes did not contain air conditioning. Today (with the exception of certain climate zones) air conditioning is standard. Heating apparatuses also changed over the years from oil and coal fired boilers with distribution by radiators to systems powered by natural gas and electricity with distribution by forced air blowers. Although modern construction is far more energy efficient than original post war structures, the newer larger homes have more cubic feet of space to keep at temperate levels. If all things were equal in terms of insulation, the smaller, older structures would consume less energy to keep at the same level of comfort. When you add all of modern suburbia’s requisite gadgets and domestic appliances, a trend toward higher energy usage could definitely be observed from those larger homes.

More often not, these large homes grow at the expense of the existing yard space. Part of the lost space is due to the garage and driveway, but a significant amount is taken up by the house itself. In pricey real estate markets that translates into a lot of large houses on small properties. This is not particularly useful if you consider that we potentially face a future where lawn space may need to be pressed into garden service to alleviate food shortages.

At some point, this housing size growth will crash head-first into the realities of declining energy availability. How will Mr. and Mrs. Joe Suburbia manage to stay warm in the winter when the limited amount of heat that they can create rises up to the high ceiling reaches of the family room? What use will that three car garage will be good for, when cars are too expensive to operate? Why will the whole house have to be cooled in its entirety, when the inhabitants are only in one room?

The answer to these questions will in fact require the downsizing the American home. We need fewer wasted rooms and passages, smaller master bedrooms and baths. Ceiling heights should decrease in most instances (though a strong case could be made for the use of high ceilings in conjunction with other passive cooling strategies) and the house’s internal appliances need to shrink in some cases or be dispensed with all together.

There is no excuse why every house should not have a solar water heating system with a point of use back up heater, instead of the 40-gallon boiler. Heating systems should revert back to room or zonal heating units such as a wood stove in combination with extremely thick insulation and passive heating strategies that utilize solar heat and thermal mass to keep temperatures warm in the winter. That same thick construction would help lower cooling requirements in the summer. For those residing in drier climates, there is no reason why of modern 2-stage evaporative coolers could not substitute for the use of air conditioners. In more moist climates, the use of smaller AC units to cool a few smaller rooms in combination with the strategic use of fans and acclimatization (getting used to the heat without any mitigation) would be far more energy efficient than current strategies.

The average house size will shrink. Declining energy availability will see to that. With sensible layouts and intelligent use of space, there should be no reason why tomorrow’s smaller home couldn’t be just as comfortable as today’s much larger ones.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Unplanning Immigration

Immigration has been a hot subject in the US and some European countries in recent years. Any discussion of the issue, regardless of the side one takes, always manages to strike a raw nerve. It is an issue that has direct impacts to all of us, even those who may never actually encounter an immigrant in their daily life. Regardless of your personal position on the matter, the subject of immigration permeates deep into the planning field (although most planners may not aware of this) and both impacts and is impacted by energy issues. As the amount of available energy available to us humans begins its inexorable decline in the coming years, it will have a dramatic and unpredictable effect on the size and composition of immigrant flows worldwide.

Humans have historically been a mobile lot. Whether it was to follow the herds or to seek out new lands for settlement and cultivation, we would relocate ourselves as desired. Throughout most of history, people did not understand what drove most migrations was the need to acquire better access to natural resources (agricultural land, energy, water etc). More recently, economists have attempted to explain migratory factors from an economic perspective, describing a variety of push (lack of employment, poverty) and pull (job opportunities, prospect of wealth) factors. While this assessment is reasonable enough to rationalize, the ultimate factor for most migrants was related to the availability of resources. Here are some examples:

* Overcrowding in the British Isles in the 1600s and 1700s spurred immigration to North America
* The potato blight of 1846-50 drove 20% of the Irish away for good, mostly to North America.

Granted, those were extreme examples. While recent immigrants to the United States often cite economic prospects or political freedom as a reason why they moved, in most cases the underlying cause is often a resource limitation or scarcity. Many countries that are the source of immigrants also have resource issues to deal with. In some cases, the connection is obvious. The country of Haiti clearly has severe resource issues to contend with. Due in part to overpopulation, most of the native forests were cut down for fuel. With the vegetative protection gone, soils washed away with passing tropical storms, affecting agricultural production and housing. Haiti currently has over 7 million people, clearly in excess of its local carrying capacity. The lack of even the most basic resources is the primary driving factor behind the emigration to just about any where else.
Mexico’s problems are more complex. The country’s long and difficult relationship with its northern neighbor and its ineffectual national government have spectacularly failed most of its citizens. While a select few prospered by controlling most of that nation’s resources (and later trade arrangements), the masses continued to grow in population, stressing both the rural and urbanized locations. Left unattended the population pressure would have ultimately resulted in a revolution, civil conflict or outright famine. Instead many formal and informal agreements and understanding between the US and Mexico led to the immigration of tens of millions of Mexicans to the US since WWII. By 2003, 25.3 million people in the US were either Mexican or of Mexican ancestry.
The US government formally invited Mexicans to pick crops in the fields during the war (the Bracero Program) when there was a legitimate shortage of labor. We continued this arrangement after the war as a subsidy of sorts to farming interests so they would not have to pay increased wages for farm labor.
Various industry executives and southern state governments conspired to bust unions in key industries by relocating operations such as meat packing to southern locations, free of union influence (and higher wages). With low wages and difficult working conditions, was it any surprise the only takers would be recent immigrants?
Added to that fact our only real immigration enforcement occurs at the borders. Once in, the risk of capture decreases for the immigrant and virtually no penalty exists for the employer of that immigrant. It should not come as a shock when immigrants rather stay put and bring their family rather than risk crossing back and forth on a seasonal or temporary basis.
Business owners bear a significant responsibility for the promotion of both legal and illegal immigration streams. Their desire operate at the lower end of the wage spectrum (particularly with low skilled jobs) led to the pressuring of Congress to pass favorable immigration statutes such as the H-1B as well as failing to pass significant penalties against the use of illegal labor. Classic economics dictate that if a supply of willing labor remains large, wages will not increase significantly. In effect, industries that cannot outsource for obvious reasons are able to insource their labor needs.
Finally our agricultural and economic policies displaced numerous individuals in Mexico (and other countries) with the advent of free trade agreements such as NAFTA. Mexico used to be self-sufficient in corn production prior to NAFTA. Since then native production (often by small scale farmers, operating without mechanization) was displaced by a flood of cheaper imports from the US Corn Belt. By 2002, corn imports reached 6 million metric tons. As a result, a number of Mexican farmers were displaced from farming. Some of those newly unemployed farmers migrated north to seek work.
Large-scale immigration is at best a means to relieve pressure in a particular area when resources (for natural or economic reasons) grow limited. At its worst it is a means to exploit the most vulnerable to enhance the profit of a few. In the process it often harms the non-immigrant population. Areas receiving population experience growth pressures that force expenditures on everything from child care and health care to road and housing construction. The County of Los Angeles is a great example of this. In addition, since most destination areas have higher average energy expenditures than the source locations, overall energy consumption increases.

Too rapid amounts of immigration also stress the local population by subjecting them with to what many individuals would characterize as an “invasive” feel. Many counties, particularly in the US Southwest have seen strong and dramatic changes in ethnic composition. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, the destination point for many immigrants, Hispanics now are the largest single ethnic group and in Merced and Tulare counties, they comprise an absolute majority of the population. Slow, gradual changes are tolerable to many but a rapid arrival of many new individuals in a given area forces a defensive reaction, especially when the newcomers increase the local crime rate. That reaction often results in a backlash by the locals against the immigrants that helps neither group.
The source location for the immigrant stream often fails to benefit as well. Although some families and even towns do financially benefit from the remittances, the long separation causes family and social problems between the emigrants and those left behind. But a more fundamental problem can occur if the source location continues to experience population growth that replaces those individuals that left. In this case, immigration functions as a safety valve preventing the location from truly experiencing a resource-driven collapse. As long as that safety valve exists, the local government can postpone making those hard decisions that would address the underlying problems.

As global energy supplies begin to peak and decline over the next few decades, global migration patterns will undoubtedly be impacted as a result. Many areas on Earth exist well in excess of their local carrying capacity and only continue to survive because of cheap energy subsidies and migration. When those subsidies fail, conditions in those locations will be ripe for social and civil unrest, out migration and eventual die-off.

Early on in the post-peak period, continued immigration patterns may continue until the declining economy (in combination with rising local hostility) will slow or even halt immigration patterns that have predominated since the late 1960s. As conditions continue to deteriorate in the urban and more densely populated rural areas, population pressures will trigger an exodus to any less densely populated area. Unlike now, most future migratory flows will be highly localized as the resources that permitted thousand mile migrations will also suffer from declining energy. Like everything else in the future, people will find themselves re-localized.

In other words, the age of mass intercontinental migration patterns may soon be drawing to a close, if not most transnational flows altogether. If you have a hankering to relocate, better do it soon. If your neighbors are immigrants and you are hoping they relocate back to where they came from, you may be waiting a long time.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Fantasyland Planning

Monday’s posting is later than usual so I could relate today’s planning events.

My county is in the midst of conducting its general plan update. At this time, we have reached the part of the process where the discussion turns to constraint analysis. Constraints, according to Websters is “One that restricts, limits, or regulates; a check”. By most measures of the definition, that would mean examining your initial assumptions and finding out whether or not the circumstances will support them. Constraints could be local (presence of a flood plain), regional (water supply) or systematic (energy). With an opening framework such as this, a discussion of peak energy would not only be germane, it would be useful. Well, useful in theory anyway…

Because as it turned out, peak energy constraints were not discussed.

Instead, the planning process focused on the constraints your average planner would expect to see and be able to handle during the course of general plan. Infrastructure issues were paramount. Questions like would this community have adequate sewer capacity or that community be sufficiently served by the current road network were asked. Ideas were formed on how, when and where growth could be channeled and what local constraints were made evident. Out of that process, a focusing on key development areas and a narrowing of alternative options occurred.

From that, the discussion focused on the one issue that “threatens” the growth potential for this county (in the eyes of local planners and politicians): water availability. This county—like many in the Western US—is concerned about the continued availability of water supplies and recent rulings in the US Federal Court System have placed some of the county’s water allocation into doubt. Under the worst case scenario, an unfavorable ruling would result in a pretty sizable amount of water being cut from the county’s supplies. As a consequence, most staffers felt like this would represent the truest possible form of growth limitation.

After that the planning process went about discussing a number of irrelevant or downright trivial concerns. Questions like the following were asked:

“Will we be able to economically grow?”
“What can we do about the jobs-houses balance?”
“How can we improve goods movement in this county?”
“what form should new growth take?”
“Are there any places that should be off limits to growth?”
“Will we displace more farmland?”

Other questions were asked, but all referred back to this one lone question: How are we going to accommodate the 150,000 new residents that will call this place home over the next 25 years? Never once did it enter the picture that we may never see those 150,000 new arrivals. Nor did the possibility that all of their previously held conceptions of growth might not occur.

So why not? As it was mentioned before, peak energy discussion never entered the picture. Out of deference to my supervisor that deemed the constraints analysis forum not to be the appropriate venue for such a discussion (despite its obvious relevancy!), I kept quiet. As I have been promised a bigger and better forum, I am not complaining. But the clock is ticking. Energy depletion, be it oil or gas, is a pressing issue and cannot be ignored for long. Sooner or later this issue will have to be dealt with. Until then we are engaged in Fantasyland Planning.

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