Monday, October 24, 2005

From My Eyes: How I View Things

For as long as I remember I have been fascinated with the built environment, its layout, function, and aesthetic qualities. As a child, I would always look out the car windows on trips at the scenery, the buildings and roads. But as I grew, simple observations yielded to contemplations of how it was built to what could become. As I became more versed in planning, geography, architectural, engineering and historical matters, I began to start contemplating the bigger picture on what I was observing.

Before I realized the upward trajectory of human civilization was about to crash into the cold hard reality resource depletion, I had taken a generally optimistic view of most development matters. While I was never appreciative of traditional suburban sprawl, most other forms of development were generally okay, especially those transit-oriented in nature and urban in form. Urban renewal, adaptive reuse and gentrification projects were neat to watch. Growth (economic, developmental and population) was a positive thing and most, if not all problems had a technical solution. As a nascent planner, I sought to focus my career efforts in promoting and encouraging projects and efforts that were urban, which is where I thought things were heading for the next few decades.

Suburbia was bad idea, in my eyes, before I found out about peak oil. However most of those reasons were aesthetic in origin.

Now I see much of the built environment as having no real future. Suburban areas of course appear poised to take much of the brunt from a collapse. The reasons are understandable enough. As a result, when I pass by subdivisions under construction or read about grand new “communities” (even those laughable “green” ones) my heart sinks. All of those new units, each set to consume ever greater quantities of resources that are due to decline in availability in the coming decades. That alone is a bad sign but in most cases, these developments have no possible alternative way of being maintained. How do you heat your 20 foot foyer when gas is no longer available? How do you go anywhere when nothing is located nearby? How do you feed yourself when your lot is a postage stamp sized mockery and your subdivision occupies what used to be arable land—or is located in the desert? I see these areas as places of desperation, anger and misery, places to avoid at all costs.

Just as sickening is the gross distortion of modern retail and commercial structures. In the past half century we have gone on a construction binge of epic proportions, tossing up throw-away buildings that have but limited usage possibilities to anyone other than the original occupant. We have also created a mentality that bigger is better and building anew is better and more cost effective than renovation. Witness cases of certain national retailers abandoning their large stores for even larger digs, further down the road. Commercial developers are no less culpable in this free-for-all, tossing up ever larger—and remote—office campuses for jobs that produce nothing and have no future.

This criticism does not exempt large or even mid-sized urban areas either. Though these areas will probably fare better from a transportation standpoint (you can still walk places) these areas also concern me. Large structures take a significant amount of electricity to be livable and a loss of that service will render most structures taller than five or six floors as uninhabitable. Would you like to have to carry every basic necessity (think water and food) up 20 flights of stairs each day, even if it had a killer view? But what really concerns me is the vast concentration of people that will be rendered unemployed, impoverished and cut off from basic food and water supplies. Unless some system is set up to ensure the delivery of those key resources, life in the city, even those New Urbanist paradises will become hellish.

When I tried to point out the fallacy of the conventional view of urban development and future progress, it was apparently too much for my planning department to handle and comprehend. The level of resistance to my message has not left me optimistic about the future.

In short (as many of you may have gathered) I possess a rather gloomy outlook for the human race’s latest experiment in civilization. But yet it is not all gloom and doom from my view eyes. If it were, I’d probably need and intravenous drip of Prozac to keep moving. What keeps me going are the thoughts of what could become. Yes, for the most part I think things will end poorly for many in this country (and elsewhere). But from the ashes and wreckage of this unsustainable, consumption driven, growth dependent, dog-eat-dog civilization, a much better—and simpler—civilization could develop. As the fallacy of eternal growth is revealed and the premises that most people based their existence on crumble, alternative living arrangements could be developed. Arrangements that do not require bigger and better things to feel good about oneself for instance. Or do not involve an economy that dependant on eternal growth to remain solvent. Settlements that stress community welfare over personal gain. In short, I try to envision a human civilization that respects and lives by the limits set upon it by the natural environment, but yet preserves what is good about human development. We do not have to shuck off everything gained in the last two centuries and go back to living like we did in 1805. Or 1005. Or 20005 BC. We just have to find that delicate balance between our needs and what could be sustained by the planet, without becoming dependent on resources unsustainable in nature. We also need to learn how to place a higher value on long term decision making

This means getting more efficient about what we do and letting go of those things we do not need. It may mean looking back to the past for solutions to many common dilemmas while retaining some elements of modern technology. Imagine for example, a household that heats water with a solar water heater, cooks on a modified rocket stove or solar oven, uses modern computer powered by solar panels on a hand crafted wood desk located within a straw bale house. Or may be the house is an earthship. And so on. My point here is largely that an optimistic future, at least in my eyes, is one that successfully crafts some new with the old. A little bit techno, a little bit retro and probably all jerry-rigged in one way or another. At some point all of us will become handymen (and handywomen) in one or more areas.

Sometimes, when I am feeling more optimistic, I gaze out upon my town in Coastal Oregon and think of what could become. We may be facing an energy crisis now, but in the future we will power ourselves with a mix of little wind turbines installed across each and every household combined with community level micro-hydro possibilities, pumped hydro solutions, tidal power, biomass and waste incineration facilities. At the same time we will have ramped down our overall energy consumption level. Storm water would be collected in our higher reaches and released downhill to power electrical turbines while more households will rely on rainwater harvesting for their household water needs, alleviating the need for large scale, centralized water distribution networks. Sewage treatment could be accomplished by a mix of composting toilets for smaller residential units and those located further out, while apartments and other commercial structures feed into a smaller treatment facility. Household kitchen and yard waste would be composted as well and utilized either on their own property or sold or traded for use in community gardening efforts.

This area, now mostly devoid of most forms of agriculture would begin to see more cultivation at the garden level, the community level and surrounding the town in small farming operations. Through the use of greenhouses and other modifications, a greater range of crops might be cultivated than what the climate would otherwise dictate be grown. Farming techniques would try to maximize natural processes that ensure soil fertility and create it where it was previously absent. Most, if not all farms would be entirely human (or animal) powered. It might not seem glamorous, but it would be energy efficient. Most crops would be picked, sold or processed locally while compost from resident efforts would be returned to the farming operations, ensuring a more circular flow of nutrients. With close in food production, most produce and livestock could be transported to market by foot or by pedal.

My community would become more pedestrian and bike friendly to be sure. As vehicular traffic decreases, more would travel to and from their destinations on foot, on bike or via some form of transit. Some areas would see new commercial activities as new industries (cottage industries) set up shop and others would wither away due to their distance from everything. Longer distance travel could be still had by vehicle or water travel. Perhaps if there is a great enough reduction in the number of vehicles out there, communal vehicles (busses, vans, ferries and the like) could continue to be powered by internal combustion engines, running on regionally grown biomass crops. Remember, while powering all of suburbia on ethanol or biodiesel may be losing proposition, running a small percentage of vehicles on “green fuels” might actually work over the long haul. So would a proliferation of small neighborhood electric vehicles for sharing and electric assisted bicycles and tricycles.

The global economy may well be dead at that point, but even in my future, regionalism will very much be alive and well. My town will not function solely by itself. It will be part of a larger region, the size and organization of which, I do not plan to speculate on. This town could still operate much like the other vacation towns of the 1800’s, ones which were created or accustomed to a small but steady flow of nearby residents that traveled less than a day to reach their destination. It certainly will not be the constant flow of RVs, SUVs and other private vehicle based tourism we are accustomed to. Future travelers may more than likely take the bus. Undoubtedly some trade between the town and other locations on the coast and points inland will also occur as well. This trade would however be small and insignificant when compared to today’s global flows.

Does this whole vision sound idealistic or even utopian? Maybe. Will some of these visions of mine materialize? Possibly. They are certainly not impossible to achieve. In the end of course it is futile to really try and predict the future. You can look at the hard evidence and you can guess at the trends, but in the end you could still be surprised at what ultimately materializes. Sometimes though, trying to remain upbeat and willing to try new ideas may prove to be the best course after all.

It probably will not solve the world’s problems or even be an option for every location. But something is better than nothing.


Blogger nulinegvgv said...

thank you for your voice.

10/26/2005 11:30 AM  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

In a world where people can pump water from 200 feet below ground using a single solar panel, I don't think that 6-story buildings are going to become uninhabitable.

Consider the energy cost of moving people up and down.  If conventional elevators burn too much energy moving their heavy cars, we might move to spiral ramps for things like Segways instead.  If the sixth floor is 50 meters above ground, carrying a 100 kg person plus 50 kg of Segway up that ramp 4 times a day would take a whole 82 watt-hours.  You could reclaim a lot of that on the trip down again.

The real issue is going to be retrofitting or replacing buildings which have become too expensive to heat.  If you can incorporate the necessary insulation and thermal mass, handling water and elevator service is going to be easy.

10/26/2005 1:06 PM  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

'Scuse.  That would be more like 12.5 meters, and thus 20 watt-hours.

10/26/2005 1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Engineer-Poet underestimates the time and money it would take to retrofit the existing urban enivronment.

The solutions he offers prima facie seem reasonable enough - nay, even elegant. However I think he misunderstands how complex and costly the installation of things like solar pumps and segway-like elevators would be. Or the disruption this would cause to the area and people alike affected by these upgrades.

At the level suggested, implementation would require a high level of widespread public awaredness, good naturedness, co-operation and money - reams and reams of it. Such as list of desirables would tax even the most enlighteneda and prosperous of societies to come up with. Typically such large scale infrastructural changes take many decades to come about. Throw in some generational social engineering to re-align people's attitudes and expectations as well and we begin to see the magnitude of the project being proposed.

However in the world of economic and technological exuberance that we currently enjoy, the general public is convinced night and day of the righteuosness of private over public, self over common-good, consumption over preservation. Given this just how willing will they be to heed the reality of the issues being refelected upon in this Blog, and make the sacrifices necessary to bring about such revolutionary change?

Where is all the civic-mindedness and capital to pull off the grand renovation of industrial civilisation going to come from in a world of declining cheap energy availability and the constricted economic outcomes that flow as a result?

10/30/2005 8:48 PM  

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