“The Internet is based on a layered, end-to-end model that allows people at each level of the network to innovate free of any central control. By placing intelligence at the edges rather than control in the middle of the network, the Internet has created a platform for innovation.” ~ Vint Cerf
When you develop Internet software, the only thing you can be sure of is that everything you’re sure of will probably change because innovation is happening everywhere in the long tail. It is the ultimate “bottom up” system. This means that designing for it requires solutions that embrace user interactivity, open-ended design, flexibility, and methods that “learn” and adapt to change. I think city planning can be that way. In fact I think it will have to be because whether we like it or not, the coming century will be an increasingly bottom up, networked, borderless, telecommuting, personally expressive, crowd-sourced world.
I know. It sounds like a lot of big words. But think about it. I recently wrote a piece about a “” of planning. It suggests an approach that would be more responsive and adaptable to the nuances of local public policy needs and the ever-changing dynamics of private capital markets. It highlights the importance of enabling individual initiative and local empowerment in solving planning problems. And in some ways it was inspired by the third planning vision that came out of the 1930s.
The Bad Boy of Planning
Frank Lloyd Wright was perhaps the most controversial architect in modern history. His iconoclastic career was unique even among American visionaries. Always the rebel, he never bothered to get a license to practice until he was in his 70's, by which time he'd designed or built more than 600 buildings. By today’s standards he’d be called a Libertarian (footnote: The Marin County Civic Center was Wright's last commission before his death).
Wright absolutely hated top down planning and big government. He’d be rolling over in his grave if he knew about ABAG and the One Bay Area Plan. When it came to city planning, Wright was a staunch advocate of “local control.”
Wright called his planning vision Broadacre City (see photos). Like the other planning concepts of the Depression Era, its goals were to enhance the fortunes of the common man by creating a more egalitarian society. But after that it diverged completely from the orthodoxy of Modern urbanism because it wasn’t urban at all.
Universally dismissed by critics of the time, it turned out to be the most durable idea of all because it foresaw the rise of suburbia. In fact it has been blamed for all the ills of suburbia but that’s just because Broadacre City’s concept was never fully understood or appreciated.
Unlike , Broadacre City might be called the "40 acres and a mule" school of planning. Wright aimed for a balance between nature and man’s footprint on the planet. He was a strong proponent of individual creativity and personal self-sufficiency long before it was fashionably called “sustainable.”
Wright envisioned an adaptive plan wherein every family had its own sustainable one acre plot, large enough to grow some food, capture rainwater, have a windmill and raise a few animals. He envisioned "growth" as an organic process that was mostly horizontal, with occasional instances of high rise development (his famous “mile-high” skyscraper design being an example of that).
Now there’s no doubt that Wright’s ideas were in some ways even more fanciful than the other planning visions of his time. But Wright was essentially talking about living "off the grid" or at least not being dominated by it. Like the way the Internet is managed today, he was talking about planning that had no central control point but was designed and developed by local users for local conditions “at the edges,” all within a flexible framework that optimized outcomes for all. In this respect, he was way ahead of his time.
Technology and Sustainability
SB 375 and the One Bay Area Plan approach tell us that we have to accept the Modernist / New Urbanism high density near public transportation vision of the future. The argument is based on claims about mitigating environmental impacts. It's a rigid and single-minded view of the future in which suburban living is singled out as a major problem. But it's not based on facts. As I've shown before, , and they incorrectly assume that the things we make (our vehicles, buildings, appliances, etc.) are immutable givens that will never change. This is the basis for their GHG calculations and rationale. But there’s no evidence that this is true or even likely in the future.
Vertical, high-density cities are not, in and of themselves, a sustainable solution. They are an "economic" solution and perhaps a "social" solution. But today, cities like New York City are, on a per capita basis, the most egregious polluters on the planet, not just in terms of GHG emissions but also when one accounts for all the impacts on surrounding regions to “feed” them with water and power and deal with their waste. And regarding SB375’s assumptions about polluting automobiles, , vehicle technology not only can change but it is changing dramatically as we speak (the 2013 Ford C-Max Energi is a plug-in hybrid that will get more than 110 mpg).
All this considered, shouldn’t we be planning for the future instead of the past?
New technology offers us other options. The ability to produce zero pollution and super energy-efficient vehicles, buildings and mechanical equipment is within our reach. It only requires national, state and local public policy to make it happen (just as agri-business and oil and gas subsidies make those things happen). But there is another "elephant in the room" that is not even acknowledged by the One Bay Area approach, though it may be even more important than all the rest.
Power, Water and Waste Systems
Achieving a sustainable future and “planning for change” also includes how we distribute power and water and collect and process waste. Throughout history the need to share and efficiently distribute resources from a central location (e.g. water from a river or natural spring) has been a given. This is so ingrained in our thinking that we accept it without questioning its long term sustainability challenges. But by all measures centralized utility systems are incredibly wasteful and inefficient. This gets even worse in suburbia where the distances between users and the sources of power or water or the distance to sewage treatment plants is greater.
Significant losses occur as electrical power moves out through our vast centralized power grids. A large percentage of our drinking water is lost due to leakage and evaporation as it moves through underground pipes and aqueducts. And in many U.S. metropolitan areas, 50 percent of the effluent that goes into sewer lines never reaches the treatment plant because it leaches out into the ground through old pipes. And then there’s the cost of building and maintaining these centralized systems and the support services, which create even more pollution and waste.
When it comes to really addressing our environmental challenges and the host of options at hand, all this becomes very important to consider because efficient use of resources is fundamental to any environmentally or economically sustainable solution. So we have to ask ourselves, is there a better way? And if there is, what model should we be looking to for guidance?
The Nature of Nature
The history of the world is the history of going from simplicity to diversity, from single-celled organisms to multi-celled marvels, and from isolated linear systems to complex inter-related networks and “systems of systems.” Throughout that process, nature’s problem-solving methods have favored bottom up and locally driven solutions that allow for the nuances and constraints of local conditions.
But there are more benefits to nature’s way than respecting local control and encouraging diversity. Nature’s top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top interactive feedback methods tend to result in solutions that are the most energy, time and resource efficient possible for all participants. Because of real-time interactivity between local and global, nature’s methods are constantly optimizing outcomes for all.
Consider three examples (see photos): the way your brain is wired, how a vine grows on a fence and the infrastructure of the Internet. Each is elegantly adapted to solve “local” problems in a way that addresses specific needs, and at the same time allow the entire networked “organism” to operate as efficiently as possible without central control. This is the secret of their success.
21st Century Interactive Planning
City planning has followed the same trajectory as nature, evolving from enclosed city states into networks of cities separated by vast expanses, until the edges of cities expanded to the point where everything got connected and we have the megalopolis we live in today: networks of inter-related entities with both shared concerns and unique problems. But we’re at a tipping point in history. The top-down, centrally controlled state and regional planning methods that made sense in the past are now too rigid and unresponsive to address the complexity of our contemporary world.
Looking ahead, what we need are methods that enhance greater interaction between the top and the bottom, maximize local input and local control of planning decisions, and encourage diverse and novel solutions. The implications of this for our political process, legal framework and planning hierarchies are enormous. Interactivity even suggests the need for our representative form of government to finally transform into a "one person, one vote" true democracy.
This brings us back to Frank Lloyd Wright. It's important to recognize that the fundamental limitations of Wright’s sustainable concepts were technological. The technology required to make his ideas feasible simply didn’t exist. However, today we have the ability to realize Wright’s self-sufficiency and environmental / community / sustainability goals.
In the near future every vehicle we produce will be pollution free and run on sustainable power (electricity, hydrogen, biofuels, etc.), every building could be carbon neutral and produce most of its own power. And buildings could harvest and recycle grey water and treat much of their waste on site (see photos).
Consider the following:
Water: Water conserving appliances and equipment, drip irrigation, rainwater capture and gray water recycling can dramatically reduce the amount of water needed and force us to rethink our water distribution methods (this is already happening enough to put the Marin Municipal Water District’s ).
Waste: “Closed-loop” waste technology that separates and treats waste on site has been around for more than 40 years. It's time that were given more careful consideration. These systems can greatly reduce the need to expand or upgrade sewer systems and can increase the opportunities to produce recycled waste products. Recycling and banning plastic bags is just the tip of the iceberg of the change that is possible when it comes to dealing with our trash.
Energy: Advances in energy-conserving products and alternative energy sources are about to tip the balance of global energy production and distribution from the top to the bottom. Feeding power in one direction out to users on the grid, from central power plants (i.e. hydroelectric plants, nuclear reactors, coal fired generators, etc.) is technologically obsolete. “Smart Grids” distribute power the way the Internet distributes information and dramatically alter the “user / producer” relationship. They change a “distribution” network into a “sharing” network where everyone becomes both a user and a producer. New thin-film photovoltaics can produce solar energy on any surface (even window glass). Wind is the fastest growing new energy source in the world and residential, rooftop wind generators should start showing up at Home Depot within the next decade. More options will be here sooner than people think especially if we encourage them.
As Amory Lovins has so famously said, it’s all about “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Every product we manufacture needs to address its energy consumption and waste output and be 100 percent recyclable. This is true for the buildings we build, the vehicles we drive, the food we grow, and the gadgets we consume with abandon (it's called "Cradle to Cradle" design). Even things like urban farming are transforming our cities and demonstrating the efficiencies of solving "demand" problems at the source.
But again, this won’t happen without public will and public policy to support it. So if our government is going to provide financial incentives for anything, perhaps this is money better spent than the hundreds of billions we spend annually subsidizing military arms, oil and coal, and sugar and corn.
What Does This Have To Do With Planning?
All this suggests that future growth may be much more about renovation, reuse, conservation and technologically retrofitting what we already have (like putting rooftop solar on every building) than about “scrape and build” construction and the grandiose planning methods that dominated the 20th century. This is not science fiction. These are the things we have to do if we ever hope to offer the next generation a reasonable future. And if even half of what I’m suggesting comes to pass, it will have profound implications for the future of planning.
If adaptive technology can re-engineer our lives and automobiles will no longer pollute or rely on fossil fuels, then all the "urban" versus "suburban" arguments fall apart. In fact lower density suburban solutions may have significant environmental and quality of life advantages over high density urban solutions. At the very least, there’s room for a wide variety of locally driven solutions, all of which might be equally sustainable and all of which should be on the table for consideration instead of the one-sided thinking we’re being force-fed by state and regional agencies (ABAG/MTC/BCDC/BAAQMD).
Solving Problems at the Source
I live in an 1,830-square-foot house on a 50 by 125 ft. lot. I have landscaped yards with six kinds of fruit trees and a sizeable vegetable garden, all fed by automated drip irrigation. I compost most organic waste and produce very little trash. I drive a hybrid car. My appliances and fixtures are energy saving and low flow. My electric bill averages less than $90 per month. For almost that same monthly cost, on a leased basis, I’m considering installing solar panels which would provide 100 percent of my electrical needs now and when I purchase a plug-in electric car in the future. If I had a rainwater capture and grey water waste recycling system, I’d pretty much be off the grid, or in the case of electricity, selling back to the grid.
Someone please explain to me how this is not a sustainable solution. Someone please explain to me why we’re not creating every incentive we can to allow everyone to renovate and retrofit their homes to live this way, or why all new residential (single family and multifamily) and commercial buildings shouldn’t be designed to have far less environmental impact (LEED is not enough). Public policy supporting this would create thousands of new businesses and tens of millions of 21st century hi-tech jobs across the country (versus short term, low pay construction and service jobs).
Why is it we're not hearing anything about these options from ABAG / MTC and our elected officials? Have we really become that unimaginative or that pessimistic about our future? How can we expect anything to change if we don’t bring about change right here in our own communities? Do we really want to bet our future on the dismal, over-reaching plans of engorged government agencies?
The arguments that "urban" is good and "suburban" is bad, or "high density" is superior to "low density" are off base. Our path to a better future is through solving problems in the most efficient and mutually beneficial way possible. And I believe that it's the right combination of financial backstop from the top and locally driven public policy and decision making at the bottom that can best ensure that outcome.
Myopic high-density scenarios like the One Bay Area Plan are out of synch with the multi-faceted way the future of our cities and infrastructure is likely to unfold. It deals in fixed absolutes and views things from only one direction: producers to users, sellers to buyers. Jobs and workers are just numbers devoid of human proclivities and choice. It fails to account for our increasingly interactive world and how creative, private capital and public policy changes can dramatically effect predictions based on the status quo.
This is particularly critical right now because we don't have the luxury of unlimited resources or unlimited wealth to squander on bad ideas. The will lead to more bad decisions and more misallocation of taxpayer money. And applying its faulty logic to other challenges, like affordable housing, has already led to even more damaging proposals like SB1220 (more local taxes and fewer local benefits) and SB226 (eliminating CEQA review for "infill" projects), which undermines the very thing SB375 pretends to be trying to preserve, our environment.
It’s a road we cannot afford to go down.
Over-reaching top-down social engineering has failed us in the past and it will fail us again. Its approach is economically destabilizing and financially irresponsible because it contradicts the laws of supply and demand, free markets, and the way communities naturally grow and thrive. And it’s ultimately environmentally destructive. And for what?
But if all that’s true, then how do we address our legitimate social justice and affordable housing concerns? And what about the portion of our population that is truly in great need, the people we really should be focusing on who are just getting by and need a helping hand or a “safety net” right now?
NEXT WEEK: Part III – Affordable Housing
Other Articles of Interest:
Restoring the Balance (Jan 1)