This is a multi-part series, see Part 1 for a snippet of background on the problem.
I began the last part considering my regular view of the US from the air. For the most part it is unsettled or agricultural land. Villages and towns pop up all over, usually following water or rail, occasionally unprompted in agricultural areas. They follow relatively linear natural and economic systems, harking back to the great work of John Reps on planning in the American West. Generally, big and medium cities cluster along the coasts, the Mississippi River and its’ tributaries, and outliers like Chicago and Atlanta which grew as rail hubs. Not much has changed since World War II.
The past century of growth and settlement, in the US and across the world, is a historical anomaly. In our daily work at DPZ, we endlessly confront the status-quo: unwilling to change and convinced that the current way of doing things is rational, safe, and improving with each silo’ed, ignorant new regulation. But the system we all live and work in was designed as a reaction to a human history which resulted in the atrocities of WW2. The atrocities haven’t stopped. And the system has failed to deliver a future that is rational, efficient, or safe. The last century is a failed experiment. For more on the suburban experiment, read and support Strong Towns. From here on I’ll assume familiarity with the failures of the suburban experiment; our increasing poverty, social isolation, obesity, and disease.
Critique of New Urbanists typically suggests that we want to return to some prior time when we consider life to be better. This is a fallacy. Increases in social liberalism have been significant, important, and must continue to make change and gain momentum. Technological change, access to education, and a myriad of other opportunities have certainly been generally positive. But the suburban pattern of growth has been a cancer thrust upon society. Continuation of this pattern is simply not an option if we want a future. Unfortunately for every house or apartment in historic areas and traditional, human-centric developments is matched by thousands of new houses in suburban areas. This pattern increases future climate threat and erodes society.
Climate migration presents an opportunity to change patterns of development and correct issues of social isolation, increased disease, and re-balance economic systems to benefit a society more broadly. To extract social benefit from this environmental tragedy, we must return to responsible regional planning before major migration begins. Should we take the normal route and wait, current patterns will continue, perpetuating growing metropoles and mega-regions. The default setting is ignorant of regional watersheds, arable soils, the suburbanization of poverty, and the increasing wealth disparity.
Preservation of viable agricultural land is a central threat resulting from climate migration. The problem is clear: mild climates are best suited for agriculture and most desirable to humans, yet they are, and will be, limited. In regions dominated by successful agriculture, farm owners are keen to protect their future ability to develop their property. At some point, subdividing agricultural land into, typically, 5-acre estates is more profitable than continuing to operate the farm. This is the classic property rights vs. planning issue. A few years ago we saw a last minute defeat in limiting agricultural subdivision to 20 acres or greater in New Mexico, where the 5 acre allowance was retained. In other instances, we’ve aimed at allowing rural growth through a system that creates new towns rather than subdivisions, and retains some portion of agricultural lands in perpetuity. Future regional planning must grapple with this issue to preserve arable land yet accommodate sufficient and equitable growth.
Beyond food source preservation, directing regional growth patterns affects our ability to mitigate the ongoing greenhouse feedback cycle. Architecture 2030 has made clear the need and ability to change the energy use paradigm in buildings. Yet tying land use and transportation to health and climate change mitigation has not been broadly successful. And where this has been successful, its implementation has been slow and flawed. California exemplifies this condition where state-wide legislation has been easily side-stepped by big suburban home builders and local municipalities lack both technical skills and political will to enact meaningful local policy. I refrain from extolling the virtues of compact and connected settlements patterns in the realms of health and social support systems as the research here is clear and overwhelming. But another aspect of social support will be important – the ability of communities to act in semi-autonomous governance (see Andres Duany’s subsidiarity theory). Beyond health and social reasons, compact and connected development is more efficient for transportation, infrastructure, and energy management. While the post-2008 recession saw an increase in regional planning with the HUD-EPA-DOT partnership, that has since been dissolved and regional planning had all but disappeared.
To reintroduce regional planning to the US consciousness, we must consider two major land mines: preservation of choice and increasing income disparity. Many affluent people assume that planning will reduce choice by requiring people to live in small apartments while many poor and working class people assume that planning will result in increased cost and displacement. There are valid reasons for these assumptions on both sides. We can accommodate significant growth and avoid ultra-urbanization while also avoiding displacement; this requires distributed and diverse growth. But it also necessitates understanding and confronting systemic issues beyond growth patterns. Manipulation of market dynamics to benefit a specific portion of the population is the greatest of these systemic issues. Luckily these issues are gaining public scrutiny, but change is not likely to be quick or comprehensive. Until most of these issues are addressed, markets will continue to skew towards unsustainable development patterns and increasing displacement of communities of color as well as poor households.
Assumptions of growth and opportunity is a blind spot in our current economic model, which has adverse physical consequences. The path of the last century has preferred big – big business, big projects, big ideas. Jane Jacobs’ most important text, “The Economy of Cities”, warns of the consequences of big thinking. Changing this paradigm is a requirement of future sustainability and equity. Diverse, distributed, and dynamic systems are the most resilient and provide the greatest economic opportunity in aggregate. Climate strife provides an opportunity to re-establish a dynamic and distributed economy, and those physical manifestations of economy in the form of settlement patterns.
Changing our assumptions of the economic model unlocks our future resilience. More on this to come.