February 4, 2011
Waste Not Want Not
How can Americans get smart about the use of our limited resources?
By Kite Singleton
No one likes us - I don’t know why
My mother was born in 1906 to a sawmill developer and a small town Missouri debutante. She grew up in a series of sawmill communities through the yellow pine forest, learning how to make a comfortable life under modest conditions. “waste not – want not” was one of her mantras.
As we consider the United States’ position in the world of the 21st Century, we need some fundamental rethinking of our “American Way of Life”. Are rising consumer spending, three cars in every garage and “keeping up with the Joneses” critical to our economic prosperity, critical to our American identity? Or are they the residue of The Ugly American who sees the rest of the world as inferior? How “exceptional” are we? While these questions apply across our whole culture, few facets of our American society raise them more poignantly than the way we are building and the way we operate our cities.
Stewardship of Resources
We have adopted the most inefficient transportation system known to humankind, relying almost exclusively on the automobile (mostly single-occupant), and therefore we burn an inordinate portion of the Earth’s non-renewable resources. Some reports indicate that our 5% of the world’s population consumes 25% of the world’s resources. Our homebuilding pattern continues to extend unabated, assuming an unending supply of cheap gasoline and cheap land, despite the growing recognition that there is a finite limit to our cities. But as lot sizes increase to 2 acres, 5 acres and 10 acres in our far suburban and ex-urban subdivisions, our commutes grow longer and the cost of providing services like roads, public transportation, police, fire protection, schools, utilities, snow removal, clean water, sewage treatment increase disproportionately. It may take a mile of road to serve 20,000 or 30,000 urban residences, compared to a mile of road serving only 20 or 30 exurban “minifarms”. Our newer planning and subdivision regulations try to forestall this waste, and states like Maryland have made strides toward changing the process. But the market will be served, many Americans and now those of other nations want and can afford these luxuries, and many city councils are desperate for increased revenue and think of this as progress.
When we look at the hunger, the living conditions, the mortality rates, the misery of the majority of people on earth, are we not led to a feeling of self-consciousness at wasting the way we do? Billions, abroad and at home, suffering while we live in relative luxury, have legitimate grounds to criticize us for our wasteful ways. This is not to exonerate wealthy folks of other nations…they seem to pattern their lives after us, and in closer proximity to their countries’ deprivation they seem to us to be more culpable…but are they?
In recent years, some of these American trends have begun to change, such as environmental groups becoming more vocal and more main stream, increasing urban real estate values and a distinct, new investment interest in city center development and redevelopment. Even roadbuilding has taken back seat status to road maintenance and public transit. It seems that the voters have begun to recognize, even if the heavy contractors have not, that our road systems may have reached a saturation point, and that reusing existing buildings and infrastructure makes good sense.
The inefficiency of our multi-jurisdictional regions is a ready target for change. The primary reality of urban life today is that the most critical problems we face in our communities cannot be solved at a local jurisdictional level; people’s day-to-day lives span neighborhoods, city limits, county boundaries, state lines, even national borders in places like San Diego/Tijuana and Detroit/Windsor, and for us to ignore neighbors who shoulder burdens we do not is to deny our common responsibility for others who live in our community.
Just in terms of competition among cities, working as a regional community makes sense. Investors in San Francisco or New York don’t think of Overland Park, Kansas or Lee’s Summit, Missouri…they think of Kansas City…communities need to build on their strengths as regions. Parochial prejudices have no place in today’s urban competition, and that reality demands more than platitudes…it demands regional funding approaches, a new order that will call for hard choices by public officials and business leaders committed to achieving more with less. Some metropolitan areas, like Minneapolis, Indianapolis, New York and others have already embarked on this journey…most have not.
For example, limiting affordable housing to certain areas of a region forces many low income residents into long commutes to jobs offered in other communities, burdening them with inordinate transportation costs and time. Kansas City is often cited for its relatively low cost of living, but when transportation costs are included in this evaluation, Kansas City’s cost of living is comparable to other cities that have public transit systems. Under more progressive regulations, developers are finding traditional and new ways of integrating various housing types to provide choices within reasonable distances without threatening real estate values.
Safer Communities by Design
Shortly after the September 11th attacks, the American Institute of Architects was challenged to answer the question of how to design Safe Communities. This request was met by the AIA’s Regional/Urban Design Committee members with an immediate and unanimous reaction: a totally “safe” community is no community at all, but a dispersing across the countryside in individual bunkers, so as to deny an aggressor any target of reasonable value. So AIA began discussing “safer communities by design”, recognizing that the human need for gathering is the essence of community. That need for joining with others a priori creates targets that we need to defend and that we may lose, but this risk is an essential facet of being human.
Safer Communities are not fortresses; Safer Communities are communities in which we know our neighbors and where citizens feel comfortable to come together in the public realm. Design, especially urban design, can have a decisive impact on this objective, discouraging the isolation of our homes and businesses from each other and increasing the opportunities for interaction among neighbors. The Boston Common, the little parks scattered through central London or the Trolley Track Trail in Kansas City are examples of public spaces that encourage this kind of community pride, identity and togetherness.
On the other hand, there is a definite need to become more aware of the potential for attack; we do need to take more time to discover where exits are and how one needs to react in case of an emergency. Just as flight attendants instruct us on the use of our seat belts, we may need to subject ourselves to a comparable set of instructions upon entering buildings, especially big buildings and other populous places that may qualify as targets. We may need to subject ourselves to even more stringent building codes. But we should not believe that any of these right-minded measures will eliminate risk; whatever precautions we may undertake, the mind bent on destruction will find a way to be satisfied.
Above all we should not encourage citizens to reduce their participation in community activities. We all participate in risk-filled behaviors on a regular basis: the potential for dying in a terrorist attack is measurably less of a risk than dying in an automobile crash. On the contrary: the Safer Community is a place where risk is minimized, yes, but primarily it is a place where people feel drawn together and empowered to provide mutual support in time of need.
MARC recognizes these changes, adopts Transportation Outlook 2040
Recently the Mid America Regional Council Board changed the assumptions previously used in forecasting the growth pattern in the Kansas City region. Using earlier assumptions, MARC produced the “Baseline Scenario”, assuming development predominantly in currently vacant land, and estimated “...that the cost of local infrastructure to support this development pattern over the next thirty years would be approximately $8.7 billion”. But in recognition of the aspirations of several jurisdictions’ newer comprehensive plans, MARC developed an “Adaptive Scenario”, with assumptions that new development would occur not only in currently vacant land but also in a more compact pattern in and around existing activity centers or towns. “As a result of the more compact growth pattern, the cost of local infrastructure to support it drops to $3.4 billion”, a saving of over $5 billion. While MARC Board members, who are all elected office holders, were drawn to the logic of this comparison, the concern with such a major change in development patterns caused them to adjust the assumptions to a less dramatic forecast.
This MARC map comparison shows how the Baseline scenario empties the urban center, continuing the sprawl that we’ve experienced for the past 60 years. The Adaptive scenario reflects a newer trend, increasingly indicating that preferences are changing and the market is expressing more interest in closer relationships for everyday activities.
Some prognosticators are not convinced of these projections. Jack Cashill, Executive Editor of Ingram’s, writes in his June 2010 edition of “…people in this world who think they have a better idea about how each of us should live than we do.” Those readers who are familiar with Cashill’s work will not be surprised at his reaction to MARC’s Transportation Outlook 2040. But for such a learned executive editor to deny the essential thrust of this report is astonishingly biased: the MARC report does not attempt to “…tell the rest of us how we should live”, rather it has set out alternatives that are not of their own imagining, and the MARC Board was given the opportunity to modify the original alternatives to their own sense of how their constituents would react. I see this as an example of American participatory planning at its best.
So what happens now...whither the 21st Century?
Are we going to buy more weapons, move to the urban fringe to more and more dispersed locations where we can “defend” ourselves and our families? Or is another reaction more likely to be predominant? Does the growing popularity of center city living reflected in rising real estate values in our urban centers suggest a market condition in which the old sprawl patterns have reached their apogee? Is the 50-year pattern of sprawl ever so slowly changing? Yes, the “throw-away city” is being picked up by savvy investors who see an opportunity in acquiring low cost real estate and capitalizing on this trend.
Whether this trend is a response to terrorist attack, a concern that the growing national debt will begin to erode our standard of living or simply an unexplained market reality, it bodes well for the quality of life in our urban centers. In city after city across the country, while suburban sprawl is still dominant, our urban centers are thriving with new investment, new vitality and new urban amenity. This is a trend we need to support with new public policies and initiatives that promote and celebrate a new impetus to live better with less.
Kite Singleton, FAIA