Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Is Dallas Synthetic?

Russ Sikes, local businessman, and president of the local chapter of the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU-NTX) writes when the spirit moves him unlike myself who witheringly taps away at the keyboard like I've had a heavy dose of mental fiber. Each time he does, it is timely and appropriate. In this latest iteration of knowledge-dropping, he manages to craft a love note skillfully masquerading as an excoriation of DFW citizenry.

In "Dallas: Syn City", he asks, "is Dallas a "synthetic city?" I want to react to the general query along with this key statement:
“Sustainability” is said to be key to our future survival, and as Herman Daly explains, true sustainability requires shifting our consumption from finite stocks of resources to self-renewing flows in our midst. This conversion will necessarily involve various synthetic processes. Chief among them is photosynthesis, which makes virtually all other life possible, and provides not only our food, but increasingly our fuel too. Since nearly all of our energy derives ultimately from the sun, some form of photosynthetic bio-mimicry or novel synthetic processes are sure to provide the fulcrum on which a sustainable future rests.
This alludes to what we will find to be profitable in the next wave of growth, the "new economy," or at least the next economy until we must reinvent it again. The irony is that the profitability will be found in the very things we deemed to be the thief of profitability: waste. That is right, waste = food. It is natures way.

The city (meant generally as "all or any city") is a metabolic creature. Nutrients go into cities which are the physical emodiment of local economies in the form of human capital, natural resources, etc. it is processed by skill or talent which then produces goods and services deemed of use. These processes all have waste.

Natural systems are all highly evolved closed-loop systems in which all waste is food for other interconnected processes. The city as we have constructed it is an open loop by virtue of neo-classical economic ideologies and policies that support and in fact encourage business actions that "externalize" waste.

The equivalent of this might be if human and animal waste didn't fertilize plant life that then produces oxygen, food, or both. Our cities are cavemen smearing each other and drawing on the walls with R. Kelly's doo doo butter. That doo doo butter being the externalized costs of pollution, waste, etc. that are eventual costs that we will all have to deal with eventually.

Smart businesses and cities will monetize their waste and begin to think of the economies of cities as metabolic loops. This will most definitely require a close examination of all/any materials flowing through these loops to determine their potential in the new economy. This is all cradle-to-cradle 101 and it is contains infinitely more profit potential than the economy we are shedding.

As for what is derided as "synthetic," in my opinion, are those retreating remnants having surpassed their useful livelihood. These are the dead leaves, damp and dirty, lying on the ground waiting to be swept into piles and jumped into; all things we essentially relate to North Dallas, fairly or unfairly.

It is the conspicuous consumption spread across the landscape in the form of what we know as wasteful auto-oriented sprawl; a form of gambling in essence. Turns out the financial mechanisms behind it rigged the game, to avoid the losses: the returns had to be faster than the testing mechanism to properly assess the real value. That way the lenders could get out before the floor dropped out, i.e., test of time revealed the true value behind the forever growth mythology fueling the housing market boom. (All the more reason to valuate real estate based on long-term, and more consistent returns.)

This is, of course, not to say there weren't successes. All eras of expansion are marked by overshoot, a spreading out period to test apples to apples, in order to find what areas will endure. The whole point of the expansive growth was to find those places. The marked recklessness, however is what creates for such drastic swoons: the further the expansion, the more intense the contraction, the rougher the recession, which is simply an economic term for a evolutionary biological concept - repurposing.

We have the places that we will now begin the period of contraction to (re)organize around, ie densify. These are both old (found to be useful in previous gambles of expansion) and new (found in the most recent round of expansion).

These are the areas that we plug back in, closing the "economic" nutrient loops as we realize or remember the value in them. They are the areas we often define as "authentic," including places ripe for reinvigoration: Lakewood, Deep Ellum, Near East Dallas/Ross Ave, North Oak Cliff, etc. etc. (I could go on and on, but those are the freshest in my mind after the streetcar post.)

Unfortunately, many are ill-equipped to identify the more permanent elements from the recent high tide of expansion. Some erroneously lump those that will prevail in the long-term with all that will fail as one large regretful flood of wastefulness (haven't we learned that in all waste is potential for profit?). Others incorrectly presume everything we've built in the latest go 'round of boom/bust expansion as permanent inexorables of modern life. These are the Bruegmann and Kotkin's of the world.

What is "synthetic" is that which has lost or is losing its purpose in the new city phenotype, fallen leaves from trees. And, we all serve our biological purpose rightfully deriding its various permutations. That which we define as "authentic," provides the "green shoots" of the new city as it re-adapts, yet again. These are the fruits of the loom? boom and bust, carrying seeds as lessons.

How much will we learn? And,

can you decipher which is which?