Monday, February 27, 2012

Projections vs Purpose

Chuck Marohn of the Strong Towns blog/movement has a new post up about the dangers within projections. As you may recall (if you weren't there), Chuck was in town last week giving a Curbside Chat, which he's been traipsing around the country giving, including testifying before the Minnesota state legislature.

As a bit of background, Chuck is a civil engineer who at some point (I'm not exactly sure when) realized that sprawl and road building is a massive ponzi scheme where we use new growth to pay for the liabilities of old growth. It is a form of cannibalization, false growth, robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Much of his talk was about the nitty gritty financials of infrastructure building and that the near free nature of the upfront costs thanks often to federal government and the local representatives looking for shovel ready somethings doesn't generate the long-term return on investment that can sustain itself, i.e. entire developments that payoff upfront infrastructure in ~40 years. Did I mention the life cycle of the infrastructure is ~20 years? Yeah, that's the problem. An incremental and continuous downgrade.

Chuck, being from Minnesota, had the ultimate hammer to conclude his rhetoric. I don't recall him using it. Being Minnesotan, he's probably too nice. But, it is there. Left perhaps for us to piece two and two together. Our infinite growth cannot maintain the interconnections between us. At least, not in the current manner.

While his talk wasn't focused on the impulses behind this pseudo-growth, I always am looking for them. So afterwards on my way out of Texas Theater (had a hungry girlfriend. And a hungry girlfriend is a cranky girlfriend), I mentioned to him "being a civil engineer, I wonder if you might add in something about rigged traffic projections," which always yield one conclusion: more capacity. CEOs for Cities gave a presentation on this at CNU.

Planners are just as culpable. They use population projections to say things like the metroplex will double in population by whenever. It's mostly hooey and it drives me crazy, extending infinite growth patterns to finite systems. I'm not exactly sure what the purpose is either. To get what they want? Which is what? More planning fees? Or just to fit in within the larger mantra of growth GROWTH GROWTH.

All of the above is my guess. Chuck opened with a line stating, "The "best" plans theoretically anticipate where growth will happen, in what amounts and in what form it will take." I'm glad he tossed in the italics, because it suggests a skepticism towards the practice of projections for projections' sake, growth for growth's sake, and planning for planning's sake. Nobody really knows until its time. In fact, I'm prepared to say the best planning is not actually forethought, but reactionary, responsive, ie iterative. "Oh, that's not working for us, let's examine all of the evidence available to us and arrive at an answer to fix the problem."

Proactive, anticipatory solutions are simply chasing ghosts. Everybody likes the variegations on tactical urbanism, better block, incrementalism, DIY, etc., because they attempt to correct identifiable problems with real world, applicable solutions. They're therefore informed by reality, more legitimate, and more tangible as problem-solution. Projections (whether population or traffic) never fail to be ideologically driven. That's why nobody gives a damn about the Vision North Texas plan. It is but a book. But if it helps define purpose, then itself has a purpose.

Does it? Not if it means NCTCOG building road capacity for 10 or 20-million theoretical people, ahem, I mean drivers, yet to materialize.

Very few great cities of the world were proactive. NYC and DC would be two examples, having laid out immense gridiron and baroque street and block plans in the expectation of fulfillment (which incidentally took quite a while. DC was still a mosquito-infested swampland with many many many undeveloped blocks by the time of the Civil War. And it could be argued that the framework wasn't so much the driver of the demand as much as NYC being the primary port of call for immigrants seeking opportunity/better quality of life. In other words, being the primary destination for European immigrants for more than a century ticks it up in the hierarchy of integration amongst American cities).

I've been digging into topics related to systems thinking lately and if you're committed to an understanding of urbanism, I can't stress it enough as a foundation of understanding. Forget any architect's or planner's books. Pick up some Donella Meadows, et al., and interpret her various real world examples (which occasionally include cities specifically) through the prism of urbanism.

Meadows is a badass of the highest order who unfortunately passed away in 2001 at age 60. But like many badasses, she managed to live forever thru her work. She received her PhD in BioPhysics at Harvard and started an entire program at MIT with Jay Forrester (father to her mother of system dynamics).

So the very basics, what is a system? A system is an interconnected and interdependent assemblage of parts into a coherent and identifiable whole. Our body is a system. We're simply a billion molecules that coalesce and communicate for the purpose of a greater whole, self-perpetuation (through reproduction).

There can also be sub-systems within systems, with their own priorities yet subordinate to the greater entity, lest the competition be too great the subsystem can undermine the larger purpose of survival.

Meadows breaks down systems into three parts:
  • Elements
  • Interconnections
  • Purpose
Now think about a city. As I've often said, a city is the physical manifestation of a local economy. But economic opportunity is not the only impulse which created and perpetuated cities for as long as civilization has existed. People clustered for protection, from the elements (with advancing yet archaic building technologies). There was also social concern. We died and needed to perpetuate, mate (or we just needed some cheap labor by way of children -- he types semi-cynically on an iPad).

So there are obviously other impulses and impetuses. However, the more we study cities, the more we realize that they are the fountain of creativity, innovation, and prosperity. And as Ed Glaeser points out, they don't make poor people (we're born poor), but cities are the place for opportunity. Markets (other people) are there.

First, we must acknowledge that a city is the most complex of human creations and therefore has near infinite sub-systems, but as mathematicians and physicists are discovering, like other biological/ecological systems, they too have governing natural laws.

So what are its elements? Keeping it simple, people are elements and as pointed out before are also systems, therefore sub-systems within a larger system. Buildings are elements and themselves systems. Neighborhoods as well are both elements and sub-systems. And we're starting to see the hierarchy of nested systems within larger systems.

The interconnections are obviously the movement and interactions amongst the people. Language interconnects us. Otherwise, we couldn't communicate. Rule of law unites, protects, and gives us some (ideally) predictability for the rules of the game.

What about purpose?

A tree is a system. As is the forest it helps comprise. Subsystem of a system. Like most but not all systems (we'll get to that), a tree's purpose is to self-perpetuate, to reproduce. There is some measure of competition (for resources like water), but also cooperation (unspoken obv.) amongst the various parts of the tree as well as the broader ecology of which it is a subset. If any one cell within the tree or the tree itself decided it wanted ALL OF THE WATERZ, it would suck the place dry and there would be no life sustaining resources left. Similarly, a forest can only grow as far as the soil and climate are suitable for its particularly type of ecology. Over time, the spacing, ie the cooperation, between the various sub-elements self-organize into a highly resilient system.

So what is the purpose of a city? As discussed earlier, it was created for a variety of reasons. All of which can be found on the ladder of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:

In an ideal system, we would have a clearly established PURPOSE for the city, then build its governing processes and interconnections around that, and from there the elements emerge. To visualize this, think of the purpose as the seed of self-perpetuation. The interconnections are the roots, the trunk, and branching patterns which transmit material. The elements would be the bark and the leaves, essentially the outgrowths and ephemeralities, which are readily identified. But as Meadows points out (rightly), the elements are the least consequential (we'll save unpacking that for another time since we're focused on Purpose today).

So what should be the purpose of the city? What actually is (if it is something other than what it should be)?

I would argue that today the presiding purpose of Dallas and more broadly DFW (one spawned the other and yet became the subsystem of it, interestingly) is growth. It is the world wielded like Thor's Mjolnir. All other arguments instantly become moot before it.

The economy has to "grow." The city has to "grow." But nobody ever really defines what that means. I suspect this has led to the scatter shot nature of our development patterns and attempts at revitalization. A little bit here. A little bit there. A whole lot of magic bullets (ie elements). "If we just plant a London Eye here, the rest of London will grow out from it right?!"

And we get the equation backwards and upside down. Suddenly 1+1+1+1+1+1 equals 0. So we add another one. Still equals zero. Dallas has some of the best individual amenities of any city in the country, yet the parts still don't add up to a greater whole. We're too 1) focused on the elements and 2) lack a coherent purpose.

In terms of development patterns, everything is governed by projections, growth projections. Traffic planning must account for an increment of growth every year even if there is no evidence that traffic counts are rising or will rise. Growth is coming, remember? Gotta have enough road capacity for the 20,000 2012 GMC Yukons to drive on in 2050. Yes, that is intended to sound as ridiculous as it is.

The entire notion of growth for growth's sake leads to some very bad results. It is the ideology of the cancer cell. Growth at the expense of all other things. Your concern for quality of the air? Clean water? Amenities within walking distance? All (and countless others) be damned. A couple of planners say population is going to hit X and traffic is going to hit Y by Z year, nevermind the Limits to Growth. Such as running vehicles on finite fossil fuels or ever outward expansion within finite inhabitable, fertile land (when you factor in the land to grow food nearby or exhale oxygen while acting as a massive carbon sink, such as the Amazon rain forest. Nevermind. We need that for future Big Macs to graze.).

Even if cars were to eventually become so clean and green that they exhaust pure water vapor there is still the problem of proximity. Or lack thereof, which at the end of the day is the fundamental purpose of cities. Good luck replicating your own little sub-system, ie reproducing, without it. And interpersonal connections are always better than various distance-less connections such as the web or phone.

The evidence of this is pointed out by studies where teams in person outperform those collaborating on the web, but further imbued by our knowledge of communication. So much of communication is done through verbal and non-verbal variants, eye contact, inflexion, etc. We know for sure there is a person at the other end of the line who could punch us in the face if we acted impersonally.

So let's have a real purpose for our cities, like every city throughout history, the cities of the Sun Belt are going to need one in order to serve its basic purpose as a system, to self-perpetuate. Might I suggest one? And that is to provide safety and security while facilitating social, economic, and cultural exchange. Focus on Maslow as a crutch, prioritize the bottom of the pyramid and work your way up.

Of course, the irony of all of this is that if Dallas's real purpose was growth, all it managed to grow was all of the outlying areas as it has remained relatively stagnant. So all that focus on growth thru projections has only managed to garner liabilities, freeways, exactly as Marohn pointed out. Instead, focus on Livability, meeting the needs of citizens and providing them opportunity to meet their own needs.

As livability climbs, growth will happen as an outcome. Yet it doesn't have to a focus. Like with NYC of yore, people flock towards opportunity and desirability. It is inevitable. When growth happens it will simply be a sub-set and have to serve the larger purpose. As urban growth always did, it aggregates authentically at the time and place that growth (quantitative and qualitative) determined to be most appropriate.

And when it does, as long as it is in a walkable and sustainable format. It means proximity has to be desirable again. And if not, then you're paying your full way of not participating in the commonwealth of cities. Then we'll be able to deal with whatever other issues arise, which they're sure to, because that is what systems do. Only it is impossible to predict. So why try? They never know, but they prepare through resilience. Instead, focus on the things we can do, like clear PURPOSE and the quality of INTERCONNECTIONS between the ELEMENTS.