Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Laws of the Jungle, Part 1

Up to this point I have invoked physical and natural laws frequently in levying criticism upon insular planning strategies. These physical and natural laws include ecological principles, laws of thermodynamics, and the operational principles of dynamic dissipative systems.

I have talked a bit about how insular planning subscribes to the fallacious worldview that infinite growth is inevitable, despite the fact that our cities depend upon resources and waste sinks from a finite world. I have criticized it for promoting a “triple bottom line” approach to achieving sustainability which neglects the undeniable fact that operation of social equity and economic growth – two of the bottom lines – are wholly contingent upon the smooth functioning of the third bottom line – environment.

Last week I discussed how ignoring this fact – particularly at a time of intensifying energy and resource scarcity – is folly, and how this flawed perspective undermines any serious efforts toward dealing with the implications of the predicament of energy descent and environment change.

Over the course of its existence, the planning profession has existed within a bubble which made it seem that the social and political interests were the only significant limiting factors toward instituting best planning policies. Vast energy supplies and environmental stability made this bubble of perceived unlimited opportunities possible.

As energy descent and ecological instability increasingly rule the day, we’re going to meet physical and natural laws at the negotiating table, and they will introduce themselves as the true limiting factors of what’s possible. If you think that politicians, developers, and neighborhood groups make terrible negotiating partners, you haven’t seen anything yet. We’ll learn that physical and natural laws – these laws of the jungle – don’t give a damn about insular planning strategies, political dictums, or social whims.

As the Age of Sufficiency really sinks in, the laws of the jungle will brutally dictate to us how our cities will function. We planners need to recognize that we may attempt to deal with energy descent and environment change in any way we like, but unless these plans take the laws of the jungle into consideration they will fail spectacularly.

Due to the intransigence of the laws of the jungle, it would behoove us to familiarize ourselves with how they work, and this week is as good as any to begin doing just that. In doing so, I hope to conclusively demonstrate the important role they serve in describing the operation of our cities. Further, this exercise will show how insular planning strategies will prove less than satisfactory toward mitigating the impacts of energy descent and environment change. And later, this knowledge will prove useful as a framework for elucidating planning strategies that conform to the laws of the jungle – what I call sufficiency planning.

The world is permeated at all scales with homologous structures called dynamic dissipative systems. Everything from chains of molecules, clouds, people, cities, and solar systems are all examples of dynamic dissipative systems. Despite their drastically different sizes and compositions, they all share some very basic structures and functions which makes their behavior somewhat predictable.

Dynamic dissipative systems comprise a flow of energy which interacts with a multiplicity of entities within a semi-permeable boundary creating a dense web of relationships resulting in emergent complexity. That’s a real mouthful, so I will attempt to describe each aspect in turn. First and foremost, dynamic dissipative systems all depend upon a flow of energy. Without it, dynamic activity would be impossible. In the case of cities energy flows would include biomass and fossil fuel inputs, for example. Without these inputs, the vibrancy of cities would cease to exist.

Second, all dynamic dissipative systems are comprised of a multiplicity of entities. The composition of these entities depends upon the scale at which you identify them. On the molecular level they could be called atoms; at the level of the city they could be identified as different and complementary parts including buildings, parks, people, pets, buildings, roads, and so on.

Third, all dynamic dissipative systems feature a semi-permeable boundary. Semi-permeable boundaries allow inputs such as necessary energy and resources in while allowing wastes out. Additionally they serve to promote proximity amongst multiplicities of entities by restricting the space between them. Proximity catalyzes the creation of meaningful interactions and relationships between multiplicities of entities. In the case of cities, experience shows that the closer together different complementary parts can be situated, the more relationships that can be formed between them, and the richer the diversity therein. The reverse is also evident: relationships between complementary parts operate over certain distances beyond which they cease to bind.

Over time, entities link and interact in space to create a dense web of relationships which serves the interests of the entities on the one hand and the whole system on the other. This process is governed by two seemingly competing yet complementary forces which organize the relationships: input minimization and output maximization.

The force of input minimization stimulates the entities to relate to one another in such a way as to minimize wasted effort. Over time, successful dynamic dissipative systems are those that establish very efficient relationships amongst their constituent entities on the local level. For instance, in the case of the city it’s very efficient from a time and energy perspective if certain entities – like people – have proximate access to many other entities which comprise the city, such as parks, shops, restaurants, churches, friends, their work, and so on.

On the other hand, the force of output maximization stimulates the system as a whole to relate to its environment in such a way as to maximize its control over available energy and resources. Over time, successful dynamic dissipative systems are those that outcompete other dynamic dissipative systems for available energy and resources. History is replete with instances when high output arrangements of living subsume low-output arrangements of living. For example, metastatic cities expand upon the landscape because their output of finished goods and technology so greatly overwhelms the low output of the natural landscapes they take over.

Though the forces of input minimization and output maximization seem opposite, it’s important to re-emphasize that they are complementary because they are occurring at two different scales: input minimization at the micro level and output maximization at the macro level. Increasingly stingy inputs result in larger outputs, and larger outputs allow for the replication of stingy inputs in a self-reinforcing cycle.

Dynamic dissipative systems react to the forces of input minimization and output maximization emergently; they spontaneously create relationships between entities in such a way as to minimize inputs and maximize outputs. Cities self-organize in this manner: inputs such as energy, time, and natural resources are efficiently transformed into knowledge, experience, finished goods, entertainment, waste, and pollution.

The process of self-organization in dynamic dissipative systems is exciting and unpredictable, and the results add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Anyone who’s ever visited New York City has experienced the buzz of excitement you feel when enmeshed in such a rich experiential atmosphere: that palpable feeling is the quintessence of emergent complexity.

Over time dense webs of efficient relationships between entities build up and crystallize into distinct hierarchical, branching, and specialized flow structures at all scales. Through feedback loops, these flow structures organize energy and materials in such a way as to further advance efficiencies at the local level and maximize output at the macro level.

For instance, cities develop physical flow structures such as street networks, social flow structures such as school systems, economic flow structures such as retailing, and technological flow structures such as manufacturing systems. As you can see, these flow structures can be corporeal or intangible, formal or informal. Despite this variety of forms, at their base city flow structures are human-made and guide behavior in one way or another.

The size and complexity of flow structures is contingent upon the quantity and quality of resources that systems have access to, particularly with regard to their flow of energy. For example, metastatic cities have access to vast stores of energy in the form of fossil fuels. Therefore they are able to support large, complex flow structures. Looking at the size and complexity of a dynamic dissipative system will give you some idea of its access to available energy and resources.

Occasionally, conditions exist when there are no or few existing constraints on the energy and resources available to a dynamic dissipative system. Under these circumstances inputs do not behave minimally but instead maximally, until the point they encounter constraints. This situation can create complications and side effects for the formation of optimal flow structures.

The phenomenon of input maximization is reflected in the condition of metastatic cities. Here, individual entities – many citizens of the Western world – were relieved from their duty to efficiently utilize energy and resources due to the discovery of plentiful, cheap fossil fuels. The complications of this state of input maximization include traffic congestion, pollution, obesity, suburban sprawl, and anxiety. These are systematic side effects of what can only be described as energy and resource saturation.

Of course, sufficient amounts of energy, mobility, food, and stimulation are undoubtedly good things for people; however, what the sufficiency principle reveals is that past a certain point, additional inputs of energy into a system degrade the relationships between entities, and the entire system suffers as a result. It’s also important to note that ecological principles inform us that absences of limits to energy and resources are always a strictly temporary condition. And, indeed the Age of Exuberance is drawing to a close.

That brings us to the end of the description of dynamic dissipative systems. The main takeaway is that the laws of the jungle serve as the laws of the city, too. This fact has enormous implications for how we planners prepare our cities for deepening degrees of energy descent and environment change.

The subject of dynamic dissipative systems is exceedingly vast and complex. So obviously there was much information which I had to leave out of this posting. However, if you’re interested in reading further about systems, I would recommend books and presentations by Donna Meadows and Howard Odum. These two scholars are able to describe systems in simple, eloquent terms that are beyond my reach.

Soon I will articulate the principles of sufficiency planning, a series of planning strategies that conform to the laws of the jungle. However, first I must introduce you to a couple of other laws which also inform the operation of the city. That’s where we’ll pick things up next week.

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Authentic Cities

Last week I emphasized the importance of framing energy descent and ecological decline as a predicament to accept and deal with rather than as a mere problem to be solved by technological ingenuity. The truth is that fossil fuel-based arrangements of living are going away, regardless of the casual confidence many planners place in renewable energy schemes or efficiency measures.

The misunderstanding that we can “tech” our way out of this dilemma is based in ignorance of physical and natural laws. This ignorance allows all manner of nonsense to muddy the waters of understanding. A little knowledge of physical and natural laws is a dangerous thing, and it makes for a sunny overconfidence for what renewable energy and efficiency strategies can do for us.

Unfortunately, the planning profession is not immune from this befuddlement; short-sightedness serves as the basis for much of what passes for best practice these days. Last week I took a moment to point out the deficiencies of what I call “insular planning” – the dominant paradigm in planning best practice today.

Insular planning encompasses all those policies that seek to offset the side effects of what’s believed to be a state of permanent and inevitable economic growth. These side effects include sprawl, obesity, and other liveability issues.

From this basis, insular planning promotes renewable energy and efficiency strategies as the primary means to deal with energy and ecological challenges. It presumes that increasing efficiency and renewable energy via ingenuity can provide for a workable transition to a new arrangement of living comprising a world full of increasingly dense, technologically-intensive, affluent, and even ‘greener’ metropolises.

These policies are successful in dealing with the many side effect issues that pop up as a result of economic growth, but are hopelessly out of step with the likely implications of energy, economic, and ecological decline.

At its base, insular planning is flawed because it neglects physical and natural laws. For example, insular planning advocates the “triple bottom line” approach to our dilemma. The triple bottom line is represented by a Venn diagram featuring three intersecting circles of environment, economy, and equity.

However, physical and natural laws show that each of the 3 E’s cannot hold equal weight when two of them – economy and equity – depend solely on the environment for their existence. The true relationship would be better represented by two intersecting rings of economy and equity inside the environmental circle. In other words, the environment is the single limiting factor which governs what’s possible in every other realm. This reality has ramifications for what’s possible in our cities as we enter an Age of Sufficiency. It is here that insular planning reveals its weak ideological footing.

When we take physical and natural laws seriously, they clearly demonstrate that infinite growth is impossible in a finite world and reveal that any urban planning strategy which doesn’t require curtailment of energy use in real terms and ensure the resilience of our cities’ local food and energy supplies simply isn’t serious.

On the other hand, sufficiency planning strategies are rooted in general systems theory, laws of thermodynamics, ecological principles, and the sufficiency principle. The sufficiency principle extends the straightforward idea that as one does more and more of an activity, there can be enough and there can be too much. For example, physical and natural laws demonstrate clearly that the world is a finite place and that cities, like all systems, must live within the boundaries of what is sufficient in order for the other systems they depend upon to function. In the context of a given city, this means paralleling the needs for resource inputs and waste sink outputs with the ability of the city’s region to support them.

In short, sufficiency planning starts with the humble question: “What are the limits of the region, and how far can we make those resources go in sufficiently fulfilling a high quality of life for all urban citizens?” It focuses on creating arrangements of living that provide the opportunity for all citizens to enjoy a sufficiently nutritious diet, meaningful work, physical and mental stimulation, education, safety, recreation and leisure time. Further, sufficiency planning promotes the development of social bonds that give citizens the impetus to make a stake in the continued welfare of the community.

Sufficiency planning focuses on providing this high quality of life through advocating modest, informal, human scale, and affordable strategies to retool our Metastatic cities into arrangements of living that will be more resilient to the succession now underway. I call these sustainable arrangements of living Authentic cities.

The authentic city is an ecologically-harmonious way of living within the limits of a given region. Authentic arrangements of living have been popular throughout history in corresponding Ages of Sufficiency; that is to say, during times of energy descent when curtailment and resilience became chief concerns. For example, after the fall of Rome, many cities within the territory of the former empire were forced to localize their food and resource supply lines significantly. As we enter the Age of Sufficiency, many of today’s cities will necessarily pursue a similar course of action.

I chose the word “authentic” as a designation for this manner of living because it invokes the undeniable pride of citizens who live in unique cities that are embedded in and representative of their region. Authentic cities conform to a set of very general, time-tested operating principles. For example, they solve local problems with locationally-appropriate solutions. They consume products and resources in keeping with what can be produced and harvested locally. Their citizens fiercely defend the ecological health of the region from exploitation, as they recognize it as the indisputable source of their livelihood. In short, they enable all citizens to meet their own needs and to enhance their well-being, without degrading the natural world or the lives of other people, now or in the future.

The past 500 years of urbanization, globalization, technological progress, and economic growth fueled by energy ascent have made authentic arrangements of living appear very quaint indeed. From the top of the peak, it’s difficult to imagine the way of life described above, as it differs so much from the Western world norm. Similarly, it makes it hard to believe that the continuation and expansion of this living arrangement is anything but inevitable. That’s all the more reason to get our heads straight about the implications of energy descent and ecological decline.

The truth is that Metastatic cities will atomize into authentic cities whether we like it or not, and this will happen as a result of succession. Succession is an orderly and directional process of change in the composition of an ecosystem, resulting from effects of its life processes upon its environment. In this context, it means metastatic living arrangements are changing the environment in a way that is becoming detrimental to their continuance.

Insular planning misinterprets the process of succession as a temporary anomaly before growth resumes; therefore, it attempts to sustain the unsustainable via well-meaning but unexamined efficiency and renewable energy strategies which will serve only to drag us deeper into the quicksand of energy descent.

My suspicion is that when all boondoggles have been exhausted, people will look for pragmatic, modest, cheap, informal, and easily-implementable planning strategies. And that’s when sufficiency planning will be widely accepted and adopted. Until that point in the not-too-distant future, it is up to forward-looking planners to devise strategies for creating conditions in our metastatic cities which make the transition to authentic cities less severe.

The process by which metastatic cities transform into authentic cities will likely be uneven and difficult. Jurisdictions will come up various methods for dealing with various challenges of varying intensities on varying timelines. Additionally, it’s important to remember that not all cities will arrive at a condition of authenticity in the same manner; some may get there by way of urban shrink; others will get there by growing into the role.

There are a few general characteristics that will typify the transformation from metastatic cities to authentic cities, however. From an urban design perspective, authentic cities will almost certainly eschew suburban sprawl in favor of consolidation to a manageable size in keeping with the energy and resources of the region.

Authentic cities will likely serve as regionalized urban clusters of economic activity, surrounded by farmland and forest, and connected by inter-city and intra-city transit. Their population density will be low on a regional basis, but each urban cluster will have high density. Neglected and unsustainable suburban areas may be forfeited back to nature for use as food production zones. As a result, there will be a sharper distinction at the edge of each city between the urban and rural transect.

The authentic city looks less like Vancouver or New York and more like modern-day small and poor Eastern European cities, or Havana, Cuba, or even Freiburg, Germany. Or perhaps they will come to resemble historic examples of authentic cities from as diverse times and locations as Tokugawa-era Kyoto, 18th century New England, or Medieval Europe. They may also come to share many similarities with what’s described in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, Richard Register’s EcoCity, or the Transition Town movement.

Regardless of what authentic cities ultimately look like, we planners can use some of these examples to figure out ways to make the transition from metastatic arrangements of living to authentic ones as skillfully as possible.

I’ll talk much more about authentic cities in the future. However, I think it might be useful to double back and re-emphasize some of the material I covered in prior posts. That’s where I’ll pick up next week.