The Shrink of Things to Come

On the Orientation page I sketched out the framework of the dilemma our cities face in fairly broad strokes. Over the course of subsequent posts I plan to burrow down into the details on a finer grain. For now however, we’re going to remain at the 30,000 foot level to lend some further perspective to our circumstances.

The ability to think contextually is an important attribute in considering the future. It requires you to account for possible conditions and provide for useful contingencies in response. That’s why you probably listen to the weather forecast before you leave the house in the morning: you want to know whether toting around an umbrella all day is worth the risk of rain. Of course, forecasts are not divinations; but if performed properly they do lend quite a bit of context to future conditions.

Now, let’s apply contextual thinking to urban planning. On some level it seems foolhardy to try to forecast the state of the world in 2050. Obviously the Earth and its systems are hugely complex, to say nothing of the capriciousness of political and social structures. However, a body of evidence exists that strongly suggests that the energy and ecological landscape of the planet will be increasingly challenging over the course of the 21st century.  Correspondingly, they reveal that the plans we’ve set for our cities largely neglect the substance of the challenges.

This body of evidence hints strongly at rising conditions of energy descent, ecological decline, climate instability, and capital scarcity, among others. Of course all cities won’t be impacted homogeneously. However, in a nutshell these conditions virtually guarantee that Metastatic cities will be supremely challenged to maintain an arrangement of living which by a natural and ecological systems perspective is completely unsustainable.

Metastatic cities – those cities that fail to operate within the limits of the resources and waste sinks available within their geographic region – are practically ubiquitous in the Western world. Their utter dependence upon massive, far flung resource bases and complex supply lines makes them uniquely susceptible to ecological decline and energy shocks. The great irony is that metastatic cities have brought these conditions of frailty on themselves by leaning longer and heavier upon the natural world’s ability to provide resources, energy supplies, and waste sinks.

The onset of this metastatic arrangement of living began ramping up earnestly after World War II in the Western world and has recently spread to so-called “developing” nations. Currently, over half of humanity lives in cities. And over the next 38 years, the vast majority of the expected 2 billion additional humans who will inhabit the earth are anticipated to be born in – or immigrate to – the cities of the developing world.

The reasons for this massive shift are clear: the citizens of the developing world seek arrangements of living resembling those in the Western world. But physical and natural laws of nature strongly suggest there isn’t nearly enough energy and resources to go around to make a metastatic arrangement of living possible for everyone worldwide.

How much longer this exuberant arrangement of living can persist for at current rates is anyone’s guess. I surmise it will expire sooner rather than later. We are already beginning to see the effects of succession unfolding in the form of leveling rates of energy extraction and diminishing ecological capital. Indeed, reality is compelling us to comprise arrangements of living that are much less ecologically damaging and energy intensive than the metastatic ones we’ve come to expect.

Yet, even as the wind whips up and drizzle intensifies under darkening storm clouds, many in the planning community still hold fast to the outdated, sunny forecast of infinite economic growth and physical expansion. Accordingly they still embrace and implement insular planning strategies that promise to shape said physical expansion into liveable, side-effect free development. Now, for some American cities – and possibly many Asian cities – growth may still abide for quite a while as the Age of Sufficiency deepens. In these cases, insular strategies would still prove useful. But for the majority of American cities, growth responsiveness will prove to be an afterthought. Instead, many cities would be much better served by strategies that respond to the challenges of the new forecast which doesn’t anticipate a return to sunshiny growth in any meaningful way.

I’m afraid that boosters of ingenuity-focused planning efforts featuring deus ex machina-style techno fixes will be equally disappointed. Though energy efficiency and renewable energy schemes will prove themselves workable on a small scale, they will do little more to shield metastatic cities from the rain of energy descent than a shattered umbrella. I’ll discuss the reasons for this in some detail next week; suffice it here to say that many of these technologies don’t scale well, they maintain dubious net energy ratios, and will likely face terrible funding shortages during periods of economic contraction.

The next generation of planners needs to recognize that the Age of Exuberance – that giddy 500 year term stretching from Columbus’ discovery of the New World to today was a special one-time period of astronomically high physical expansion, technological progress, economic growth, and energy ascent that is currently petering out. These processes which our culture has normalized are revealing themselves to be temporary phenomena. In its stead, the Age of Sufficiency is beginning to usher in a regression to the historical mean for human societies; in short, the inequities of overshoot will be set right again.

Though many Americans – and by extension many planners – remain willfully ignorant to these active forces, the political and social consequences of crisis are evident. Bouts of blame gaming, denial, outrage, complacency, and discord permeate our society and government. Of course none of these responses is helpful. At moments like this it’s useful to remind ourselves that succession is an inherently non-moral process. There is no one person, party, or ideology to blame for the dilemma our civilization collectively finds itself in. The challenges we face going forward are the sum of all the individual choices people have made, and continue to make.

But once we get our head around the realities we face and own up to them – that is to say, properly understand the context of our future – we planners can reframe our approach. We’re on the right track when we talk about rehabilitating the large swaths of the country where you can’t be an adult without a car. That’s a good place to start. But let’s not fool ourselves that we can stop there.

I’m calling for an overhaul for how we organize our discussions of the perilous issues of energy descent and ecological decline. First, we need to dispose of insular practices where they are no longer needed. As a replacement I advocate for what I call sufficiency planning; that is, a planning philosophy based in the idea that cities can only be sustainable and resilient if they are scaled in keeping with the physical limits of their regions. Sufficiency planning strategies are based in natural and physical laws that can deal proactively and reflexively with burgeoning issues of energy scarcity and ecological decline.

I foresee sufficiency planning bifurcating into two distinct veins. On the one hand, some strategies will be necessary to reform our overblown, wildly complex metastatic cities as they dissolve into smaller, simpler urban chunks. On the other hand, I can anticipate the need for strategies to reinvigorate the dilapidated small towns and cities that have mostly been left for dead over the last 70 years.

First, let’s take on metastatic cities. Though we cannot foretell the specifics, we can reliably forecast an increasingly sharp reduction of energy availability in real terms within many of our metastatic cities. Reduction in energy availability means contraction of urban metabolism. Contraction of urban metabolism means reduction of urban complexity. And “reduction of urban complexity” is jargon for urban shrink.

Up to now the term “shrinking cities” has exclusively referred to hollowed out Rustbelt cities located mostly in the American Midwest and Great Lakes region. A cocktail of poisonous economic policies effectively put these manufacturing cities out of business over the course of the 20th century. Meanwhile, Sunbelt cities like Phoenix, Atlanta, and Dallas followed an opposing trajectory of growth over the same period. The economic success of these cities was due to the omnipresence of cheap, reliable energy supplies and their contributions within the service-based “FIRE” economy (finance, insurance, real estate), which grew considerably over the latter half of the 20th century.

I believe that as the Age of Exuberance fades out, it will take many of these Sunbelt cities with it. In the face of energy descent and ecological decline, many of these metastatic agglomerations will contract significantly, as their consumption patterns are wildly out of balance with the natural resources available within their regions.

In this way, many of these Sunbelt cities will begin suffering the indignities that their northerly neighbors have already suffered. This is not to suggest that old Rustbelt cities will necessarily gain from the losses of Sunbelt cities, though there might be some of that. More than anything, the Age of Sufficiency will rein in long tentacles of sprawling metastatic cities in favor of much more modest arrangements of living.

Now don’t get me wrong. As a red blooded American male I fully appreciate the unfortunate connotations the term “shrinkage” drags around with it. But we ought to get comfortable with the term because it will demand an increasingly large chunk of our attention as planners.

Preparing our cities for the onslaught of energy descent will require the development of sufficiency planning strategies that articulate methods to workably “plan down” our cities, or engage them in a process of “smart decline.” These strategies would work to reform metastatic cities into densely-developed, mixed-use, and regionally-supportable urban centers with a composition of neighborhoods based on the quarter-mile walk from center to edge.

Now let’s turn to the forgotten and moribund small cities and towns dotting our countryside. Before the onset of the metastatic cities after World War II, many small towns and cities throughout the Northeast, Mid Atlantic, and Midwest were dynamic, charming places to live featuring vibrant main streets and a high quality of life. These places were originally settled due to their proximity to useful waterways, fertile soils, or other key geographic features. Additionally, many of them served vital economic and manufacturing functions within their regions.

After World War II, many of these small towns began hemorrhaging population to the larger metropolitan areas. However, many of the forces that favored the meteoric growth of metastatic cities in the second half of the 20th century will likely run in reverse over the course of the 21st century.

The old saying “the best goes first and stays late” will ring true as the factors which made these small towns and cities successful during previous resource-scarce periods will once again prove their value in the coming resource-scarce period. Towns which feature local access to fresh water, good soil, manufacturing plant and “good bones” – solid building stock in an urban, main street format – will be particularly well positioned for the challenges of the future.

Many old mill towns, farming communities, and industrial, manufacturing, and commercial cities with these characteristics will likely gain population and economic relevance as they accommodate multitudes of immigrants from decomposing metastatic cities.

In preparation for these eventualities, we might begin spelling out sufficiency planning strategies that can capitalize on the opportunities that energy descent offers by preparing presently-expiring small cities and towns for a future of economic relevance.

Our cities’ reactions to energy descent will likely progress haltingly, but we planners have a role in offsetting as much misery as possible by preparing our cities ahead of time for the changes coming our way.

As critical as this work is, it’s necessary first to go some distance toward examining proposed “solutions” under the harsh light of physical laws. That’s where my focus will lie next week.

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