Insulated No More

Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that much of what passes for “sustainability planning best practice” these days is hopelessly spurious.

I haven’t always felt that way; in fact, the process was very gradual looking back on it. I suppose a combination of new information and experiences culminated over the years to cause me to jump down off the sustainability planning best practice bandwagon and begin cleaving a different path.

The knowledge I had attained began to displace large portions of what initially seemed to me to be unassailable aspects of sustainability planning best practice. As a result, I adopted a new cosmology on the subject. No… I have that backwards – there came a point when I recognized that a new cosmology had chosen me. Because that’s the way belief works, isn’t it? I didn’t change my mind so much as my mind had changed me.

Now here I stand nine years later with a much more nuanced perspective on sustainability planning best practice. Yet I’m still very much embedded within the planning community and feel increasingly alienated from the policies I’m asked to implement. Now the time has come to articulate my critique of sustainability planning best practice in an organized and coherent form so that my peers can see what I’m talking about. That will be my goal over the next few weeks’ worth of posts.

Now, if you asked any sustainability-minded planner worth their salt to describe sustainability planning best practice, it would likely read something like this:

“We need to support policies which feature density, mixed uses, walkability, bikeability, and transit. We need to tap clean, renewable sources of energy which can be converted into abundant, reliable, and cheap electricity flowing through a smart grid to power transit, electric cars, and super-efficient buildings and lifestyles. We need to recycle all our wastes. We need to expand our parks and green spaces. We need to improve water quality. We need to grow food closer to home. We need to improve the health of citizens by increasing opportunities for physical activity. We need to create millions of green jobs for the coming green economy. These developments would enable the United States and indeed the whole planet to accommodate new growth in a way that doesn’t contribute to climate change or destroy its remaining natural habitats.”

All these policies seem sensible on their face. However, when examined under the harsh light of the laws of thermodynamics, ecology, and system dynamics (and considered in light of larger trendlines) we find that they don’t all correspond with reality. To be sure, some of them are absolutely important to pursue. Others are on the right track but lack a larger context. Still others will occur regardless, if not under the circumstance many people expect.  And a few of them constitute little more than wishful thinking. However, perhaps most disturbing are the important factors that sustainability planning best practices fails to address at all.

I’ll get into the specifics in subsequent posts. Here, I want to identify the underlying reason for the discrepancies, inconsistencies, and blind spots. The fact is that sustainability planning best practices originate from a single faulty guiding principle: the myth of insularity.

Up until now, our cities and planning policies have been insulated from the larger forces which guide the activities of all dynamic dissipative systems in the world. Many cities – particularly in the Western world – have effectively operated within a bubble, free from having to integrate the implications of physical and natural laws, the severity of the world’s ecological deficit, or the scale of their own fossil fuel dependence into their decision-making processes.

But these days it’s becoming increasingly clear that our cities are no longer insulated from these wider considerations. Yet the policies we enact to see us through these difficulties remain mired in the same rigid silos.

Nearly all planning organizations espousing increases to density, efficiency, and renewable energy production as the primary means to dealing with sustainability challenges unwittingly subscribes to this insular mode of thinking.

I contend that these policies represent a solipsistic approach that we no longer have the luxury to implement. They were applicable to circumstances which are becoming increasingly rare and are not adequately preparing our cities for the challenges that are becoming increasingly prevalent. Therefore, I’ve taken to calling such sustainability planning “best practices” insular to reflect its short-sightedness and lack of interdisciplinary considerations.

Insular planning developed during the early 20th century – one of the ripest moments during the Age of Exuberance. This giddy period of burgeoning physical expansion, social autonomy, economic growth, and technological progress reinforced to our forbearers a central truth of their time – namely that the world was big and that it could be made to progressively serve the interests of humans.

In its infancy, insular planning was a logical response to the worst impacts of technological deployment upon the urban landscape. During this time, insular planning could be called growth-responsive. For example, planners of the day developed zoning standards so that factories and residences may be separated so as to prevent people from enduring acute exposure to pollutants. To its credit, early planning and zoning efforts were largely effective in promoting public health, safety, morals, and welfare.

By the 1970’s and 1980’s, insular planning’s role began expanding from merely responding to the direct impacts of the Metastatic city to include addressing the side effects of urban metastasis – the worst of the negative impacts associated with the meteoric growth of metastatic cities over the last 60 years. These effects came to include traffic jams, suburban development patterns, stress, obesity, and other chronic health conditions.

Fast-forward to 2012, and we can see that we face all of the problems of the past, including new problems like energy uncertainty and climate instability. And again insular planning is rising to the occasion by expanding its area of concern.

This expansion is evidenced by insular planning’s recent production of a vast compendium of recommendations issuing forth easy, painless solutions based in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Indeed, it’s difficult to find any planning article these days which doesn’t reference ‘sustainability’, ‘intelligent’, or ‘smart’ in some way; it becomes difficult at times to distinguish between sustainability planning and just plain old, commonsense planning.

In a nutshell, insular planning’s approach to sustainability issues could be captured in the following statement:

“By increasing efficiency and renewable energy via ingenuity (i.e. technological progress) we 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.”

I will take the next few weeks to discuss why these policies will prove unsuccessful. Right now I want to point of that insular planning’s deep commitment to ingenuity via technological development demonstrates its blind adherence to the progressively anachronous Big World paradigm described above.

The last 100 years have given us the false notion that nature can be exclusively bent to the will of man. And so the Big World paradigm persists at the heart of the insular planning program.

There’s a latent assumption at play that the same approaches which got us into this mess – rampant technological “progress”, physical expansion, economic growth, and social autonomy – can get us out of this mess, if only we double-down on them. This assumption suggests that we can continue to effectively evaluate the world from a purely narrow-minded, anthropocentric, utility-maximizing perspective.

This insular approach may have been appropriate in the past when the world was big, but it is totally out of step with today’s reality. The world isn’t big anymore – in fact it’s getting smaller by the day as succession works its magic. In essence, the metastatic arrangement of living is sowing the seeds of its own destruction by making the world less able to support its own extravagance.

Our circumstances comprise a predicament – that is, an irreducibly complex and intractable situation. So, vigorous insular planning strategies which seek to treat that predicament as a series of discrete technical challenges will fail. The truth is that efforts to maintain extravagant arrangements of living will prove increasingly reckless as the Age of Sufficiency deepens.

I don’t think we can afford to subscribe to a forward-at-at-costs program any longer. I do think we need to take a moment and consider what we’re doing before committing massive resources into boondoggles, blind alleys, and Hail Mary passes. We need to stop confusing levels of activity with actual progress. And we need to establish new planning policies featuring systems thinking and interdisciplinary science to prepare us for the unfolding realities we face. That’s going to require a change in paradigm. It won’t come easily – all the more reason to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

But before we start discussing sufficiency planning strategies that can help, it’s going to be necessary to continue to strenuously appraise insular planning. In doing so, next week I’ll talk about the meaning of the elusive word ‘sustainability’ and examine the costs of being neglectful of ecological reality.

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