The Moon Doesn't Have A Bed, Bath and Beyond... Yet
June 25, 2013 5:16 AM   Subscribe

 
I feel a similar, actually more intense, response when I take off and land and get a bird's eye view of the landscape surrounding major cities. It's those moments when I can't help but feel, as an urban planner, that urban planning has failed utterly to achieve it's goals as a profession.
posted by dry white toast at 5:39 AM on June 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Washington, DC, is interesting when compared to the current Metro rail map (click on the Google Map link).
posted by needled at 5:53 AM on June 25, 2013


It's those moments when I can't help but feel, as an urban planner, that urban planning has failed utterly to achieve it's goals as a profession.

Well, the problem is your goal is for everyone in the area, but everyone in the area has their own goals, and they won't align.

There's also the fact that there were about 227 million people in the US in 1980, and 309 million in 2010. That's 82 million more, probably close to 85 million more today.

Or, if you will, that's 4 more New York Cities. Not just the city, the entire urban area. It's almost seven more LAs, or 9 more Chicagolands.

Of course the cities have grown. We had to put those people somewhere.
posted by eriko at 5:55 AM on June 25, 2013 [10 favorites]


The last one, of the Pearl River Delta, is incredible.
posted by mdonley at 5:56 AM on June 25, 2013


Well, the problem is your goal is for everyone in the area, but everyone in the area has their own goals, and they won't align.

There's also the fact that there were about 227 million people in the US in 1980, and 309 million in 2010. That's 82 million more, probably close to 85 million more today.

Or, if you will, that's 4 more New York Cities. Not just the city, the entire urban area. It's almost seven more LAs, or 9 more Chicagolands.

Of course the cities have grown. We had to put those people somewhere.
True, but city populations in places like Chicagoland are still dropping, despite an increase in regional population. Chicago's population has been dropping steadily since the 1950s, with a big downturn from the '80s onward.
posted by deathpanels at 6:02 AM on June 25, 2013


Of course the cities have grown. We had to put those people somewhere.

Yes, but we could do it a little more efficiently. Inner cities have shrunk while suburbs and ex-urbs have spread farther and farther away.
posted by octothorpe at 6:03 AM on June 25, 2013 [2 favorites]




I think the trend of decreasing density is already reversing itself in a lot of places, though (hence gentrification). I'm also not convinced that all of this sprawl does represent an average decrease in density. Surely a lot of this is fed by the dwindling of rural communities and agricultural labor forces? As well as the absolute population size increase?

I'm no lover of sprawl, but I think the reasons for it are more complex than implied here. I also think it's kind of inevitable, though maybe we could hope for denser sprawl...

(Like the $125k "town homes" I see out in the middle of nowhere these days? The people I know who live there are families who couldn't afford a town home in the city.)
posted by OnceUponATime at 6:21 AM on June 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it was around the mid 80s when they finally perfected the DNA for fast-replicating strip malls, and sometime around 1990 when the genome escaped the lab. A book store, an arts and crafts store, a clothing store (sometimes with a home decor section, sometimes that was separate), maybe a big electronics store or a home improvement dealy, and an inoffensive italian-american chain restaurant, all of it wrapped in a fake adobe plaster finish with convenient access to the nearest highway. The specific alleles can change - a Borders (RIP) instead of a Barnes and Noble, Home Depot instead of a Lowes, a Macaroni Grill instead of an Olive Garden, but it's functionally identical, and it is virulent.

Vegas was one of the first places it hit, probably unknowingly carried off the Groom Lake complex or back from the test site near Mercury by an unsuspecting worker drone. It spread from there, latching into the psyches of tourists from the midwest who took it back with them to the heartland. There it continued to reproduce with mycological frenzy, and adapted to new environs by incorporating bits of local color into its genetic makeup; a Bob Evans or a Golden Corral for places that don't go in for that ethnic stuff, or a Hobby Lobby instead of a Michaels for the god-fearing craftster.

So now, anno domini 2013, the pandemic has become the status quo. We are no longer at risk, but at peace, secure in the knowledge that, no matter where we are headed in the lower 48 states, if we drive just a little longer, just past that next interchange, we'll see it: the blue-white glare of parking lot lights promising us a plate of marinara for a reasonable price, a new set of clothes to replace the garments we soiled at the last restaurant, and ample parking for as long as we care to conduct our legitimate business. Home.
posted by logicpunk at 6:22 AM on June 25, 2013 [32 favorites]


This definitely brings the whole "cities are a virus" concept home for me. Just...whoa.
posted by Kitteh at 6:25 AM on June 25, 2013


Chicago's population has been dropping steadily since the 1950s, with a big downturn from the '80s onward.

Well, other than the +4% gain from 1990 to 2000, and the apparent gain from 2010 to today.* And, of course, the metro area continues to rise though the rise from 2000-2010 was half that from 1990-2000. The oddball stat is how consistent the population of Cook County, IL is -- it's bounced between 5.1 and 5.4 million from 1960 through today.

And the interesting thing is that LA, Chicago and NYC all saw sharp drops in population in 2009, just before the census -- and just after the October 2008 banking crisis and the start of the Great Recession. Chicago, however, shows a big jump in 2000, then a big drop in 2010. The census clearly saw an underestimation of population in Chicago from 1990-1999 with the 2000 census, but that disappeared entirely, in the 2010 census. This is really odd.

However, many argue that about 200,000 people weren't counted in the 2010 census in the city, which would move the numbers up to 2.88 M, and the big drop disappears, and a current city population of about 2.91M.

It's also possible that Chicago saw a 200K person overcount in 2000, but overcounts are much harder to have in the Census, because you either have to have outright fraud or double count problem, and there is a great deal of rigor taken in the US Census. Undercounts, however, are easy, esp. in dense urban areas, doubly so in poverty stricken dense urban areas, triply so in dense urban areas with immigrant populations who most certainly do not want to be noticed by the Feds, quadruply so in a time where anti-immigration rhetoric was extremely high.

So, yeah. I suspect that while Chicago officially dropped from 2.89M in 2000 to 2.68M in 2010, I really think, if anything, the population probably grew a bit.



* 2010 Census: 2.68M, current 2.71M.
posted by eriko at 6:25 AM on June 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


I feel like "Devastating" is a bit over the top to describe humans occupying a slightly larger tiny fraction of the planet. There's also some ugly snobbery in the Atlantic piece (and here) about the suburbs.

I'm also not convinced that all of this sprawl does represent an average decrease in density. Surely a lot of this is fed by the dwindling of rural communities and agricultural labor forces? As well as the absolute population size increase?

I think it is an overall decrease because people are moving from rather dense Northeastern and Midwestern cities to less dense, spawly places like Atlanta and Houston. People are still living in cities, just not in the same way.
posted by ghharr at 6:32 AM on June 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


> I feel like "Devastating" is a bit over the top to describe humans occupying a slightly larger tiny fraction of the planet.

Cliffsides tends to be safe from real estate exploitation, but they also tend to not have a lot of trees and animals and water either. Humanity tend to go straight for the most fertile and biodiverse areas when sprawling, so the impact can't be measured purely in terms of percentage-of-exposed-land.
posted by ardgedee at 6:39 AM on June 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


I just can't help thinking how fucked people would be without their cars.

I mean, people don't think too much about the neighbor that spends their fortune on an underground bunker stocked with cans of food for the coming apocalypse "just in case." Hell, part of us admires their prudence.

But planning for a life without dependence on your automobile, that's crazy!
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 6:42 AM on June 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Undercounts, however, are easy, esp. in dense urban areas, doubly so in poverty stricken dense urban areas, triply so in dense urban areas with immigrant populations who most certainly do not want to be noticed by the Feds, quadruply so in a time where anti-immigration rhetoric was extremely high.

I lived in Pilsen (a Mexican neighborhood, for you non Chicago folks) during the 2010 Census. The day after they came in the mail, I remember walking down the street and seeing envelope after envelope littering the sidewalks. I'd be surprised if even half of my neighborhood got counted properly.
posted by phunniemee at 6:50 AM on June 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Of course the cities have grown. We had to put those people somewhere.

Well that's patently obvious. The point is the role of planners, to my mind, is to accommodate that growth in a way that best serves the needs of the new and existing population while protecting sensitive natural features. Endless subdivisions, big box retail, and 1-2 storey office parks all completely segregated by land use type and inaccessible by any viable means other than driving does not meet any of those standards.

I have no problem with growth. I don't even have any problem with low-density. Not everyone wants to live in a tower or a row-house. But you can still do it in a way that doesn't needlessly gobble up arable land, consign people to endemic road congestion, create significant (and measurable) negative health impacts, and produce landscapes that are almost indistinguishable from each other from the Atlantic to the Pacific. You can create communities, not just development.
posted by dry white toast at 6:58 AM on June 25, 2013 [9 favorites]


Well the thing with suburbs and ex-urbs is that they sprung up in rural areas that don't necessarily have planners or a plan or even a particular inclination to control growth.
posted by ghharr at 7:04 AM on June 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


My godparents originally moved out of downtown Toronto because it was getting too crowded for them (this was back in the mid-'70s). Now the formerly sleepy suburb they live in is choked with traffic and they're talking about moving even farther north because "it's not the same any more" (this is, in part, code for "there are too many brown people"). If they live long enough they might wind up in a seaside community on Hudson Bay.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:14 AM on June 25, 2013


Well the thing with suburbs and ex-urbs is that they sprung up in rural areas that don't necessarily have planners or a plan or even a particular inclination to control growth.

As someone who works in a suburban municipal government (though not currently as a planner), I can say with confidence that that is categorically untrue. My municipality has a multi-billion dollar budget with a dozen approvals planners, and the result is the same. There are some areas of densification, and even rapid transit construction, but inaccessible subdivisions are still popping up on the fringe like weeds.

While the initial conversion from farm land to developed area may happen in an understaffed or unregulated environment, that excuse is exhausted pretty rapidly.
posted by dry white toast at 7:19 AM on June 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


As someone who works in a suburban municipal government (though not currently as a planner), I can say with confidence that that is categorically untrue. My municipality has a multi-billion dollar budget with a dozen approvals planners, and the result is the same. There are some areas of densification, and even rapid transit construction, but inaccessible subdivisions are still popping up on the fringe like weeds.

I stand corrected. If the resources are there, where do you think the failure is?
posted by ghharr at 7:26 AM on June 25, 2013


It's weird that the sprawl is mostly in one direction, especially in Dallas where there's perfectly good, cheap land to the south. Instead, it's all north, north, north, north. I'm actually wondering if everything from Dallas to Lake Texoma will be one continuous suburb in 30 years.
posted by crapmatic at 7:28 AM on June 25, 2013


It's those moments when I can't help but feel, as an urban planner, that urban planning has failed utterly to achieve it's goals as a profession.

Isn't the problem more a lack of urban planning as opposed to bad urban planning? People for the longest time were just thinking on a hyper-localized scale and thinking about zoning in pockets of a single strip mall or housing development and leaving the big-picture to traffic engineers. That's not exactly a formula for success.

My municipality has a multi-billion dollar budget with a dozen approvals planners, and the result is the same.

How long has that been the case?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:29 AM on June 25, 2013


If they live long enough they might wind up in a seaside community on Hudson Bay.

If they live long enough it might be like Miami Beach up there too!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:34 AM on June 25, 2013


I think it comes down to two things:

1) Local governments get stuck in a cycle of building infrastructure (water, wastewater, transportation) to accommodate the rapid growth, building more infrastructure in anticipation of future growth, and then needing the new development to justify (and pay for) all that investment.
2) I think, as planners, we have fundamentally forgotten how to build communities. How you take raw development and stitch it together in a way that creates an identity (a sense of place), offers people viable transportation alternatives, and truly provides the public and private amenities that residents and jobs need.

And 10th Regiment, most places have a high level plan that gets refreshed on a regular basis, and detailed plans for specific parts of the municipality. Even rural areas. But there isn't the wherewithal to translate that onto action on the ground. Planners end up being paper pushers whose job it is to take a development application, and steer it through the bureaucracy to its final approval. Implementation isn't connected back to the high level question of "how does this development fit with the community we want to create, and what can be changed about it so that it acheives that goal?"

The result surely ends up looking like single pocket approvals, but that's because the overall process allows for and produces that outcome.
posted by dry white toast at 7:37 AM on June 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


My municipality has a multi-billion dollar budget with a dozen approvals planners, and the result is the same.

How long has that been the case?


At least 40 years. As I said, recently (within the last 10 years), there has been densification along well established and heavily used corridors, but everything 2 km beyond those corridors would be considered sprawl. And even the condos and offices that are being built in those areas feel like a haphazard collection of tall(er) buildings than a genuine city.
posted by dry white toast at 7:41 AM on June 25, 2013


Planners end up being paper pushers whose job it is to take a development application, and steer it through the bureaucracy to its final approval.

Well but--and correct me if I'm off, it's been a decade since I was in the field--there are two aspects of planning: zoning/development/building, who are concerned with immediate project requests, and advance planning, which tries to look out over the next couple of decades to propose policy to shape community growth.

I worked exclusively in the latter field and part of the reason I left it was that despite all of our conscientious work, our conclusions were only advisory: elected officials could choose to completely ignore our recommendations; if the community wants low-density growth, they'll get it via the ballot box.
posted by psoas at 7:44 AM on June 25, 2013


That's true psoas. I think there is a disconnect between the two aspects of planning. Oftentimes, the elected officials are that disconnect. In part because, at least in the Greater Toronto Area where I live and work, the overwhelming majority of fundraising for local politicians comes from developers. And when I say overwhelming, I'm talking 95%, particularly in suburban areas.

I've never had any problem with the idea that planners aren't decision-makers in the end.

But I feel that Planning as a profession can't completely absolve itself of responsibility for the end result. I know I feel like I bear some measure of responsibility.

Anyway, I'll stop threadsitting.
posted by dry white toast at 7:52 AM on June 25, 2013


At least 40 years

40 years ago was also at the peak of the death of downtowns caused by the terrible lack of foresight I was just referring to. Jane Jacobs was still a radical upstart!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:54 AM on June 25, 2013


You can create communities, not just development.

The problem is the empirical evidence is out. Both preference and price sensitivity favor the parked box.

It's sad, but it's undeniable. It shows the same tension in hyperbolic behavior exhibited by retail consumers vis-a-vis their exported mfg economies.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 8:15 AM on June 25, 2013


Every place I have lived the local government and the local real estate business were led by the same people with one foremost agenda above all others: maximum profit on real estate sales and leases. Sprawl makes money.
posted by bukvich at 8:26 AM on June 25, 2013


The problem is the empirical evidence is out. Both preference and price sensitivity favor the parked box.

The empirical data is out, but it doesn't show what you think.

Sprawl makes money.

See above.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:37 AM on June 25, 2013



I feel like "Devastating" is a bit over the top to describe humans occupying a slightly larger tiny fraction of the planet. There's also some ugly snobbery in the Atlantic piece (and here) about the suburbs.


If it's snobbery to decry the vast needless waste of our planet's densest, one-time-only, source of energy that could be used for future generation's medicine, food, environmental remediation and science* and is instead squandered so that people can live in their own large box 50 miles (and rising!) from where they work and burn oil in another box to go between boxes, and drive another 30 miles to go to the food box, and burn oil to heat and cool each individual box every damn day, because freedom! then yes I'm a fucking snob.


* Future generations will curse us - and they should. We are stealing their future, drop by drop.
posted by lalochezia at 8:41 AM on June 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


It looks some of the change in the central parts of the big cities that is visible could be due to white roofing as well.
posted by srboisvert at 9:08 AM on June 25, 2013


Every place I have lived the local government and the local real estate business were led by the same people with one foremost agenda above all others: maximum profit on real estate sales and leases. Sprawl makes money.

http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2011/10/suburban-sprawl-ponzi-scheme/242/

How Suburban Sprawl Works Like a Ponzi Scheme
posted by ocschwar at 9:09 AM on June 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's always been a density gradient in population, it's just been exacerbated in the last century or so by the relative cheapness and availability of transport. There's no way short of some sort of draconian edict that planners can ever win against the natural forces that cause people to look for something further from the center.

The real cause of sprawl is too many people.
posted by Ickster at 9:24 AM on June 25, 2013



There's always been a density gradient in population, it's just been exacerbated in the last century or so by the relative cheapness and availability of transport. There's no way short of some sort of draconian edict that planners can ever win against the natural forces that cause people to look for something further from the center.


Sure there is. Massachusetts just made official the unofficial edict that has done that for 2 decades now: no new highways. No widenings.
posted by ocschwar at 9:30 AM on June 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


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