This is conceived as an informal and spontaneous annex to my more extensive blog, Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon

Interested in future Studies? Consider contributing your expertise to Project Astrolabe, investigating existential risks to earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization.

17th April 2014

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4 Reasons You Should Move To Vienna →

Of all the major European cities I have visited (and I have visited many of them) Vienna was among my least favorite, so it was with some interest that I noticed the above-linked article that talks up Vienna as a place to which one would want to pick up stakes and move.

The four criteria cited for making Vienna a desirable place to live are the following:

1. “Unlike the U.S., where public housing too often looks like a series of soulless fortresses, subsidized housing in Vienna is colorful, unique, and occasionally filled with amenities like rooftop pools and Finnish saunas. “

2. “In the early 1990s, Vienna instituted a policy called gender mainstreaming, aimed at providing equal access to city resources for both men and women, who don’t always use the city in the same way.”

3. “…the city uses information technology to improve the efficiency of city operations and the quality of life of its citizens.”

4. “Vienna’s car-free residential projects ask residents to commit to living without a car upon signing the rental agreement. Though the city still requires most developers to build a parking space for each residential unit, the car-free projects and developments like Bike City have managed to build without dedicated parking spots.”

All of these criteria are magnets for the urban design set, and don’t much bear upon the tourist’s impression of a city, and, of course, my impression of Vienna was a tourist’s impression. I have no idea what it is like to live in subsidized housing in Vienna, but if it includes rooftop pools and saunas, it must be very comfortable indeed. Somehow I suspect, though, that if you are newly moved to Vienna, you don’t get put directly into the subsidized housing with the rooftop pool.

One space in which the residential experience and the touristic experience of a city overlap is in the public spaces. If you have the good fortune to live in beautiful city with nice public spaces, well-maintained parks, and a pleasant layout, it is no burden at all to have a small personal living area, since much of one’s life can be lived in public spaces.

And there are many cities with ravishingly beautiful public spaces: the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, the Piazza San Marco in Venice, which has been called the “living room of Europe,”  Rio de Janeiro’s beaches, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and many others. If a city has a network of interconnecting public spaces of beauty and functionality — as one finds, for example, in Paris or Kyoto — and it is possible to find reasonably priced restaurants and coffee shops interspersed throughout these public spaces, this makes a city a pleasant retreat for resident and tourist alike. I personally did not experience anything like this in Vienna, but I have no doubt that others have found Vienna much more to their liking. 

Tagged: urbanismurban designVienna


24th October 2013

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Ideas that will Shape the Future


The future is shaped by technologies, industries, and the entrepreneurs who leverage innovation to transform the economy. But what shapes the technologies and industries? Not technologies, and not industries themselves, but the ideas that shape our perspective and therefore govern how we understand technologies and industries will shape the future.

Many ideas remain present in the climate of opinion without being made explicit, and many ideas are effectively put into practice long before anyone realizes that the practice represents a distinctive idea. (Once an idea is explicitly formulated, it enters into history by a different pathway than implicit ideas and practical implementations.)

It is when an idea is both explicitly formulated and plays a role in contemporary history that it becomes a focal point of discussion. Because ideas of this kind are inevitably the constituents of political and policy debates, any attempted list of ideas that will shape the future is inherently controversial and subject to debate.

My list below is only a first stab at a list of ideas that are likely to shape the future; it is not to be taken as a definitive statement or as exhaustive or exclusive. Some are obvious; others are counter-intuitive. This is as it should be. The future often grows out of an extrapolation of the familiar as disrupted by unprecedented developments.   

  1. EXISTENTIAL RISK: The idea of existential risk is ancient, but it has only recently been given an explicit formulation, giving us the opportunity to think explicitly and critically about the dangers that face us. And despite human beings having made themselves nearly extinction-proof by having found their way into every ecological niche, we know from astrobiology (q.v.) that even the most ubiquitous and apparently prolific forms of life are vulnerable to forces larger than any one species, and with new risks from exponentialism (q.v.) and artificial intelligence (q.v.) posing unknown dangers, it is more important than ever to think explicitly and critically about the existential threats that face us.  (For my posts on existential risk cf. existential risk)

  2. ASTROBIOLOGY:  Astrobiology is the fourth great revolution in the life sciences, following Darwin, genetics, and evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). As such, astrobiology offers a new perspective on familiar biological facts, and suggests new avenues of research. A new perspective on life is nothing less than a new perspective on the human condition, and the rapid advances we see in astrobiology today will eventually issue in conceptual innovations that place human life in a new context. Thus the elaboration of astrobiology contributes to the formulation of a conceptual infrastructure that defines who and what we are. To understand life in its cosmological context may serve as a spur to existential risk (q.v.) awareness in the shorter term, and is likely to contribute to secularism (q.v.) in the longer term.
  3. ASYMMETRICAL WARFARE:  The age of peer military confrontation between nation-states is over, but that does not mean we will enter a Golden Age of peace and prosperity; armed conflict will continue to drive the development of civilization, but it will do so through asymmetrical warfare, which is by definition non-peer confrontation. Whether one calls this asymmetrical warfare or guerrilla warfare or urban warfare does not matter, as the result is the same: traditional state actors face non-state actors, and as a result of the mismatch of asymmetrical, non-peer conflict, traditional strategies and tactics become increasingly less relevant, as do weapons systems based upon these strategic and tactical assumptions. The late twentieth century saw a marked increase in guerrilla warfare; the early twenty-first century is marked by the rapid emergence of technologically-driven drone-based warfare, which is the state-sponsored equivalent of guerrilla warfare. These trends – low technology guerrilla war and high technology automated warfare – will continue to face each other with increasing asymmetry and in the sprawling conurbations that emerge from continued urbanization (q.v.) and globalization (q.v.).
  4. SECULARISM:  Mid-twentieth century futurism and sociology gave great weight to secularization and the decline of traditional religious belief. With the global rise of fundamentalism and reactionary religious movements in the late twentieth century the idea of secularization was almost entirely abandoned and is little discussed today; it is widely regarded as a failed prediction of social science. While terrorist attacks motivated by religious extremism make headlines, such headlines tend to conceal rather than to reveal the underlying social forces that produce such atrocities. Is the rise of religious fundamentalism to be interpreted as a sign of the vigor of religious thought, or as a reactionary backlash against modernizing trends that marginalize traditional religious belief and practice? If the latter, the marginalizing trends such as urbanization (q.v.), exponentialism (q.v.), and technological unemployment (q.v.) continue to reshape societies while the religious reaction against them may prove to be ephemeral.
  5. EXPONENTIALISM:  Whether we refer to Moore’s Law, accelerationism, the acceleration of acceleration, or exponentialism, one of the most powerful ideas of our time is that of the exponential growth curve, which describes many different trajectories of natural history and human history. While exponentialism is often discussed in sweeping terms, our history most frequently reveals to us selective exponentialism—one strategic trend among many possibilities experiences exponential growth while other possibilities remain more or less in equilibrium—and it is to be expected that future exponentialism will be similarly synchronically constrained. Exponentialism as a prism through which to view and to understand our world, however, suggests a general and unconstrained application that itself embodies the principles of exponentialism. At some point this escalates beyond the scope of human relevance, but at the present time the idea retains its power to inspire.   
  6. URBANIZATION: Among the great strategic trends of our time is the rapid growth not merely of cities, but of great conurbations, where formerly separate cities have grown together into a seamless built environment, approximating Constantine Doxiadis’ vision of Ecumenopolis – the world-city. Little more than a decade ago humanity entire passed from being a predominantly rural species to being a predominantly urban species, with more than half of all human beings living in cities. This rural/urban disproportion will continue to diverge, and as increasing numbers of human beings living in urban environments, these urban environments are made problematic and become the focal point of central questions of human life: how can be live together in peace and prosperity?
  7. ETHICAL CONFLICTS OVER THE LIFE SCIENCES:  Just as debates over test tube babies (in vitro fertilization) and cloning dominated developments in the life sciences during the late twentieth century, continuing advances in technological medicine (cf. exponentialism) will create new ethical dilemmas as well as rendering familiar dilemmas more acute. Researchers, doctors, patients, and governments will debate genetic engineering, technological augmentation, end of life care, and will reach different conclusions. Some of these conflicts will be painfully and poignantly personal, and some will be played out against of backdrop of the decline left/right politics (q.v.) that renders traditional social and political alignments.
  8. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE:  Artificial intelligence is as much a conceptual problem as a technological problem, but the rapid rise of the computer revolution has obscured this as it has encouraged narrowly technological approaches to the problem. Artificial intelligence is already a fait accompli in the form of expert systems, data mining, and Big Data, but when people talk about “AI” they have something much more ambitious in mind than such pedestrian applications. What they have in mind, ultimately, is machine consciousness, but it will take time for fine distinctions within AI research to sink in with the public.
  9. TECHNOLOGICAL UNEMPLOYMENT:  As is the case with secularism—once widely discussed only to later be considered a prediction of a failed and hopelessly dated futurism—the idea of technological employment (formerly known as automation) has made a dramatic comeback in the last few years. Aided and abetted by cheap and widely available computing power and the pedestrian applications of artificial intelligence, the automation of jobs formerly confined to human labor will continue and likely accelerate; how societies adjust to and respond to growing automation that continues to run industries while providing fewer human opportunities of the kind that that were central to the factory system of the early industrial revolution. That employment patterns will change is certain; how exactly employment patterns will change is not at all certain, and will be the focus of discussion, debate, and not a little rancor. (I have already written several posts on technological unemployment, among them Automation and the Human Future, Addendum on Automation and the Human Future, and Technological Employment and the Future of the Humanity.)
  10. COGNITIVE BIASES:  The elaboration of logic in earlier stages of human cognitive development resulted in detailed classifications of the almost limitless ways in which formal reasoning can fail, which we know as logical fallacies. Recent work in cognitive science and neurobiology has opened up a whole new field of human cognitive vulnerabilities, and researchers today are compiling lists of human cognitive biases, very much in the same spirit that logicians of ages past compiled lists of logical fallacies (although cognitive biases are not themselves either formal or material fallacies, rather they are human, all-too-human tendencies to commit certain fallacies in certain contexts). Reasoning in full consciousness of the cognitive biases to which we are subject offers new perspectives of human reason. The recent work of Daniel Kahneman on “bounded rationality” may be considered another manifestation of the trend to think of human reason in terms of its limitations and vulnerabilities instead of in terms of its power and possibilities.
  11. GLOBALIZATION:  Like the ideas of automation and technological unemployment (q.v.) on the one hand, and secularization (q.v.) on the other, which were once widely forecast and then abandoned when history seemed to be headed in a different direction, the idea of globalization was widely discussed in the 1990s and then after the twin blows of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and then the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 the pundits turned against globalization and announced that nation-states were again relevant and were not about to disappear. While it remains true that the nation-state as an institution is not about to disappear any time soon, the growth of global institutions is one of the great strategic trends of our time, and this is not only about global economic institutions, but a whole range of social, legal, and political institutions that will evolve under changed and changing social and political selection pressures. 
  12. ENVIRONMENTALISM:  Environmentalism is among the very few political ideologies of our time that move great numbers of individuals across political boundaries, and which shape the fates of individuals and nation-states alike. The growing consciousness of our crowded planet is only likely to be magnified by increasing urbanization (q.v.) as well as the increasing sophistication of biology and ecology, which shed new light on human impacts on the planet. Yet any movement as large and as diverse as contemporary environmentalism is inevitably fraught with disagreements over both principles and practice, and as the environmental movement continues to raise awareness of the human relationship to the natural world, it will force advocates and opponents alike to sharpen their formulations of the controversy. Various distinct formulations of environmentalism may emerge as viable alternatives to the decline left/right politics (q.v.).  
  13. THE DECLINE OF LEFT/RIGHT POLITICS:  The political landscape as we know it today continues to be shaped by the left/right dialectic that emerged in the wake of the French Revolution, as some sought to continue the revolution, others to reverse it, and others yet to expand it. But the traditional governing coalitions based on left/right politics have been increasingly confronted with new political problems that cannot be easily analyzed along a left/right axis. As the most advanced industrialized nation-states converge on political gridlock, innovative solutions are increasingly likely to emerge from non-traditional political sources, marginalizing the left/right dichotomy and possibly giving life to new political movements that cannot be reduced to a left/right division. Moreover, structural changes within society such as increasing urbanization (q.v.), globalization (q.v.), technological unemployment (q.v.), exponentialism (q.v.) albeit selective, bitter conflicts over the life sciences (q.v.) that divide people across previously established coalitions expose mass populations to new forces that shape these populations and their opinions in new ways.
  14. PEAK POPULATION:  The whole of human history, with the possible exception of a population bottleneck in the distant past (about 70,000 years ago), has been a history of steady growth and expansion, until human beings have entered every ecological niche on the planet and seem to have positioned themselves for escalating population growth as all threats to human beings have been systematically eliminated from the natural environment. Yet one of the unexpected consequences of industrialization is that once an industrialized society reaches a level of affluence, birth rates fall precipitously. While there are regions of the world today where the human population continues to grow rapidly, these are the least industrialized societies; in the most advanced industrialized societies, population is falling, and continues to grow only because of immigration. Given continued globalization (q.v.), which is global growth of industrialization and commerce based on industrialization, all societies will eventually be industrialized societies, and it is likely that population growth rates will fall. First populations will stabilize, and then they will begin to fall, and it will be a difficult question how human beings will adapt to depopulation.

Tagged: ideasfuturismglobalizationsecularismautomationtechnological unemploymentpopulationdemographicspoliticsenvironmentalismcognitive biasesartificial intelligenceAIurbanismurbanizationexponentialismaccelerationismastrobioloogyexistential riskasymmetrical warfare


27th July 2013

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Detroit: Descent into despair - →

Further to my recent posts on Detroit’s bankruptcy — Detroit in Largest US Bankruptcy and Detroit gets advice, but will it be any help? — today’s Financial Times has devoted almost an entire page to the story, Detroit: Descent into despair

As with most accounts of Detroit’s bankruptcy, this Financial Times piece discusses over-promised pensions and pervasive political corruption (continuing to the present day), but the focus of the article is the relation between urban center and urban periphery.

The case is made here that the urban center of a city is crucial to its viability, that in the attempted revitalization of a city the urban core must come first, and after that revitalization efforts must move from one area to another. In this model of urban decline, job decentralization is treated as a problem. The article further claims that Detroit’s urban center is thriving. Detroit consists of about 139 square miles; 9 square miles are doing well, so one of those quoted in the article said that question is what to do with the other 130 square miles.

These assumptions strike me as questionable. If job decentralization is a problem, and too many jobs are found in the periphery as compared to the core, how can we say that the center is vital and thriving? Also, employment diversity is often a key to urban vitality, and one form of employment diversity is job decentralization. This makes me wonder if “job decentralization” is a code word for the absence of enormous factory labor employment pull, which was the mainstay of Detroit in its glory days of automobile industry-driven growth.

However, I’m not saying the Detroit’s suburbs are somehow secretly vital, and are being plundered in order to support the urban core. From the photographs I’ve seen (I haven’t been to the city), Detroit’s suburbs look like a bombed-out war zone.

Precisely because of decaying, depopulated neighborhoods, many cities, including Detroit, have begun tearing down blighted neighborhoods. If it were possible to experiment with entire cities, it would be interesting to take several decaying US cities in the rust belt and engage in varying degrees of radical slum clearance.

How would a city like Detroit fare if everything outside the downtown core were simply razed to the ground and the city entire were simply reduced to its supposedly vital downtown core? Imagine Detroit’s urban core surrounded by waving fields of grain or forestland — is this even possible? Is this too simplistic a solution for urban blight? I suspect such a radical strategy would be successful in some cities while being unsuccessful in other cities.

Recall that much of contemporary urbanism and urban thought derives quite directly from a reaction against urban renewal and the very idea of “slum clearance.” Traditional neighborhoods eliminated by slum clearance projects are now retrospectively characterized as vital ethnic enclaves within cities that operate at a human scale, unlike the projects that replaced them. The idea of pouring money into traditional neighborhoods is now styled as “gentrification.”

If razing blighted neighborhoods once again becomes the default paradigm of urban renewal, then I predict that the defense of traditional neighborhoods after the fashion of Jane Jacobs will, in turn, once again come to the forefront of urban thinking, and the cycle will continue. 

Tagged: urbanismurban planningDetroiturban renewalurban blightrusrust beltJane Jacobsgentrification


22nd July 2013


Detroit gets advice, but will it be any help?

Further to my last post here, Detroit in Largest US bankruptcy, which was a comment on a BBC story about Detroit’s bankruptcy, the BBC ran a couple of more articles about Detroit in the wake of its bankruptcy filing.

Will the real Detroit city please get up off its knees? by Jonny Dymond Washington correspondent, is more like an attempt at inspirational cheer leading than a piece of serious journalism or analysis. Given the BBC’s high standards, I’m a little surprised that they gave some bandwidth to this feel-good evocation of the city’s “spirit” and “feisty” character. 

Detroit: Six ways ‘shrinking’ cities try to survive

This latter piece by The problem of institution-building in cities is eerily similar to the problem of nation-building, which is the process of building institutions for nation-states. There are always those who look to do it on the cheap, but if you’re going to create, develop, grow, sustain, and maintain the institutions of a city, a nation-state, an empire, or any other political entity, you can only do so by investing a lot of time, effort, and capital.

As there is no royal road to geometry, so too there is no royal road to urbanism, or to any form of human community.

Tagged: urbanismurban planningDetroitinstitutions


19th July 2013

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Detroit in largest US bankruptcy →

The city of Detroit has filed for bankruptcy. It’s been on the ropes for quite some time. Back in 2009 I wrote a post about Detroit, Detroit and Babylon, and I also referenced Detroit in my post on Failed Cities.

In Detroit and Babylon I argued that Detroit’s former success was due to its reliance on a particular consumer good (the automobile), a particular technology, and a particular business model. All three of legs of the stool have changed beyond recognition from the time of Detroit’s peak population of nearly two million in the middle of the last century.

Detroit is now at less than half of its peak population, and the news has been bad and worse for several decades. This enormous and catastrophic failure of urban non-planning, as well as of misguided planning, too little, too late, ought to be a clear signal to everyone in industrial-technological civilization — in other words, all of us.

Technologies change; consumer products change; business models of organizing the production and marketing of consumer products change. We can’t fight this without indirectly creating stagnation. We need to accept technological change and adjust our lives — and our cities — to cope with it.

Tagged: Detroiturbanismurban planningtechnologyindustrial civilizationindustrial-technological civilization


15th June 2013

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The quest for liveable cities →

One of my favorite features in the Financial Times is Tyler Brûlé’s weekly column every Saturday, “The Fast Lane.” Mr. Brûlé (as he often reminds us) is the editor of Monocle magazine, which has just released a list of the world’s most livable cities.

it was with considerable amusement that I read today’s column recounting some of his field research for this listing of top cities, since he mentioned his visit to Portland, Oregon (where I live). In fact, Portland made it on to Monocle's list, coming it at no. 23 of 25 listed liveable cities — between Amsterdam and San Francisco.

I’ve written several posts here on urbanism and urban design, which from an abstract and theoretical perspective is always fascinating, but an individual’s personal relationship to a city is never abstract or theoretical. If visiting a city is like a date, living in a city is like a marriage.

For this reason I put very little store by anyone’s list of “best” cities or “livable” cities or anything else you’d like to call your accolade. Choosing a city is an existential choice, and as such it is a proper object of reflection for existential thought.  

Tagged: Tyler BrûléPortlandcitiesurbanismexistential choice


28th May 2013

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BBC Future on Urbanism

The BBC Future website has a number of features on urbanism as part of their "building tomorrow" series. Below I consider a number of these pieces and the ideas of urbanism that they represent.

There is a video, 2050: Building better cities for an overcrowded world, by Stephen Dowling, that might serve as an introduction to the series, since it includes soundbite interview with three of the contributors (Richard Hyams, Mitchell Joachim, and Rachel Armstrong) who have written the pieces that I discuss below. 

The video focuses on organic metaphors for the city, picturing the city as a tree that requires an extensive root system to support its trunk and canopy. In order to bring this “tree” with its increasing population and increasing inequality in regard to basic resources into a better relationship to the earth’s metabolism, we are told that we need to construct a city that is self-contained, self-sufficient, and sustainable, a city with a decentralized power grid and a way to repurpose all its wastes, which will ultimately converge upon a city with “no inputs and no outputs”— almost a Leibnizian windowless monad.

I’m not sure that these metaphors are the best way to describe or understand the city, which has always thrived because it is open and engaged with the world, supported by trade and commerce, and actively participating in the great debates of its time (whatever that time may be, and whatever the debates may be).

Yet the video chooses to pursue the traditional themes of human hubris as represented by skyscrapers and consumerism and burgeoning waste, even though cities today are much less wasteful (especially in terms of energy use) than they were in the recent past. None of those repeating these venerable tropes of sinful urban spaces seem to have heard of Bernard Mandeville or the grumbling hive.

Turning waste into building blocks of the future city by Mitchell Joachim is a typical piece of moral opprobrium harnessed for a plan for reform that is, at heart, moral reform. The great evil here is garbage, and the solution is not to throw away garbage, but to find a way to use it all. The imperatives to reconfigure, recalibrate, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle are here applied to the city itself, on the whole. And certainly the critique is justified, but it misses some important points, as well as the fact that it resorts to the strategy of tapping into moral outrage in order to drive change. This is a good short term strategy, but as a long term strategy it is as unsustainable as the amount of garbage produced by major metropolitan conurbations.  

It is true that cities produce vast amounts of garbage, but it is also true that, despite the appearances that make cities a soft target for those looking for an object of moral condemnation, cities are quite clean, relatively speaking. Urban dwellers use significantly fewer resources than those who live outside cities. Also, we cannot realistically address the problem of a throwaway society without addressing the economics that drive a throwaway society.

This cannot be fully understood until you have been the one to go the extra mile and make the extra effort to try to get something repaired, only to be frustrated at every turn. Eventually, you buy the new product, not because you wanted to be a wasteful spendthrift, but because the market has made it nearly impossible to get something fixed while at the same time making the replacement much cheaper than the labor required to fix the old item.

This is problem that cannot be wished away. As long as economic growth and legislated economic protections for workers makes human labor progressively more expensive, this problem will become worse over time, and not better. A fundamental shift in economic organization would be required to change our throwaway consumerism for some other form of economic organization. This is not impossible, but it is also not likely. 

Living buildings for tomorrow’s cities by Rachel Armstrong considers the adaptation of biomimicry technologies to urban settings on a grand scale, such that, “it is no longer possible to tell which of these vibrant structures are artificial, or natural.” Armstrong here writes in the best tradition of futurism, but instead of emphasizing the transformative power of traditional technology, she emphasizes the transformative power of technological exaptation and alteration of existing biology to accomplish unprecedented ends.

For example, I was particularly interested in the suggestion that trees might be engineered with glowing leaves, so that street lighting might be provided by a “natural” source without the need to build street lamps or to power them by conventional energy sources. 

While this biologically-based futurism is unconventional in terms of de-emphasizing electro-mechanical technologies, it is on the other hand utterly conventional in taking the opposite tack of the moral outrage that featured in Mitchell Joachim’s piece discussed immediately above. Instead of focusing on everything that has been wrong in the past that constrains our future action, this approach focuses on innovations that represent as-yet-untried possibilities.

It would be very easy to dismiss this as “gee-whiz” futurism, but experience has taught us that the future is always characterized by unprecedented developments, and that people will usually prefer innovative ways to live better over moral lectures on reforming their spendthirft ways, so if better living through genetic engineering is possible, I suspect that people will take up this technology and run with it.

Plugging tomorrow’s cities into greener power sources   by Richard Hyams hits many of the same notes as the two contributions above, both sounding the alarm about garbage and waste that was Mitchell Joachim’s concern, while holding out many of the promises from biotechnology that Rachel Armstrong discussed.

Hyams emphasizes the need to generate power locally, allowing communities to take local responsibility for their electrical production and consumption, which can be given an environmental twist, which which could also be formulated in terms of self-reliance.

Hyams cites the example of Denmark, where half of all power is produced locally. I strongly suspect that this is due to the fact that Denmark is also well known for producing ten percent or more of its electrical power with windmills, which can be considered local, but Hyams doesn’t mention this.

There is much to be said for a decentralized energy infrastructure, and it would seem that the age of Stalinist gigantism and its monumental industrial productions such as centralized energy production benefiting from economies of scale. Our communications network is now making the transition from centralized and hierarchical infrastructure of decentralized and networked infrastructure. It is only a matter of diachronic extrapolation to suppose that the same transition will come to electricity production.

It might sound a bit petty of me to focus on how one chooses to spin the political implications of decentralized power generation — which I certainly agree is a good idea — but this is not a trivial issue. If you encourage people to take responsibility for their electrical needs, and sell it to them as a form of self-reliance, you are much more likely to get a good response than if your browbeat them for their profligacy and imply that they ought to pay more for the same service as a kind of atonement for energy prodigality.

The feature I found most interesting was Bruce’s Sterling’s vision of the future city, not surprisingly by science fiction author Bruce Sterling. 

Sterling offers a literary vision of the future city that is a mixture of glitz and squalor, which is almost certainly what the future city will be — like cities of today, which have their gleaming downtown cores and newly gentrified neighborhoods alongside the squalid shantytowns and dingy older neighborhoods on their way down. Social mobility is not only possible for individuals; it is also possible for neighborhoods and indeed for entire cities. 

Sterling’s central idea is the timeless continuity of urban life — what might be called the perennial verities of urbanism — which he describes in detail and with a certain relish. While Sterling notes that there change as well as continuity in the city of the future, continuity predominates, as does the dystopian cast of his future urban profile.

There is, however, a tension between the emphasis on urban continuity and the fact of social mobility. Social mobility itself is a perennial verity of human society, but the individuals experiencing social advancement or social decline (or, for that matter, entire cities experiencing social advancement or social decline — think Doha and Detroit) confront profound change rather than continuity.

When decline and dystopia force a reckoning, and we are forced to create a city, “that makes genuine technical sense under their circumstances,” Sterling shows neither optimism or enthusiasm for the rebuilding project. I imagine the other BBC Future writers mentioned above — Richard Hyams, Mitchell Joachim, and Rachel Armstrong — whatever their chosen functions as urban Cassandras, would have a certain measure of interest in building a better city in the future.

Sterling gives us nothing like this, which just goes to show you that, despite the reputation of science fiction authors as mere genre representatives of the culture industry, Sterling can lay it on as thick as any mainstream writer.

Tagged: cityurbanismurban designurban planningMitchell JoachimRachel Armstrongbuilding tomorrowRichard Hyams


19th March 2013

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Is It Time to Move Past Urban Studies and Toward Urbanization Science? →

Is It Time to Move Past Urban Studies and Toward Urbanization Science?

The above-liked article by Eric Jaffe in The Atlantic Cities (brought to my attention by Heath Rezabek) begins with an analogy between contemporary urban studies and 19th century natural history, which latter was a vast collection of facts with no unified thread to draw them all together.

Depending on whom to speak to, the unifying thread of natural history became either evolutionary biology or genetics, and the idea is that urban studies needs to move beyond tallying facts and get at the underlying structure of cities. 

This article focuses on William Solecki’s call for a new science of urbanization, but of course there have been many efforts in the direction of a quantitative treatment of urbanism.

An article in the New Yorker a few years ago, A Physicist Solves the City, discusses Geoffrey West’s theory of cities, while less than a year ago I wrote about some recent work on the mathematical modeling of subways, as reported in a BBC story, Subways ‘share universal structure’, research suggests.

One person who commented on the above-linked story, Louis Merlin, wrote:

A fascinating idea, but likely a futile one. Cities are creations of human societies, and I would guess that a universal science of cities is as likely as is a universal sociology of institutions.

Several commentators suggested that it was impossible to formulate a rational and systematic theory that could encompass anything as irrational and human as a city. This isn’t my argument this the effort to create a science of cities. Several others noted (as I just noted above) that work like this has been going on for some time.

What seems to me to have been neglected here is the fact that sciences emerge when someone has an intuitive insight and gives this insight a definitive formulation that can be used an a research program by others.

This is paradigmatically the case with Darwin and natural selection, with Einstein and relativity, and Cantor and set theory — even, I might add, Adam Smith and economics. Not all sciences conform so perfectly to this model, but a great many do.

This is an unfashionable view to hold. I seem to be suggesting a “great man” theory of history, and to be taking an individual out of their intellectual and cultural context. But I think that this approach has gone too far, and has inspired revisionist historians to seek earlier sources where there are few or none, since some sciences are created more or less ex nihilo by one man, as Aristotle created logic.

The relevance of this to the present topic is that a true science of urbanization and urbanism will not come from calling for a systematic study of cities, nor from conferences and seminars on the topic. A science of cities will emerge when some individual has a penetrating insight into the nature of cities, formulates this in a clear yet deep principle, and others take this principle and apply it.

Cities must await their definitive theoretician. Of course, the best way to come to such a striking insight is to immerse oneself in the discipline and to read one’s precursors obsessively, as Darwin was versed in natural history and Einstein was versed in the physics of his day. So the intellectual context is, as we say in logic, a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the emergence of a definitive theoretical formulation. The sufficient condition is intuition.

It is the definitive insight that we seek, or we await.

Tagged: William SoleckiGeoffrey WestEric Jaffeurbanismurbanizationquanitificationurban designurban planningdefinitive formulation


6th July 2012


Transit Disoriented Development

The phrase Transit Oriented Development is now sufficiently familiar that it is often known by its acronym alone, TOD. There are many websites devoted to TOD, including one prominently featuring plans by the US High Speed Rail Association. Here is a bit of enthusiasm from the Transit Oriented Development webpage:

TRANSIT ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT is the exciting fast growing trend in creating vibrant, livable communities. Also known as Transit Oriented Design, or TOD, it is the creation of compact, walkable communities centered around high quality train systems. This makes it possible to live a higher quality life without complete dependence on a car for mobility and survival.

Earlier on my other blog, in Industrialized Space and Time, I discussed the ways in which TOD sometimes goes a little off the rails, if you don’t mind me saying so. The areas that I discussed and photographed for that piece are all within walking distance of my office (where I am now writing this), and in fact I often walk through these neighborhoods on my evening constitutional. This is a part of Beaverton (southwest of Portland) with which I am well familiar.

Beaverton, however, is now a town of nearly 100,000. It could be called a suburb of Portland, or it could be called an "edge city" in Joel Garreau’s sense. Beaverton covers a substantial part of Washington County, and there are parts of it that are much less familiar to me (such as at the southern end of Beaverton bordering on Tigard) than those portions that I visit almost every day (such as the northern end). One of the areas of Beaverton where I rarely go is sometimes roughly referred to as “Murray-Scholls” because two of the through streets in the area — Murray Blvd. and Scholls Ferry Road — cross here.

One of the reasons that I rarely visit the Murray-Scholls area is its poor freeway connections. However, recently when I was in the Murray-Scholls area I realized that its relative suburban isolation has led to interesting consequences that seem to fly in the face of the contemporary TOD model. Now, most strip malls are not in the least bit theoretically interesting, but I have noticed two strip mall developments in the Murray-Scholls area that are theoretically interesting, and I find them theoretically interesting precisely because of their implicit rejection of the TOD model. If ever there were an example of transit disoriented development, the Murray-Scholls neighborhood would be it.

The whole point of TOD, its raison d’être, is to reduce reliance upon highways and cars, so there is a sense in which it is irrelevant that the Murray-Scholls areas has poor freeway connections, but it doesn’t stop there. The area is not only inconvenient to reach by road, it is also poorly served by mass transit. Of course, there are buses, but we all know that when people talk about TOD they aren’t talking about dingy buses and their half-indigent, half-mad riders. When people talk about TOD they are thinking about shiny new trains, like the Portland area’s MAX train, which is a commuter rail system that the upwardly mobile can ride without a sense of embarrassment (and whose clientele probably will not vomit on you).

The Murray-Scholls neighborhood has its primary origins as a “bedroom” community serving the greater Portland metropolitan area. There is a lot of housing here, including apartments, single family homes, and more recent common-wall row houses. A lot of housing means a lot of people, and because of the quality of the schools in the area there are many families with children. Because of the distance to any city center proper, and because of the poor freeway and mass transit connections, those who live in the neighborhood tend to stay in the neighborhood except for specific purposes like (obviously) commuting to work. Young adults who do not yet have a car or a license are more-or-less stuck in the neighborhood.

There are two large strip malls in the Murray-Scholls area of Beaverton, Murray Scholls Town Center and Progress Ridge TownSquare, the latter being the newer and more sophisticated conception. Both were built by Gramor Development (headquartered in Tualatin, OR), and you could probably walk from one to the other in about 15 minutes (I drove between the two). Here is what Gramor says about Murray Scholls Town Center:

Murray Scholls Town Center is a 240,000 square foot mixed-use center located a short distance from Washington Square Mall at the busy intersection of Murray Boulevard and Scholls Ferry Road in Beaverton.  This quality built center constructed almost exclusively with brick is home to more than nine restaurants, Starbucks, 24 hour Fitness, and several quality retail and office tenants. 

Murray Scholls Town Center is a mixed-use project with a balance of retail, restaurants, office and service uses.  The Town Center has a scenic pedestrian pathway that follows the perimeter of the adjacent man made lake. It has become a popular destination with over 9 eateries, 2 of which are located lakeside; Cafe Murrayhill and Ruby Tuesday.

And here is what they say about Progress Ridge Town Square:

Progress Ridge TownSquare is nestled between the affluent neighborhoods of Bull Mountain and Murray Hill, straddling the city line between Tigard and Beaverton.  This 200,000 sf TownSquare is anchored by New Seasons Market, one of the finest specialty grocers in the business, and Cinetopia, a Luxury Theater.  Alongside New Seasons and Cinetopia is a collection of fine retail, restaurants, and service businesses.  The scenic area provides a beautiful backdrop to what will be one of the nicest built centers in the Portland Metro Area.

As soon as I saw these malls, and saw the level of local pedestrian traffic that they were generating, I said to myself, “These malls are going to be successful.”

Not every strip mall is a success. There any many small strip malls that are not large enough to generate their own foot traffic, so that an isolated strip mall is simply a place that people drive to for a particular errand, and leave as soon as the errand is completed. A mall must achieve a certain size before it becomes the kind of place that consumers visit for the experience of shopping, and not for a particular errand. In additional to critical mass in terms of sheer size, it must also have, or create, a sense of place. I have noticed that both Murray Scholls Town Center and Progress Ridge Town Square have significant water features and walking paths, and these contribute to their functionality as quasi-public spaces.

Failed commercial and pedestrian developments are not at all uncommon, and their distinctive features include spaces built for the purpose of lingering where no one does in fact linger. Elsewhere I have called spaces for lingering non-transient spaces. When a non-transient space is employed exclusively or almost exclusively for transient purposes, then this constitutes a failure in planning and design. Similarly, if transient spaces are employed exclusively nor almost exclusively for non-transient purposes, then this also constitutes a failure in planning and design.

The essential idea of a strip mall is automotive convenience. There is plenty of parking, you pull in close to the store, run in to do your shopping, then run out to your car again and drive to the next stop along our daisy-chain of errands. That’s how the strip mall is conceptualized, and that it how the strip mall often functions. Strip mall development is fed by, and in turn feeds into, suburban sprawl. But the critique of non-TOD, non-urban conventional development — i.e., suburban sprawl — is both more comprehensive and more radical. Strip malls are said to make us reliant on our cars, and our cars make us reliant on imported hydrocarbons. Moreover, our reliance on cars has reduced the walking that we do, and contributed to our unhealthy sedentary lifestyles. 

In urban design circles such strip malls are treated with disdain, and rightly so, for these and other reasons, but some strip malls can come to serve very different functions in their communities, and I believe this to be the case with what I am here calling transit disoriented development. I propose to call such transit disoriented development island developments, because they are like islands of consumer retail in a sea of suburban housing. Because people tend to stay in their neighborhood that is poorly served by any transportation infrastructure, and especially adolescents and young adults who have money to spend and a desire to pass their recreational time with their friends and outside the house of their parents, one sees a significant amount of foot traffic, i.e., pedestrians, in and around these strip malls. In such areas, de facto “captive” consumers become shopping locavores. Here, the strip malls are not necessarily or primarily focused on automobile traffic.

It is important to recall the role of consumer culture in the US. Consumer spending is a large part of the economy in the US, and this is driven by a culture that engages in shopping as a recreational activity. It has long been a matter of comment that large shopping malls have replaced the traditional town square as a place to gather, and this has political implications because shopping malls are privately owned and the owner can control who is allowed inside, how they are to behave, and what they are allowed to say while on private property. Such policies are enforced by security guards.

This political discussion has, so far as I am aware, been focused on large malls with internal spaces, rather than strip malls. Enclosed malls tend to be developed by different developers and placed in different areas than strip malls. Strip malls had appeared adventitiously, wherever space permitted, but now with larger strip malls this is changing and one is more commonly seeing large, unified strip mall development on a scale commensurate with enclosed malls.

Another major change in mall development is that enclosed malls are giving way to strip malls. I am not going to discuss this in detail here, though it is an equally interesting commercial phenomenon from a sociological standpoint; I believe that there is something of interest here, something of theoretical interest like strip malls serving a pedestrian population as a quasi-public space, but I can’t yet formulate this concisely. Even if I can’t yet formulate it, I can certainly see it. Today I drove past the Janzten Beach Mall in north Portland, which is one of the oldest and one of the least successful malls in the Portland area. It is being torn down. Some years ago an enclosed mall at Tanasborne, very close to my office, was torn down and replaced by several strip malls. Structurally these developments were perfectly sound; we must conclude that property owners believe that they can extract more money from a strip mall than an enclosed mall. 


Tagged: TODTransit Oriented Developmentconsumerismlocavoreshoppingsuburbanismurban designurban planningurbanismBeavertonMurray-SchollsProgress Ridge


16th May 2012

Link with 4 notes

Subways 'share universal structure', research suggests →

A recent study of the world’s largest subway networks reveal that they possess a mathematical similarity of structure. This BBC article compares this structure to an organic structure, which is fascinating quite apart from the similarity. That planned systems like subways converge upon a similar structure is one thing; that planned systems like subways converge upon an essentially organic structure has something important to say about the structure of cities generally, and the ways in which planning is overtaken by nature.

Subsequent systems that are overlain on the planned systems of a contemporary urban built environment — including, perhaps most significantly, the social systems that supervene upon these urban systems — are not planned in the same way that the underlying structures are planned, and as such their structure reflects different imperatives.

Tagged: citycitiesurbanismurban planningsubwaysmetro