Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The "Politics" of Planning Philosophies

I've been reading an interesting book lately, Politics Lost: How American Democracy was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid, by Joe Klein, a political columnist for Time magazine and author of Primary Colors. Klein has followed politics for over 30 years and written about presidential campaigns, national affairs and politics in general for most of that time.

Klein's premise is that since about the mid 60's, political campaigns have been taken over by pollsters and consultants with the result that we get very few "real" candidates anymore -- they are packaged and managed and never allowed to say what they really think. He knocks both major political parties for doing some of the same things, and for some different things.

As I was reading what he had to say about why the Democratic party has lost its ability to win many significant elections lately, it began to resonant with me about some of the things I think we in the planning profession may be guilty of as well.

Klein writes, "There was an essential political conundrum that shaped the futility of liberalism in the television era. Democrats slouched toward public pessimism -- the middle class was always suffering silently, the poor neglected, the environment degraded -- but they were philosophically optimistic: humankind was improvable, reform possible, government could help make things better. Republicans, by contrast, were publicly optimistic -- the United States was exceptional, the greatest country in the world, and anyone who said otherwise was unpatriotic -- but privately realistic and often pessimistic: people were who they were, the poor would always be with us and there was no sense trying to change them. These fundamental beliefs had significant implications when it came to running political campaigns.
In public, Reagan's 1984 'Morning in America' was countered by Congressman Richard Gephardt's 1988 'it's close to midnight and getting darker all the time.'"

"In retrospect, it seems clear that a primary cause of the Democratic Party's decline was its refusal to acknowledge legitimate public (feelings) about crime, welfare dependency, affirmative action, and forced busing to acheive integration."

To get the full depth of what Klein is saying, you really must read more of the book. But it struck me about how this seemed similar to some of the things I've been reading lately about approaches to the philosophies of urban planning.

For example, the ideas of James Kunstler seem to be getting a lot of play in planner circles about suburban growth. Here are some recent quotes from Kunstler's blog:

"For those of us positioned against the suburban juggernaut, 'growth' invokes the destruction of more landscape, the conversion of pastures and croplands into McHousing subdivisions, with a long menu of additional liabilities -- not least being a huge investment in a living arrangement with no future. One would think the 'homebuilders' could see this coming -- with oil edging toward $70 -- but the truth is that their companies are programmed for only one kind of behavior -- to keep building 3000 square foot McHouses 27 miles outside Dallas, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Denver, et cetera."

"There are many ways of viewing this 'growth' predicament, and some strategies we can turn to in the face of it. An obvious one is to change our behavior, to stop acting as though our destructive, terminal, and futile activities were beneficial or indispensable. For instance, we could yield to the reality that the age of mass motoring will have to end. Instead of desperately seeking 'alternative fuels' to run our 100 million cars, we could make an effort to restore our railroads. Instead of a million McHousing starts out in the meadows and cornfields, we could repair our existing towns and cities. ... Anyway, we are going to need every meadow, cornfield, and pasture that we have, because as cheap energy wanes, we are going to be desperate to grow enough food to feed ourselves -- another reason to be wary of alt. fuels fantasies based on growing crops dedicated to gasoline substitutes."

You can read more at Kunstler's blog, but be aware that the name of it is a bit crude, "Clusterf--- Nation."

Many other planner-embraced writers sound similar notes about the "badness" of the suburbs and growth.

The chord these writings struck in me was just what Klein had said in his book, that these were pronouncements that had some philosophical truth, but were given by "slouching toward pessimism." This, remember, is the strategy of those who are generally the losers in our political system.

It also seems to be a lack of acknowledging what, as Klein wrote, the public feels or has concerns about.

Compare that with what writers like Robert Bruegmann (Sprawl: A Compact History) are saying: "(Sprawl) works because it satisfies a lot of needs. When people have been able to afford it, people move out of cities. We now have tens of millions of people who can do what only a small minority once could do. ... It's a way to get things once possessed by only a few. Privacy, mobility -- social and physical -- and choice."

Joel Kotkin, the originator of "The New Suburbanism," says, "We may continue to decry (the suburbs) and make fun of them... . But we have embraced the suburbs and made them our home. For most of us, they represent both our present and our future. Over the next quarter century, according to a Brookings Institution study, the nation will add 50 percent to the current stock of houses, offices and shops, and the great majority of that new building will take place in lower-density locations, not traditional inner cities."

Richard Carson, the former Executive Director of Portland METRO, says that one of the problems with the image of planners today is that we often try to push things that people do not want. Eventually we wind up being ignored as irrelevant, or actually spark a revolt, as when voters passed Measure 37 in Oregon (sound familiar, like what has happened in national elections?). "Many current government planning policies are being driven by a desire on the part of environmentalists and some sympathetic elected officials (and, I would add today, doomsdayers about oil supplies) to change the American automobile culture. The anti-automobile sales pitch is designed to radically change our lifestyles, limit our mobility by getting us out of the car, and to have us walk, ride a bike or use transit. ... I am not suggesting that we abandon the quest for a more multi-modal transportation system. However, we should build the system people want. It is clear most people prefer the automobile to mass transportation."

Now I hear the bells of Klein's writing that says Republicans are more optimistic in their public face, but more cynical (realisitic?) or pessimistic in their deeper philosophy -- people aren't really going to change.

We as planners don't really want to embrace either of these approaches, do we? Perhaps a Joel Kotkin hits the middle road when he acknowledges public desire for suburban style growth, but calls for ways to make it better rather than reject it outright. "This redefinition of suburbia into someplace more diverse, interesting and multifaceted represents one of the most revolutionary developments of our times. It provides us with an opportunity to stop complaining about sprawl and start learning how to make better the places that most of us have chosen as home."


At 1:39 PM, Blogger google_PEAK_OIL said...

That was quite an impressive post and I wish I had time to comment in depth. I will say that I would like to see Bruegmann and Kotkin offer a more persuasive rebuttal to Kunstler's warnings about the difficulties the suburbs are likely to face than "but people really, really like them".

Other than encouraging more emphasis on public transit, especially rail, I don't think that Kunstler is trying to influence public or planning policy so much as he is trying to warn individuals to brace themselves for the gathering storms.
As far as his pessimism, all I can say is unfounded optimism leads to complacency and lack of preparation. Unfounded optimism can be a dangerous thing.

At 2:27 PM, Blogger Wilf said...

"all I can say is unfounded optimism leads to complacency and lack of preparation. Unfounded optimism can be a dangerous thing."

And what may unfounded pessimism lead to? Despair? Paralysis? A "who cares what I do now, the future doesn't matter" attitude?

Just looking at the flip side of the coin here, google.

At 3:02 PM, Blogger James said...

All I know is that the gas tank in my car is half empty ;)

At 3:34 PM, Blogger James said...

In all seriousness, I think this issue goes deeper with planners than simply suburban vs. not suburban. Regardless of one's feelings on this issue, I think the fundamental outlook we as planners have (as defined by Klein that you describe in your 4th paragraph) relates back to our philosophy of problem-solving for land use issues.

Is it the government's job to find solutions to these problems? Is it the private sector's? Personally, I believe both sides need to be involved. But there are big questions on both sides... Is government capable? Is capitalism aware (or do they even care)?

I don't know Kunstler's philisophical position to this issue, but I think you could approach his basic ideas from both directions, as you could with Kotkin's.

Personally, I think most major land use trends (and attempted solutions) are originated and driven by the private sector in response first and foremost to market demands. Remember, niether the suburban nor smart growth movements trace their roots to the efforts of government planners - the private sector usually seems to lead out.

In the end, I would say we need more "dual optimists" (both public and private) who will pursue "no little plans" with full awareness to the fact that no plan (or person) is ever perfect, but that the effort is still worth making! Of course reality never measures up to the vision, but what would the world be like if there were no vision at all?? (ok that last line sounded really cheesy, but I think there's some truth to it)

Along those lines, I've been reading a fascinating biography about James Rouse (published by ULI). To me, he epitomizes what I just described...I highly recommend it!

At 10:06 PM, Blogger Utah Peaknik said...

World oil production is going to peak. It's not a matter of if, but when. And that's not just some baseless proclamation. It's backed up by solid scientific research. Oil production follows a rough bell curve, and that applies to individual oil fields, oil producing nations, and the world itself. Oil production in the U.S. already peaked in 1970.

With declining oil production worldwide, how will we be able to drive all of our cars as much as we are now? And of course it's nearly impossible to live in a suburban area without an automobile to go everywhere.

You're answer might be that we'll have alternative fuels that will be able to keep everything going just how it is now. But as far as alternative fuels go, the numbers just don't add up. I won't go into all of the details here, but you can read it all on page two of the following website:


Trust me, it's well worth your time if you want something really eye-opening.

Also Wilf, please read Kunstler's "The Long Emergency." It lays everything out. Then you will really see where google_peak_oil and I are coming from. You might be thinking that Kunstler is just some left-wing nutjob, but you really can't put him in a neat and tidy political category. In the book he criticizes everything from rap music, to hippies, to the state of public schools today, etc. His book isn't politically correct, but he calls it like he sees it.

I won't explain all of the shortcomings of alternative fuels here (like I said, you can read all of that on page two of lifeaftertheoilcrash.net), but let me say a few things about the so-called hydrogen economy.

The idea that someday we can all drive around with hydrogen powered cars is a cruel joke. First off, hydrogen fuel cells each require about 20 to 50 grams of platinum, which is already in scarce supply. And the electrolysis process used to make hydrogen consumes more energy than it produces.

LATOC has this wonderful quote:

The laws of physics mean the hydrogen economy will always be an energy sink. Hydrogen’s properties require you to spend more energy to do the following than you get out of it later: overcome water's hydrogen-oxygen bond, to move heavy cars, to prevent leaks and brittle metals, to transport hydrogen to the destination. It doesn’t matter if all of the problems are solved, or how much money is spent. You will use more energy to create, store, and transport hydrogen than you will ever get out of it.

Let's face the music people.

At 8:38 AM, Blogger Wilf said...

So, google and peaknik, if our energy resources that we've built our entire world economy and social structure on, is going to go away, and there are no real alternatives as you point out, what is the answer? What does the future hold? Is it just, last person on the planet turn out the lights?

Your answer may be renewable energy sources like wind, solar, etc. No question these could, and probably will, play a larger role in our energy future. But these sources are not easily made mobile, as you know.

You point out that other biofuels, like ethanol, just won't work (I'm not sure why, but I'm sure you have good reasons.

Nuclear power -- well, just forget about it, right? Until the cold, dark night of declining living standards begin to envelope us.

What do we do, gang? Changing our lifestyle can help, certainly, but only so far. Is there no hope for the fuure?

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Utah Peaknik said...

As for ethanol, consider the following:

David Pimental, a leading Cornell University agricultural expert, has calculated that powering the average U.S. automobile for one year on ethanol (blended with gasoline) derived from corn would require 11 acres of farmland, the same space needed to grow a year’s supply of food for seven people. Adding up the energy costs of corn production and its conversion into ethanol, 131,000 BTUs are needed to make one gallon of ethanol. One gallon of ethanol has an energy value of only 77,000 BTUS. Thus, 70 percent more energy is required to produce ethanol than the energy that actually is in it. Every time you make one gallon of ethanol, there is a net energy loss of 54,000 BTUs.

Mr. Pimentel concluded that “abusing our precious croplands to grow corn for an energy-inefficient process that yields low-grade automobile fuels amounts to unsustainable subsidized food burning”.

You brought up nuclear power, Wilf. Nuclear power has the potential of "softening" the coming oil crash. But nuclear power isn't nearly as versatile as oil is.

Matt Savinar says it like this:

Assuming we find answers to all questions regarding the cost and safety of nuclear power, we are still left with the most vexing question of all:

Where are we going to get the massive amounts of oil necessary to build hundreds, if not thousands, of these reactors, especially since they take 10 or so years to build and we won't get motivated to build them until after oil supplies have reached a point of permanent scarcity?

Remember, once we get the reactors built, we still have the not-so-inexpensive task of retrofitting a significant portion of the following to run on nuclear-derived electricity:

1.700 million oil-powered cars traversing the world's roads;

2.Millions of oil-powered airplanes crisscrossing the world's skies;

3.Millions of oil-powered boats circumnavigating the world's oceans."

The devil's always in the details.

At 8:58 PM, Blogger google_PEAK_OIL said...

"And what may unfounded pessimism lead to? Despair? Paralysis? A "who cares what I do now, the future doesn't matter" attitude?"

You're exactly right, Wilf. Unfounded pessimism is just as bad, or worse, than unfounded optimism. Both lead to a failure to take appropriate repsonses to difficult situations.

Oil is not going to disappear overnight. It will be around a long time, it will just become expensive quickly and people will do whatever they can to use it sparingly. Alternative energy will become more important over time, but it will never allow us to return to the levels of energy consumption we have today. We will simply have to adjust our lifestyles to use less of it. Hybrid cars with properly inflated tires and Energy Star appliances won't save enough. We will have to change the way we live.

We love our American way of life. But as they say, love is blind. It is hard to look at the object of your infatuation and see it's flaws. It is time to fall out of love with our way of life, so we can take a cold, hard, impartial look at it from a cost/benefit point of view.

An average American uses about 6 times the energy and other resources as the average citizen of the world outside the United states. Has it improved our security, freedom, happiness, health, and social well being by a factor of 6 over everyone else? Or have some of these things actually been diminished by our consumptive habits? Are we getting good value for the energy we are consuming, or is our impressive level of consumption the result of a century of the cumulative efforts of countless individuals who have made their personal fortunes convincing us to desire and buy and use a lot of things we really didn't need?

Most of us won't be led willingly by hippies, new urbanists, and peaknik prophets to simpler, lower power ways of living. We will be dragged kicking and screaming by the crushing forces of high energy costs making everything we're used to buying much more expensive. But we may eventually find that the new low energy low mobility ways of life aren't as terrible as we feared, and the way we left behind wasn't as wonderful as we thought it was.
As far as what can a planner do to deal with the issue of peak oil, I would once again recommend browsing through unplanning.blogspot.com, which tells the story of a California planner coming to terms with peak oil. If you remember, the Unplanner has made some comments on your blog. You should consider yourself honored as he is quite a respected figure in the peak oil awareness community.

At 9:36 AM, Blogger Wilf said...

Google, I feel honored that anyone at all even finds this blog of interest and worth commenting on. I use it mainly to get some of my own thoughts off my chest and see what it might generate. So thanks to you and Peaknik and many others who think it's worth spending some time with.

You both make some very good points about changes we may need to make in our lifestyles in the near term. I have always maintained that changing our way of developing communities (i.e., density, walkablility, open space, etc) would be like turning a full oil tanker out on the high seas -- it takes lots of time and lots of space. Eventually, things turn, but it seems sooo slow.

The other way is for some catastrophic event that demands sudden change. That happened a little with 9-11, where our whole way of looking at security of our communities suddenly shifted.

Rising oil and gasoline prices are sort of in-between right now -- not fast enough to be a real crises, but moving that tanker along maybe a little faster than otherwise.

I think a lot of people still hope and believe that this is all cyclical and prices will go back down soon -- and they might, I don't know, I see some experts' analysis that says that will be the case. But there does seem to be that niggling uncertainty there -- what if it doesn't?

And thanks for some of your suggestions about how life might be different under high energy prices, but not so bad. I'm always amazed at how well my relatives in Germany get along and how they live, with gasoline at $4-5 a gallon. We shall see.


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