March 18, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: Jevons’ Paradox and the Perils of Abundance

(Originally posted at

It’s a given among Peak Oilers and New Urbanists alike that the imminent and permanent return of high oil prices will send convulsions through the suburban American landscape. But it’s one thing when professional Jeremiahs like James Howard Kunstler preach this to the converted week after week, and something else when the Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers advise commercial real estate investors to “shy away from fringe places in the exurbs and places with long car commutes or where getting a quart of milk takes a 15-minute drive.” Oil shocks will do what urban planners can’t seem to and the government won’t (through sharply higher gas taxes or putting a price on carbon): force people to live at greater densities.

In books like $20 Per Gallon and Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller—both published last year, in the wake of 2008’s real estate bubble-burst—the end of cheap oil is presented as a good thing, a chance to press the reset button on civilization and live more locally and sustainably. Kunstler goes further in 2005’s The Long Emergency and in subsequent blog posts and novels, painting peak oil as a cleansing fire that will burn away exurban places like Pasco County, Florida. Last Wednesday, I drove for hours through the ground zero of Florida’s foreclosure crisis, a scrolling landscape of strip malls, auto dealerships and billboards promising motorists that their stock market losses had been someone else’s fault (and that you should sue them). The apocalypse would be a small price to pay for no more of this.

How else to explain the hostility directed at Amory Lovins by Kunstler and others? Lovins identified the hard and soft paths of fossil fuels versus conservation and renewables thirty-four years ago, and has since written books like Winning the Oil Endgame and Small is Beautiful, in which he called for a massively distributed, solar-powered “microgrid.” But Lovins earned ridicule for his still-unrealized vision of a “hypercar” made of composites and electric drive trains three-to-five times more efficient than existing models. The hypercar, Kunstler wrote, “Would have only promoted the unhelpful idea that Americans can continue to lead urban lives in the rural setting.” (To add insult to injury, Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute is accessible only by car.)


Why unhelpful? In a phrase: Jevons’ Paradox. Nearly a century before the geologist M. King Hubbert began calculating peak oil, the economist William Stanley Jevons discovered, to his horror, peak coal. In The Coal Question, published in 1865, Jevons raised the questions which haunt sustainability advocates to this day: “Are we wise in allowing the commerce of this country to rise beyond the point at which we can long maintain it?” He estimated Britain’s coal production would reach a peak in less than a hundred years, with calamitous economic and Malthusian consequences. The engine of coal’s demise would be the same invention that was created to conserve it: the steam engine. But it made burning coal so efficient, that instead of conserving coal, it drove the price down until everyone was burning it. This is Jevons’ Paradox: the more efficiently you use a resource, the more of it you will use. Put another way: the better the machine—or fuel—the broader its adoption.

A corollary is the Piggy Principle: instead of saving the energy conserved through efficiency, we find new ways to spend it, leading to greater consumption than before. No wonder Kunstler is alarmed that a hyper-efficient hypercar would lead to hyper-sprawl—it’s only been the pattern throughout all of human history. Maybe the worst thing that could happen to new urbanism would be an incredibly efficient new car (or fuel) that allows Americans (and, increasingly, the Chinese) to carry on as before, as an oil glut allowed us to do between 1979 and 2001. Crisis is on their side.

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March 18, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: Demolishing Density in Detroit


(Originally posted at

So it’s come to this: Unable to provide basic services for all of his constituents, Detroit mayor Dave Bing is drafting plans starve his city down to a manageable size. Using proprietary data and a survey released by Data Driven Detroit, Bing and his staff will pick “winners and losers” amongst the city’s neighborhoods and seek to resettle residents from the losers, those deemed most unlivable. With Detroit’s tax base withering from the implosion of two-thirds of the Big Three, the housing crisis, and an ongoing exodus, Bing believes he has no other choice.

“If we don’t do it, you know this whole city is going to go down,” he told a local radio station last month. “I’m hopeful people will understand that. If we can incentivize some of those folks that are in those desolate areas, they can get a better situation” in one of the remaining neighborhoods with schools and buses.

Can Detroit really shrink its way back to greatness (or at least stop the bleeding)? Part of the problem is that it’s been hollowing out for decades. A city of 1.85 million residents in 1950, Detroit had just 951,270 as of the last national census a decade ago, and the next—which is key to obtaining millions of dollars in federal funding—is expected to turn up only 800,000 this year. Some believe it might eventually slide to 700,000 before all is said and done. A quarter of the city is nothing more than vacant lots—40 square miles of “urban prairie.” Bing plans to shrink the occupied portions further by tearing down another 10,000 buildings. That should earn praise from economists like Harvard’s Ed Glaeser, who’s suggested similar policies for other Rust Belt cities. And what will Bing do with all of that empty space? Turn over as many as 10,000 acres to John Hantz to farm.

The owner of an eponymous financial services firm, Hantz is prepared to sink $30 million of his personal fortune into coaxing peaches, plums, lettuce, and heirloom tomatoes from the ground (or in hydroponic greenhouses). In exchange, all he’s asking for is free tax-delinquent land and tax breaks on agriculture. The city is considering giving him both. Hantz told Fortune he’s aiming for an average cost of $3,000 per acre, valuing it no differently than outlying farmland. But he also promises to create hundreds of green jobs, grow a surplus of fresh produce for residents, attract tourists, and “reintroduce Detroiters to the beauty of nature.”

Together, Bing’s and Hantz’s plans must sound like a model city for locavores, urban farmsteaders (although Detroit’s are actually suspicious of Hantz) and anyone concerned about the fate of sprawl in the era of peak oil. And that might have been so, were it not for the fact that Detroit doesn’t fall away to the real prairie at 8 Mile Road. The city of Detroit may be a shadow of its former self, but metropolitan “Detroit” and its suburbs still contain 4.4 million people, more than metropolitan Phoenix, San Francisco or Seattle. And while Detroit may be shrinking in area, “Detroit” is doing anything but.


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March 04, 2010  |  permalink

Pop-Up Urbanism

Metropolis by Rob Carter - Last 3 minutes from Rob Carter on Vimeo.

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February 28, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: How Much Longer Can Shopping Malls Survive?

(Originally posted at

There are dead malls, and then there is Dixie Square. The suburban Chicago mall made famous by The Blues Brothers—who destroyed it on-screen in a spectacular car chase—had already closed by the time the film was shot in 1979. It’s just sat there ever since, not worth the cost of tearing it down. By now, trees sprout from the parking lot and the ceilings have turned to mush. Every attempt to redevelop the site—into a showroom for kitchen implements or senior housing—has fallen through due to asbestos, fire, and one suitor accused of threatening his creditors with a gun.

Last week, a shadowy group of local investors let it slip that they had won permission to demolish the mess. They intend to replace it with a constellation of discount big-box stores floating in a fresh sea of pavement. This shouldn’t be surprising considering the partners’ backgrounds, several reportedly build stores for Target and Lowe’s for a living—but it’s disappointingly modest proposal for 35 acres of urban tabula rasa. While their lawyer promises their plan will create 400 permanent jobs and $1.5 million in annual taxes, the surrounding city of Harvey has some of the highest crime, unemployment and poverty rates in Chicagoland. This rust belt suburb needs so much more than retail.

But the plans for Dixie Square have less to do with residents’ needs than what the partners can arrange in financing. (So far, they’ve pledged $3 million to pay off the previous owner’s liens, but that’s it.) While this may seem so obvious as to not be worth mentioning, the truth is that most of us remain in the dark as to the extent of Wall Street’s role in shaping the look and layout of Main Street—and the nearest interstate exchange. Anyone wishing to undo the worst mistakes of American postwar planning, whether urban farmers, New Urbanist architects, or enlightened developers of “town centers,” will have to crack the financing code to make it happen.

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February 28, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: HP Builds a “Central Nervous System for the Earth”


HP Labs researcher Peter Hartwell holds a prototype vibration and movement sensor, a super-sensitive inertial accelerometer. The first to be deployed as part of HP Labs’ Central Nervous System for Earth (CeNSE), it is about 1,000 times more sensitive than today’s mass-produced devices.  Photo: Margie Wylie

(Originally posted on

Just days after Cisco signaled it will horn into IBM’s turf by rewiring an aging city in Massachusetts, Hewlett Packard announced this morning the first commercial application of its own holistic blueprint—the torturously acronymed “CeNSE” (short for Central Nervous System for the Earth). Much like IBM’s “Smarter Planet” campaign, HP proposes sticking billions of sensors on everything in sight and boiling down the resulting flood of data into insights for making the world a better, greener place. But what sets HP apart from its rivals is its determination to create a smarter planet almost entirely within house, from sensors of its own design and manufacture to servers to software to the consultants who will tie it all together. And its first customer could not be less green: Shell Oil.

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February 11, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: Can Port-au-Prince Be Saved, or Should Haiti Move the Capital?


(Reposted from Fast Company)

Port-au-Prince—home to two million inhabitants and a fifth of Haiti’s population—is effectively leveled. The United Nations estimates 75% of the city will need to be rebuilt, with 500,000 people still sleeping in the streets. Others have moved out of the city and into emergency tents, lean-tos, and shelters. The International Organization for Migration told The New York Times last week that it could be five years before residents move back into houses, and that they could look forward to living in glorified “garden sheds” until then.

So far, the debate has focused on whether displaced capital-dwellers should permanently relocate. On one hand, $2 billion dollars in aid has already been promised for the reconstruction of the capital, and NGOs like Architecture for Humanity are on the ground organizing a construction force and teaching them to use earthquake-resistant building materials. On the other hand, Haiti’s top seismologist, Claude Prépetit, who accurately predicted the magnitude of the January quake, believes an even stronger one will strike Haiti within 20 years. Based on a seismological map or risk, Port-au-Prince, he told Der Spiegel, will always be Haiti’s most vulnerable area. “A lot of people have to get out of here,” Prépetit says.

But get where?

Bernhard Etheart, a former professor who now runs the government’s institute for land reform, is pushing a plan to pick up and move the capital inland. Similar proposals have already made the rounds of think tanks. Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen has suggested relocating the capital to Cap Haitien, a proposal seconded by the Progressive Policy Institute. Etheart would go much further, founding a new city Der Spiegel compared to Brasilia, the remote Brazilian capital carved from the Amazonian jungle. A new capital, he says, attracts migrants from the countryside and ultimately costs the state more money. “We must invest in the country’s small cities,” he tells Der Speigel, and offer jobs, schools, hospitals, and other incentives to live there.

The longer term and more essential issue facing Haiti isn’t whether to rebuild the capital or move it inland; it’s how do you build a city that creates opportunities instead of slums.

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February 11, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: Cisco Brings New Songdo To America.

(reposted from Fast Company)

Cisco signed a deal on Wednesday with Holyoke, Massachusetts to transform the onetime mill town into a “Smart+Connected Community” over the next six-to-twelve months. Cisco has moved aggressively into the smarter city business in the last year as it chases IBM, which started the vogue for wired cities just as the world’s governments were earmarking billions of dollars in stimulus funds for infrastructure. (See “Cisco’s Big Bet On New Songdo: Creating Cites From Scratch” from the February issue.) The strategy has paid off handsomely for both companies thus far—public sector sales are IBM’s strongest, while Cisco considers SC+C one of its most promising new lines of business.

The Holyoke deal is significant in that it represents Cisco’s first attempt to rewire an existing city rather than simply build one from scratch, as it’s doing across Asia and the Middle East. This puts Cisco in direct competition with IBM for the first time, as Big Blue has been content to sign contracts for discrete services in established cities (such as congestion pricing systems for auto traffic in London and Stockholm). The choice of Holyoke mirrors IBM’s announcement last fall that it will retrofit Dubuque, Iowa as its first fully integrated smart city. Dubuque and Holyoke are similar in size (60,000 residents vs. 40,000), and both have been tapped for computing centers.

It’s perhaps only fitting that Holyoke turn to a corporation for its downtown’s salvation. Holyoke was one of the first planned industrial communities in America, built by the paper mills which flocked to the city in the 1880s for the cheap electricity powered by dams along its canals. (In a twist of fate, that’s what attracted Cisco as well.) On a conference call announcing the deal, Mayor Elaine Pluta described her city as “the first smart growth community” in America, with the classic, walkable downtown of a 19th century factory city. Unfortunately, Holyoke never really recovered after the mills left; as of December, the unemployment rate was 12.2%, and more than a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line.

The Cisco partnership came about after the city received a state grant for “re-envisioning” of its urban core. On the call, Pluta recited a list of urgent needs so long it actually earned laughs: “creation of jobs, workforce training, higher education, selectively removing blight,” and so on, including “promoting green power, green industry, and green identity.”

From Cisco’s point of view, the question is “how are we going to fundamentally create sustainability in an existing neighborhood, and what role is technology going to play?” according to chief globalization officer Wim Elfrink. He and his lieutenants will put their heads together with city officials in the coming days to select a neighborhood as the pilot district for its services. How Cisco expects to make money is still being determined—not in Holyoke, but in New Songdo, South Korea, where it hopes to learn what residents want and what they’re willing to pay. The stakes, according to Elfrink, could not be higher: “we predict the competition will be between cities – between neighborhoods” – for communities “that want a sustainable future.”


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February 11, 2010  |  permalink

Welcome to Slumburbia.

Timothy Egan and The New York Times discovers “slumburbia:”

Take a pulse: How can a community possibly be healthy when one in eight houses are in some stage of foreclosure? How can a town attract new people when the crime rate has spiked well above the national average? How can a family dream, or even save, when unemployment hovers around 16 percent?

Yet if these staggered exurbs, about two hours inland from San Francisco, were an illness, they would not quite be Abbey’s cancer. Though sick, foreclosure alley is not terminal. This is not Detroit with sunshine. It will be reborn, remade, inhabited. The question is: as what?

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February 07, 2010  |  permalink

Natalie, Meet Jenny

The best scene in Up in the Air has nothing to do with either frequent flyers or the dismantling of the American Dream. It’s a soliloquy delivered by Natalie (played by Anna Kendrick), the ambitious, buttoned-up, cute-as-a-button Ivy grad who’s on her way to an assistant associate director position in the Overclass. I wouldn’t have made it past a second date with her (and never did with her doppelgangers). Having just been dumped by her boyfriend via text message, she holds forth on her type:


You know, white collar. College grad. Loves dogs. Likes funny movies. Six foot one. Brown hair. Kind eyes. Works in finance but is outdoorsy, you know, on the weekends. I always imagined he’d have a single syllable name like Matt or John or… Dave. In a pefect world, he drives a Four Runner and the only thing he loves more than me is his golden lab.

She got her wish. Natalie grew up to be Jenny Sanford, the soon-to-be-former First Lady of South Carolina whose husband, Governor Mark Sanford, informed her of his infidelity via press conference. In a rueful interview with The New York Times today to promote her memoir, Sanford lists the reasons that attracted her to Mark in the first place (such a solid, monosyllabic name, “Mark”):

When the couple met in the Hamptons in their mid-20s, he had a summer job in Manhattan at Goldman Sachs and was a graduate business student at the University of Virginia. He was a devout Christian, she recounted, whose father died when he was in college and who had struggled to save the family farm.

She was a vice president at Lazard Frères. A Georgetown graduate who regularly attended 5 p.m. Mass on Sundays, she also lived merrily on the Upper East Side, meeting girlfriends for drinks and date dissections.

“He was naïve with me,” said Mrs. Sanford, settling on the sofa in the mansion library, with family photos scattered about, an oil painting of her husband staring down from the mantel. “He didn’t have a lot of experience courting women, let’s just say.”

Back then, she found him a nice change from Wall Street wolves: wholesome, spiritual, outdoorsy. That was the narrative she clung to, when he refused to say “fidelity” in their wedding vows. “I thought it was refreshing and honest,” she said. “What kind of an idiot was I?”

Years later, she said, he would bemoan his lack of dating experience, wondering aloud what he had missed.


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February 06, 2010  |  permalink

Introducing: The Master Plan

(Note: I’ve started writing a weekly column on infrastructure and urbanism for entitled “The Master Plan.” I’ll be cross-posting it here. Below is the first of hopefully many.)

“I was in California,” the consummate ad man Don Draper rhapsodized last season in Mad Men. “Everything’s new, and it’s clean. The people are full of hope. New York is in decay.” The suburban landscape that awed him circa 1963 was the fruit of a warm climate, middle-class manufacturing jobs, Federal Housing Administration mortgages, brand-new interstate highways, and tax code changes that made shopping malls a slam-dunk for developers. The immediate result was master-planned communities such as Lakewood, California, “the Levittown of the West,” which started from nothing in 1950 and had grown to 17,500 homes by the time Don Draper rolled through town. The rest is post-war geographic history.

What a difference a half-century makes. America’s suburbs are now home to the largest and fastest growing poor population, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution. The country’s largest metro areas saw their poor populations grow by 25% between 2000 and 2008, faster than either primary cities or rural areas. (The suburban fringes of Los Angeles were expected to take the biggest hit last year.) Part of this has do with math—the suburbs grew three times faster during that span. But faced with aging infrastructure, higher maintenance costs, and growing numbers of poor, this increase could become self-perpetuating, a la the inner cities in the 1960s and 1970s. “Clearly,” the Brookings Report concluded, “the balance of metropolitan poverty has passed a tipping point.”


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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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