March 19, 2010  |  permalink

Too little, too late.

In today’s NYT, David Brooks uses the British writer Philip Blond as his ventriloquist dummy to make the liberal’s case for “three big areas of reform: remoralize the market, relocalize the economy and recapitalize the poor.” Brooks elegantly summarizes the corrosive effects of increasing returns to scale:

Then there was the market revolution from the right. In the age of deregulation, giant chains like Wal-Mart decimated local shop owners. Global financial markets took over small banks, so that the local knowledge of a town banker was replaced by a manic herd of traders thousands of miles away. Unions withered.

The two revolutions talked the language of individual freedom, but they perversely ended up creating greater centralization. They created an atomized, segmented society and then the state had to come in and attempt to repair the damage.

Blond’s/Brooks’ solution?

This would mean passing zoning legislation to give small shopkeepers a shot against the retail giants, reducing barriers to entry for new businesses, revitalizing local banks, encouraging employee share ownership, setting up local capital funds so community associations could invest in local enterprises, rewarding savings, cutting regulations that socialize risk and privatize profit, and reducing the subsidies that flow from big government and big business.

As a liberal/progressive, politically I can get behind this, but it still doesn’t address the issues of scale. Any industry in the business of producing bits will trend toward scale and consolidation, because it makes too much sense not too. I don’t see how localized consumption—when overconsumption is what got America into this mess—is going to make much of a difference. Disagreements are welcome in the comments.

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March 18, 2010  |  permalink

“Gotta get a ticket for an airplane; I ain’t got time to catch a fast train.”

Tennessee Congressional Representative Steve Cohen hails from Memphis, where he’s climbed on board the local effort to clean up the scrub and sprawl around the airport and build a proper aerotropolis. But I’m much more impressed by his tribute on the House floor to local hero Alex Chilton, of Boxtops and Big Star fame. Click on the link for his succinct summary of Chilton’s musical contributions, or read Craig Marks’ interview with Cohen for Billboard: “There’s cool for a congressman, and then there’s I-bro’d-down-with-Alex-Chilton-AND-Warren Zevon cool. Suck it, Orrin Hatch!”



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March 18, 2010  |  permalink

A Q&A with TRON creator Steven Lisberger

(In honor of the new trailer for Tron Legacy, the nearly thirty-years-in-the-making sequel to Tron, I’m posting my interview with Tron creator/director Steven Lisberger from April 1999, conducted during the inaugural Roger Ebert Film Festival, when a screening of Tron closed the show. Even then, there was talk of a sequel, but it took another decade for it to come to fruitition, and once again, Lisberger—whom Disney once hoped would be its in-house George Lucas directing its own answer to Star Wars—has been marginalized. If the “reboot” of the Tron franchise succeeds, you’ll know whose idea it was back in 1983.)

(UPDATE: For a more up-to-date interview, Harry Jenkins caught up with Lisberger only a few weeks ago. Read his after you read mine to see what’s changed in the last eleven years.)

GREG LINDSAY: I’ve been thinking about The Matrix lately. The Matrix is the first successful cyberpunk film since Blade Runner and Tron. Which means you created the matrix; you created cyberspace a year before Gibson did (in Neuromancer, published in 1984), so one could say he ripped you off. But where did you get the inspiration for cyberspace?

STEVEN LISBERGER: Gibson never ripped me off. The problem that they have is that they think Gibson invented the word “cyberspace.” And we intentionally in 1980 were discussing using the word “cyberspace.” And we decided that it would be interpreted as a Hollywood brain movie. Because “cyber” back then meant anything with brains in it. So, I said, “Look, this is already alienating enough; if we call this ‘cyber-’ space people are going to say ‘This is a horror brain movie.’” So we chose not to use the word “cyberspace” in the script at all and now I have to read how the word didn’t exist until Gibson came up with it.

GL: So where did the idea for Tron come from?

SL: The progression is: Steve Lisberger has an animation studio; Steve Lisberger has friends who are developing computer animation; He keeps track of them from the late ‘70s on, seeing what they’re capable of; one of the principal companies is Magi; one of the other companies is the New York Institute of Technology out on Long Island; where Alvi Ray Smith[?] and Ed [something], who ran Pixar—they’re working with Dr. Schorr[?} out there, and then what I’m interested in is animation. And then what happens is, I look at the Pong game, I say to myself “That’s interesting,” and then what happens is I have an animator named John Norton[?] who’s my left hand man and I say to him “Look, we should try to draw a character out of light because I’m interested in backlit animation. Backlit animation means exposing light through cels and photographing direct light into the lens instead of reflected light. So then what happens is he draws this character out of backlit stuff and he’s like a warrior. We came up with the idea of him throwing a frisbe or disk, and it’s a five-second test. And I say, “Oh, that’s good, we’ve got an electronic warrior.” And then I look at the Pong game, and I say to myself, “Here’s the Pong game, there’s the arena—I’ve always been a sucker for Spartacus—and I say you’ve got an electronic warrior in this environment. Then I meet the computer guys whom I’m getting to know and who I’ve met a couple times, and I start saying “Tell the story of these guys.” And at the time, those guys are really interested in overcoming the IBM uber-company. The mainframe. And personal computers don’t exist and the Internet is the Arpanet—run by the Defense Department—and I start thinking and I meet Gary Guimos[?], who worked with a computer company called Triple Eye[?] and I think these guys are pioneers and these guys are warriors and all these wonderful things come together, and it should be done with computers. And my mother was an artist, and my father ran a factory, and these two things come together and I spend a couple of years writing a script and doing the tests, and it was not such a mystery to me. What was a mystery is that people turned out to take the film so literally. That they actually said “In this movie, they make you _small_. And they put you inside a wire and put you on a computer chip. It never occurred to me that someone would take it so literally. And I guess that was the early resistance to PCs and computer stuff. And so that’s the history. That’s as good a history as anybody’s got.

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March 18, 2010  |  permalink

High-Speed Sprawl

Jason Kambitsis goes ahead and writes what I’ve been thinking about California’s proposed high-speed rail line: the unintended consequence of a line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco would be the suburbanization of the Central Valley. Politics would guarantee stops along the route, and patterns of commercial development would guarantee the creation of vast new subdivisions whose occupants would drive to the stations and ride the trains to work every morning in either SF or LA. Rather than concentrate in walkable communities around the stations—the pattern known as transit-oriented development (TOD)—they’ll disperse into the countryside in searcher of cheaper homes. Instead of “drive until you qualify,” the new Californian dream will become “ride until you qualify.”  (Why didn’t I write about this, if I’m supposedly so smart? Because I already feel like a heretic when it comes to HSR.) From Kambitsis:

The result is our land use patterns are quite different. In addition to making rail a priority, Europe has long supported public transit and multi-modal transportation infrastructure that supports bicycling, walking and other ways of getting around. It has all but taken the car out of the equation and solved the so-called “last mile” problem — addressing how people get from the transit stop to their final destination. Public transit options, along with dense, compact communities built around transit hubs (an approach called transit oriented development, or TOD) has created inherent convenience and in many cases eliminated dependence on cars.

In the United States it is a completely different story. We rarely embrace TOD. This could be a problem with high-speed rail.

Without a rapid transformation of our building patterns and a push to make existing communities denser, high-speed rail could be a conduit of sprawl, not a deterrent. If stations include vast parking lots, or they’re built in remote areas away from urban cores instead of being made a part of the community, it will all but guarantee people drive to the stations and create a system that is only accessible by car. Drivers already comfortable with a commute of an hour or more could move further away from urban centers, drive to a station and ride to work and still enjoy a shorter overall commute time.

“HIgh-speed rail will simply add another layer of access to the far-flung suburbs/exurbs and Central Valley, resulting in more mass-produced subdivisions,” warns Robert Cervero, director of the University of California Transportation Center and author of Development Around Transit.

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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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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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