Friday, March 28, 2008


I think you may be surprised by this post. Yes, I'm a raging tree hugger. Yes I am interested in organic gardening and I'm interested in urban design. Now I'm going to express my distaste for both.

When I think of organic farming I think of how God made the earth. There is an amazing system of leaves falling in the fall, creating a perfect mulch from which a nutrient rich soil can develop. It's a basic system that can be seen in it's perfect arrangement deep in a forest where humans haven't messed it up yet. Now lets compare that to organic farming. We take and destroy the plants in the area, because what was previously growing isn't what we wanted to farm. Then we till the soil to get lots of air in there or something. I don't know why we till, but we have for a long time so we might as well continue. Then we plant a whole lot of one crop over the area we have 'prepared'. Don't worry, we won't add chemical herbicides or pesticides because that would be unnatural. Do you see the same problem I see?

I do want to recognize that I subscribe to Mother Earth News and have seen some wonderful examples of trying to mimic Mother Nature, but still it is all for our benefit. I don't think that we should return to a hunter gatherer system, but I do think that we need to move away from mass monoculture and start trying to mimic God on a larger scale.

Now lets look at development (this is really the one that I want to write about, it's the subject I"m studying for comps right now). The early communities were developed without any plans. You built your house and if you were a butcher, you raised animals in the back (or bought them from the local farmer) and sold them from your shop next to your house. Everyone did this and it created a community that had all of the essentials, supported all of the residents and didn't take any planning.

To be fair, this also lead to some poor situations where people have to live next to a slaughter house or other disturbing businesses. It also lead to some unsanitary conditions because they didn't have plans on how to get rid of their waste. We've changed things up (in large part for the better) and now we have separated the polluting industry from the places we live. Unfortunately that has also separated our destinations from our homes so we have to drive everywhere.

Of course I don't like that most people have to drive everywhere, but there is high demand to have your own little piece of land away from stuff, but in a nice little community. Now there is a neo-traditional movement that says that we should live in tightly packed condos built above stores. It's a great idea from the view point of walkability and environmentalism. The problem is that there is not a lot of economic demand for such places. People don't want to live in small condos (for the most part). The people who can afford those trendy little condos can't pay the bills with the amount of money they would make working at the downstairs shops, so they have to commute out of their 'walkable community' to their job. So where do we get the workers? They commute in from outside of the 'walkable community' because they can't afford to live in the new condos. So we've created a massive flux in and out of the 'walkable community' (mainly by car) every morning and evening in order to provide the needed jobs.

I don't think that people understand that organic means natural, just sort of let it go and allow nature do its thing. I would say that I'm all for organic farming. And I mean real organic farming, not mass produced and then transported monoculture. The organic communities... I'm just not sure. I like some of the principles of Euclidean zoning. I like having some confidence that my neighbor isn't going to start a feed lot in his back yard. But I also don't like the status quo of developing everything further and further apart so we have to drive more and more to get to where we need to go. I like the idea of incentives to make good decisions, to help people make choices that will lead to walkability, good communities, etc. That's not organic. I also don't believe that is realistic considering the current political climate (and the political climate in the foreseeable future).

So what do we do? This is the question I most fear for my comps. (all the questions have been submitted, so as long as Dr. Tucker doesn't read this while compiling them, i should be OK). The status quo is out, we need to make changes (although he political climate seems to be against major change... in my highly skewed view of the world). I think that complete streets that make cities more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists are important. Sure, nobody uses them except for cars, but I think we need to be prepared for that to change and having bike lanes and sidewalks is a step in the right direction. I also think we need to continue developing mixed use. I know I was just making fun of the mixed use ('walkable communities') because they just don't usually work as planned, but maybe as they age, they will become more walkable. The thing is that it is putting people closer to the stuff they need and therefore they have a choice to walk or take another job (although it's often not economically feasible, maybe it will be in the future). Tomorrow I think I'll write about some big changes that I think need to be made, like making it harder for big box stores to set up shop and attracting smaller Mom and Pop shops.

That's enough for now, I'm going to return to studying.


Emily Allan Wood said...

I really liked reading your thoughts about this subject.

With the size of our population, I don't think it will ever be possible to eliminate the need to have items such as food shipped long distances and go back to an agrarian society. Nor do I think it is possible to grow enough food for everyone without using technology such as vegetables that have been altered to be bigger and more nutritious. I think organic foods are great, and we need to learn to grow more crops organically on a large scale, but doing it the old fashioned way won't work because its simply not possible to make enough food for everyone.

What about technology? I recently read an article that says that technology reinvents itself every 30 years. At that rate, our children will live in a completely different world.

I was watching the old classic sitcom from the 80's, Family Ties, yesterday, and there was an episode about women getting equal rights to men. They were still using a rotary dial phone and they didn't own a computer.

All of the changes we have seen in the last 20 years have revolutionized our lives, and we would be silly to think that the next 20 years won't be the same.

Think about it this way. Why do you ride your bike to school everyday? Its because you are going to a location to exchange ideas with others and learn things from experts. But, what if you could do all of that from home?

What if you had technology around you that allowed you to converse with others in real time, including listening and viewing a live lecture, discuss the topics with others in your class, etc. If you could do that, you wouldn't need to commute, and neither would your classmates and professors.

But then again, take it to another whole level.

What if you could instantly converse and hold a discussion with the experts around the world on this subject? What if your classroom was at home learning from the top experts in your field via live video feed that allowed you to instantly interact with the experts in real time?

That is the future that is coming our way. Soon, everyone will be connected through wireless data exchange, and the whole world will be able to exchange ideas and information instantly. You will be able to hold a lifetime of knowledge in the palm of your hand with a computer that can instantly connect to everyone across the world. I believe we will be there in 30 years. Think about how that will change the way we learn, work, and live. It will be AWESOME.

I strongly believe that the need to commute to work and school will become a thing of the past as we move towards a technology filled world where our jobs move towards being an exchange of ideas and we are hired for how we think and can retrieve information for others, and also process information.

The shipment of goods and services to local businesses will still occur, but the majority of the population will make money by simply knowing how to obtain and disseminate information.Those who do not perform this task well will be those who work at the large retail stores and have to commute and drive the rigs that push the goods from place to place.

I also believe that in the future, a lot of the manual labor jobs we have will be automated and done by machines and computers.

Sometimes I even wonder if the government doesn't help us move forward with technologies because it will put Mr.Anonymous out of a job. If schools and universities didn't exist as they do now, you would have a lot of unemployed teachers and administrators, and a lot of kids to babysit all day long.

Its the need to employ everyone that is keeping us from making more environmentally friendly choices and implementing change rapidly towards a more earth friendly world. In our society, everyone who is anyone has to have a job so they can consume more goods. If we didn't have this attitude, things would change rapidly.

Earl said...

Great post!
I have an idea in response to your question, "What do we do [about people driving everywhere]?"

This is how the engineering part of my brain looks at this problem:

There are three ways to solve this problem. The first two are what a lot of environmentalists do, but I think the third will really work.

1) Preach and/or threaten. We can tell people that driving to every destination is making them fat, ruining the environment, killing polar bears, etc. People may listen and feel bad, but if it's not convenient to change their ways they won't do anything.

2) Government regulation. Politicians can try to limit how much people drive, or restrict certain types of commerce. As you may know, I'm a pure capitalist, so I think any government intervention will probably just screw things up. People do what they want to do in spite of the government. The only question is how much effort they put into working around government regulations.

3) Engineer around the problem. I believe, as a capitalist and an engineer, that if you find the right solution, people will do what you want them to. If you want people to drive less you need to design a community or city that will allow them to live, work, shop, and have fun without driving. Other requirements include affordability, beauty, and integration into the current system.

If you provide an alternative that meets people's needs, they will buy into it. You won't need to pressure or preach. They will do it because it is best for them.

It's not easy to come up with a solution. But I believe that there is a solution to every problem.

I wonder if some computer networking solutions could help...