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Wednesday, December 8, 2010


            Ponzi schemes consume until their appetite exceeds the resources available. Land use plans begin with limits but succumb to Ponzi when revenue drops in relation to expense, since they have little concept of the resources implied by levels of shelter capacity, economic activity and context quality. They are driven by random market forces that can produce profit without yield. Budgets tighten and land use plans rely on annexation for new revenue and little expense, but time increases maintenance cost and expense begins to exceed revenue. Blight enters the core while annexation expands to add new revenue as the city walks a tightrope without a sense of balance. The result is chaos called sprawl driven by a failure to quantify the relationship of activity and yield to intensity and context in order to produce physical, social and economic stability.

Within a city, the average annual yield per acre from a land use activity group indicates its contribution to the city’s average annual expense per acre, but cities will continue to annex land for activities that may reduce their economic potential until these group contributions can be defined and forecast. Annexation has allowed us to avoid accumulating this knowledge; but the result is a Ponzi scheme that consumes increasing amounts of land to honor past commitments. Unfortunately, the average yield per acre from this effort often proves inadequate as decline increases and annexation expands to compensate. This consumes a nation’s agricultural base and threatens our common ecology of survival.

Sprawl is old news to city planners, but the problem begins with a lack of knowledge. We do not know how to balance land use activities and development capacity (intensity) to achieve economic stability and context benefit within city limits. City planning began with a focus on the protection of public health; the separation of hazard; and the reduction of intensity. It is still not prepared to address economic stability and has permitted parking lots to be considered open space in an effort to reduce intensity and improve context benefit.

We have separated buildings with building codes and setbacks, while separating incompatible land use activities with master plans and zoning codes. Separation has led to sprawl, however. Land has been available in abundance to compensate for revenue deficiencies as we fled from the intensity of central cities, but encircled first ring suburbs have been the first to discover the weakness of a sprawl-based economy. When the land runs out, the suburb’s ability to add land for additional revenue runs out as well; and redevelopment is deferred until blight can no longer be ignored, but may remain intractable. This has taught cities to protect their annexation corridors or share this fate, since they lack the tools and knowledge to plan for economic stability and context benefit within land use limits. This can place our entire planet at risk if continued indefinitely.

From a planning standpoint, separation begins with the relationship of our built environment to its natural host, since each must be protected from the other for mutual survival. If you agree, this should lead city planning and design to consider separation from several new perspectives. If the built environment is to exist within limits while sheltering growing populations, we can no longer rely on minimum land use and building separation standards to lead the way. We need the ability to forecast the physical, social and economic implications of development capacity (intensity). Forecasting can be pursued with Development Capacity Evaluation software, but we must still rely on intuition and experience to evaluate its predictions. Improvement will require intensity and context research before intuition can be converted to knowledge equal to the emerging threat we pose to ourselves.

The combination of shelter, movement, open space and life support within a city is called urban form. The activities sheltered within the buildings of urban form are separated and served by its movement, open space and life support divisions; and the composition determines its economic potential. It also defines its quality of life. In other words, urban form has physical, social and economic characteristics that affect the health, safety and welfare of its population. Containing this composition within limits to protect our natural, agricultural and resource environments requires knowledge of development intensity, shelter capacity, land use separation, revenue yield, and return on investment that does not exist; and tools that have only recently arrived.

I have noted in previous articles that development capacity is the gross building area that can be constructed per acre of buildable land available. It can be predicted based on values entered in the design specification template of a forecast model, and models are chosen from a library of options. (See “City Design with Space”) The activities sheltered by intensity determine the income and revenue generated per acre. The open space remaining defines the place created and its contribution to the fabric of city experience. We have not been able to accurately forecast the spectrum of these development capacity (intensity) options in a reasonable amount of time, and this has limited our ability to correlate the shelter capacity of land with its social and economic implications. This means that development capacity (intensity) has physical, social and economic implications that we have not begun to measure and evaluate. We have observed the appearance and influence of context, but there are measurable intensity components that set the stage. When entered in a forecast model, they are the forces that can convert chaos to opportunity. Context adds form, function and appearance to intensity components that affect our health, safety and welfare. Component values define the parameters of physical, social and economic solutions. The implications are profound, because intensity options and averages are leadership tools. They will determine our ability to address population growth and economic stability with context solutions of benefit and respect for our irreplaceable partners.

Limits are anathema to Ponzi schemes but essential to a natural partner who suffers our presence at its discretion. They also preserve an agricultural partner that can only retreat when not protected by informed and convincing physical, social and economic arguments.

            Ponzi schemes allow us to put off hard decisions until the day of reckoning inevitably arrives. Some have been formed with the best of intentions on a foundation of inadequate anticipation. Anticipation emerges from knowledge built on intuition. In the military, knowledge is called “intelligence”, intuition is called “strategy”, action is called “tactics” and success means survival. The effort requires leadership that has many partners. In our case, city planning also needs many partners to meet the assault from land conversion, since intelligence is lacking, strategy is unreliable, and tactics have failed to reach objectives; but success will be measured in the same unforgiving military terms.

            In our time, adaptation has been called innovation; but when successful, both quickly become habits that are hard to break. The concept of land as a commodity that can be conquered, lost, bought, sold or consumed is a habit that began before time. Our only innovation has been to expand permitted participation. I can’t imagine a more difficult habit to break, unless its war; but land is not a commodity. It’s a mute power whose life depends on a universe of forces we once considered gods, and these forces will subtly adapt the land to intrusion without compromise if we do not adapt to the awareness that life is limited by a responsibility that Ponzi has never accepted.

            The Earth was visually confirmed as round on July 20, 1969 by Apollo 11. Mapping had been based on that assumption for quite some time. Our advances in mapping and geography may again lead the way in adapting to our planet, when combined with development capacity evaluation; but this is another article for another time.
Author Note: The following articles can be read on my blog, Cities and Design, at

1)             "Replacing Density" discusses its leadership weakness and intensity alternative,
2)             "The Limits of Shelter Capacity" provides expanded detail regarding intensity,
3)             “The City is a Farm” discusses the relationship of intensity to economic development,
4)             "The Disorganized Zoning Ordinance" outlines the legislative confusion that impedes leadership progress,
5)             “Examining Architecture” takes a closer look at a piece of the city design puzzle,
6)             “The Variance Trap” illustrates development regulation weakness with a residential forecast model from the Development Capacity Evaluation (DCE) software collection,
7)             “City Design with Space” discusses the overlooked role of project open space with a non-residential forecast model from the DCE collection,
8)             “The Core of Our Built Environment” identifies the nucleus of development capacity
9)             “Ponzi Schemes and Land Use Plans” offers an alternative to annexation and sprawl.
10)         “Where Does Sustainability Begin?” discusses the importance of land in a competition between our natural and built environments.
11)         “Economic Development Is Missing a Strategy” discusses the intelligence and strategic planning required to identify economic development objectives on the road to a sustainable future.

These articles have been deleted from my blog but are available upon request:

1)             The Concept of City Design” includes an overview and suggested research agenda,
2)             “Politics and Planning” is an argument in support of the effort, and
3)             “Context Measurement” outlines a suggested research yardstick.

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