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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Tool for Containing Sprawl

Death by sprawl would be such an ignominious fate. I couldn’t help laughing as I wrote the sentence. Mutual assured destruction (MAD) has so much more flair, but the unchecked global sprawl of human shelter implies the same outcome by other means. Is it possible that we could consume the face of the planet while distracted by parochial interests and the nuclear button? 

Architects in particular understand that floor plans are only part of the documents required to build a three-dimensional objective. From this perspective, city plans are floor plans that require amplification. They separate incompatible activities but sprawl in response to growth that will suffocate the planet if unrestrained. 

We all understand that land is a finite quantity that sustains life, and we are beginning to understand that shelter is an artificial intrusion that consumes this potential with sprawl. Development Capacity Evaluation software has been created to forecast better use of the land for shelter within a limited Built Domain that does not threaten its source of life – The Natural Domain.  

The odds against success are enormous because the current concept of free enterprise is challenged. City design means that land ownership is not a license to speculate, but design requires cooperation that has been rare in the history of our presence on the planet. We are learning, however, that the planet has an unwritten plan of its own that we must anticipate to survive. 

Real estate law has created cities and it will have to save us from them, but it is one thing to create a master plan that separates incompatible, unsafe and unhealthy land use activities. It is quite another for that plan to grow into a contained form of spatial balance, social benefit, psychological support, economic stability and environmental harmony. The sprawl produced to date an expression of the free market, and the law is not prepared to improve on this model without substantial help from many professions speaking a common language. 

At the present time none of us, including the law, is prepared to design cities within limits that shelter growing populations while preserving the land’s ability to sustain all life on Earth. We are not even ready to design a city that is economically stable, not to mention physically enjoyable and socially engaging. The few partial success stories that exist have evolved more by chance than plan.  

Cities are a threat to themselves as well as the environment. They decay from within and expand to compensate for the revenue lost. If land is not available they are forced to rebuild or continue their decline. This has been the only choice for some “first ring” suburbs with no room to grow, but the course of least resistance for most has been annexation and sprawl. Both solutions suffer from a lack of economic forecasting ability to predict yield from the land involved. (See “The City is a Farm”) 

The face of the planet is now covered with property lines that declare ownership and the right to improve on Mother Nature. We invented property law to protect us from each other, but overlooked the fact that we need to protect the Earth from ourselves.  

I am not challenging Jefferson’s declaration of an inalienable right to own property, but am pointing out that owning property does not convey an automatic right to convert its function in The Natural Domain – or its agricultural purpose in The Built Domain. This is a distinction we have been able to overlook because of abundance, but population growth is making the planet’s finite land and resources obvious. It is now becoming apparent to some that the Shelter, Movement, Open Space and Life Support divisions of a city are sprawling across the face of the planet to serve population growth, and disrupting the planet’s ecological systems in the process.            

Development Capacity Evaluation 

I began work on Development Capacity Evaluation software to improve our ability to evaluate land development potential, primarily because I found that the density concepts of zoning produced arbitrary results that could not hit a leadership target. (See “Replacing Density”, “The Limits of Shelter Capacity”, “The Variance Trap” and “Design with Space”) This is important because both overdevelopment and sprawl are a function of an inadequate leadership language that hinders our ability to visualize the problem and its alternative solution.  

Eventually, I realized that the embedded mathematics of Development Capacity Evaluation could be used to evaluate potential urban form throughout a city; and that urban form had the capacity to shelter growing populations within geographic limits. Options could also be forecast in a fraction of the time required by graphic evaluation. In other words, it offered the opportunity to forecast and define gross building area potential within growth limits established to ensure ecological preservation; and that these options represented lifestyle alternatives within these limits. 

Unfortunately, the law cannot save us from the sprawl of our cities. They are a political problem with an abstract mathematical structure that has physical, social, psychological and economic implications. Development Capacity Evaluation offers mathematical models that forecast shelter intensity options for a given land area without making composition and appearance decisions. This is similar to structural engineering equations that predict strength but make no choice. Both provide the equations needed to unravel a problem; and in this sense they both represent languages that produce options for evaluation before a decision is reached.  


I should mention that Development Capacity Evaluation in the wrong hands can simply improve his or her ability to overdevelop land by taking advantage of a zoning ordinance. Few if any, of these ordinances coordinate the design specification variables of development capacity equations. This simply makes the ordinance vulnerable to more sophisticated evaluation and targeted variance requests.

Development Capacity Evaluation is a software CD attached to its manual of explanation entitled, Land Development Calculations, ed.2, published by the McGraw-Hill Companies, 2010.

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