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Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Linnaeus began to classify the plant and animal kingdoms of the natural environment but overlooked a second world. The built environment was a negligible consideration at the time, but has grown into a competing artificial presence that consumes the kingdoms of his work. This is a contest we cannot win in a universe that does not compromise. It is why every acre of land is precious; why we must learn to live within limits; and why we must use each acre wisely within our world as we attempt to shelter growing populations without consuming the planet. 

The consumption of land begins with the concept of property. I won’t even attempt to address this issue except to say that it has been the foundation of perpetual conflict, and that our current legal concepts encourage consumption that will either appear anachronistic or disappear at some future point in time.  

Adaptation requires a correlation of forces that is not inevitable. Correlation extends over millennia and makes competition possible within any given life span. Without correlation, competition produces extinction and the fittest do not survive. My objective is to provide the tools needed to correlate shelter options for growing populations within sustainable limits defined by the science of others.  

After Apollo 11 most will agree that the Earth is a finite resource protected by a thin film of atmosphere at risk; and that it exists within a universe that is one definition of infinity. Therefore, the development capacity of land to provide shelter for growing populations becomes an issue of survival, since the planet is also a source of life that cannot be consumed with impunity. In other words, the built environment competes for land with the natural environment -- and survival depends on the correlation of forces we barely comprehend.  

Land is used by four divisions within the built environment. The Shelter Division is served by the Movement, Open Space and Life Support Divisions. The relationship between building mass, pavement and open space within the Shelter Division is called intensity, which can be magnified by the surrounding intensity of its supporting divisions. Shelter intensity can be defined as the gross building area constructed per acre of buildable land available. Shelter capacity is found when gross building area is multiplied by the population anticipated per 1,000 square feet of building area forecast. The activities sheltered by building intensity combine to establish the social and economic characteristics of urban form. 

Intensity options can be predicted with Development Capacity Evaluation software (DCE) based on the forecast model chosen and the values entered in its design specification template, and hundreds can be forecast in the time it takes to sketch one. The evaluation of these predictions can help us learn to use each acre wisely, since I’ve pointed out that economic potential is a function of building intensity and activity; but over-development represents a threat to our health, safety and welfare.  

There has been no adequate definition of “over-development”, so the debate has wandered in a forest of detail and emotional confrontation that has only led to annexation, sprawl and blight. Debate has been limited by the language available, and DCE has been written to expand this vocabulary with accurate predictions of building capacity options. This may improve our ability to shelter growing populations within sustainable limits. 

Intensity and context combine to create neighborhoods, districts, cities and regions. When the equations of intensity embedded in DCE software are linked to the economic databases and mapping power of geographical information systems (GIS), the three-dimensional potential of urban form will emerge as options expressed in a visual and descriptive language. This can lead us toward life within limits that protect the health, safety and welfare of two worlds that must now learn to function as one.  

Intensity options represent context parameters. If we must learn to live within limits, then both intensity parameters and context design are critical to our health, safety and welfare.  

Within all divisions of the built environment, physical context is produced by the form, function, appearance, arrangement and intensity of building mass, pavement and open space. Social context is a function of the activities permitted within shelter. Economic context is a function of land use allocation, activity and intensity within a jurisdiction.  

Land use plans, building codes and subdivision regulations have been our most prominent attempts to establish context parameters, but our lack of ability to forecast intensity has produced a sprawling attempt to return to the farm. It will become an increasing threat to the planet until we can define the activity, intensity and land use allocations needed to shelter growing populations within symbiotic limits. This is a worthy purpose for our continued presence if we can accept our stewardship responsibilities for the Linnaean kingdoms and Darwinian correlations we have observed along our own evolutionary path. 
Author Note: Portions of this article were excerpted and edited from the second edition of my book, Land Development Calculations, and its attached forecasting software, Development Capacity Evaluation, v2.0 published by The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2009.

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