I brainstormed titles and urls for this blog and its accoutrements for a few hours and then went over them with my wife. There were a few I liked apart from Rational Urbanism: Sense and the City; Real Urbanism; and Urban Sense among others. I decided on “Rational Urbanism” because with so many of the issues which matter most to me I could see how irrationality was a tremendous perpetuator of problems.
There are a few types of irrational thinking, and also logical fallacies, which pop up the most frequently. Motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, post hoc ergo propter hoc, wishful thinking, appeals to authority or common belief, and begging the question come to mind. While some may find my “appeals” to Jane Jacobs, William Whyte, Kunstler and the like to be examples of appeals to authority (I’m not sure I would totally disagree all the time!) my point is usually to confirm that the point I am attempting to make is supported by others who have studied the same or similar issues, not that it simply settles the argument. That said, I try to be aware of my own weak spots and biases and take them into account as I contemplate the issues manifest in this blog.
I must be most on guard for motivated reasoning. I want my hometown to thrive. I want more than almost anything to live in a country where urban areas are healthy and vibrant. Having had that desire and having felt that urge for nearly 40 years now I can tell you that I am aware of my own biases. I cannot tell you how many times I listened to presentations and read forecasts which foretold of an urban renaissance in Springfield…and I believed every word because I so wanted to believe every word. But things have not turned around. By and large, although there are many ways in which the city has improved, overall decline continues, if unevenly.
This is where the battle begins to take shape. I live in a place that I love; right now. If my neighborhood never improves, if it declines somewhat even, I will still prefer this neighborhood to most other neighborhoods quite simply for its “bones”. This isn’t to say that there is no level of decline which could cause me to change this attitude: I am certain that there is a level of decline which would cause me to regret my decision to live here and to have set down roots here. At the current rate of decline, however, I could happily live here until being removed from my home feet first in some 40 years.
This makes it easier for me not to engage in wishful thinking as well. I happen to be a non-believer in anything and all things “supernatural “. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people claim that the fact that they want “thus and so” to be true somehow makes “thus and so” true. It doesn’t. I have developed such a revulsion for wishful thinking that, if anything, I have to be on guard for unwarranted pessimism much more than its inverse. That said, it isn’t as though my city needs to turnaround or I’m not going to be able to live where I live happily. But the truth is I do want the city’s fortunes to change.
Here’s the rub: I think this city (and others as well) are about to experience a tremendous rebirth. Civilizations are no different from any other organism in one very important way: If they expend more energy than they acquire over time they perish. If a cheetah gets one calorie more than it expends in hunting, killing, and consuming a gazelle, then it lives, if it gets less, then it dies. Any excess energy can be used in leisure, which for a cheetah, I suppose is just not having to be engaged in hunting another gazelle.
Energy is becoming more expensive, in that it’s taking more energy for us to acquire energy. If you look at the Chilean mine disaster, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the arguments surrounding tar sands, and countless other events related to the more and more heroic efforts to which humans have got to go in order to satisfy our desire for energy, it is clear that that the cheapest to obtain and best quality forms of fossil fuel energy have already been tapped.
Coal, natural gas, and especially petroleum have been the greatest and most concentrated forms of energy humankind has ever discovered. The “cheetah/gazelle” ratio of oil found in Texas one hundred years ago was about 100/1. Around one unit of energy was expended to acquire 100 units thereof. That’s a lot of laying around on the savannah, or in other words leisure time and luxury! Now we’ve gone about extracting this energy in a way similar to the way one might pick apples from an apple tree, keeping in mind that this “tree” bears fruit once every couple hundred million years even if the fruit lasts indefinitely while on the tree. First we pick the best fruit from the lowest hanging branches. After a short time, however, all of the best and easiest to obtain fruit is consumed and we have to start either taking lower quality fruit which hangs low or we must leverage greater energy (climbing) or technology (a ladder) to acquire more fruit. Over time we constantly balance ease of acquisition and quality until the only good fruit is very, very hard to reach, and the only fruit which is fairly easy to reach is of the poorest quality.
This is where we are. We wouldn’t be drilling two miles beneath the Gulf of Mexico if there were sufficient oil available in shallow water. We wouldn’t, be expending huge quantities of energy to extract usable energy with an almost negligible cheetah/gazelle ratio from the tar sands if there were another Ghawar or Cantarell oilfield ready to be tapped.
Fossil fuels exists in certain quantities. Once we use them, they are gone.We have used up much of the highest quality and easiest to extract fossil fuel resources.
Fossil fuels give us much more favorable cheetah/gazelle ratios (EI-EO) than renewables or nuclear. The leisure/luxury excess we’ve enjoyed over the last couple of hundred years is going to shrink. (If renewables gave us better EI-EO we’d be using them in such ways that they would eliminate extraction of the lowest EI-EO fossil fuels. Extraction of low EI-EO fuels is determined by overall energy costs over the long term.)
We are going to have to be more energy efficient or die.
Traditional land use typologies, i.e. cities and farms, are more energy efficient than suburban sprawl development.
Urban living is going to become central to our response to reduced EI-EO.
I want this to be true. And it is true.
Some arguments simply aren’t worth having. That cities are more efficient than suburbs is self evident. If you have an acre of land and you spread your house across the entire acre making it in-arable, it is less efficient than placing a concentrated domicile at a corner of that land and farming the rest. Walking requires less energy than driving, maintaining a linear mile of infrastructure for 1,000 people costs less than 10 linear miles for the same number of people. Europe uses a fraction of the energy we do in the United States mainly due to a development pattern which segregates urban from rural more sharply. The most energy efficient metropolises in the United States are the least suburbanized.
Interestingly, while looking up the data for confirming my assertion I found a presentation which ostensibly attempted to give an even handed overview of suburban vs urban energy uses and it gave one nod to the suburbs: Newer homes in the suburbs are more energy efficient than older homes in the cities. Think about it. What an idiot! That isn’t an argument for the energy efficiency of suburban type development! Had those homes, or better yet, the energy expended in constructing those homes, been spent in the city building new homes there or improving old ones, then we would have both the energy efficiency inherent in a traditional development pattern and the increased efficiencies which come from the use of modern construction materials and techniques.
Furthermore, steel rails and water transport are the most energy efficient types of non pedal transportation in terms of energy costs per mile. As James Howard Kunstler points out with great frequency, most of our older cities are located where they are for a reason. Usually proximate to bodies of water which gave them their initial competitive advantage in transportation.
Many of our older cities, Springfield included, sit on conjunctions of waterways, and rail lines. Some, like Springfield, also have a combination of rainfall and changes in elevation such that hydro-power is available to be harnessed (Not to mention water for drinking!), winds blow fiercely and frequently making wind power another potential resource. Notice how competitive advantage swings not only from suburb to city, but from southwest to northeast!
There it is. My motivated reasoning. Nearly all of the demographic shifts which have almost crushed cities in the northeast will reverse, leaving Arizona and Nevada as the arid wastelands they should be. Commuting costs along with the other energy inefficiencies of suburban living will drive the middle class back to cities and when I die in peaceful old age it will be in a city dealing with the problems of increasing population and gentrification, and not the decline and death mirroring my own inevitable demise.