Back to previous post: Al Qaeda in Iraq?

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: FanLib wholly exploded

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

May 23, 2007

An Urban Planet
Posted by Patrick at 01:45 PM *

According to a release from the University of North Carolina North Carolina State University:

There’s no big countdown billboard or sign in Times Square to denote it, but Wednesday, May 23, 2007, represents a major demographic shift, according to scientists from North Carolina State University and the University of Georgia: For the first time in human history, the earth’s population will be more urban than rural.
(Via James Nicoll.)
Comments on An Urban Planet:
#1 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 02:26 PM:

And where are my slidewalks, huh? And my flying car?

I was PROMISED a FLYING CAR!

#2 ::: individualfrog ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 02:26 PM:

I wonder if that's good or bad (or neither.) I've been thinking about this a lot lately. My instinct says it's good, but perhaps I will be disabused of this idea. I think that people living in cities use less gasoline and less space and so on, so it's good.

But it could be my personal love for cities and high-density living making me think that.

#3 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 02:49 PM:

Individualfrog: I tend towards that view myself--having just moved from San Francisco to Boston. And even my new digs in the Boston area are a little more suburban than I had hoped for. I think that cities have the benefits of people learning to live with each other, instead of moving to a place where everybody is like them. While living in San Francisco, I was well aware of how my life was tangled up with my fellow commuters, the transients on the sidewalks, and the world in general. I wasn't gonna bitch about health care or transit costs in rising taxes, because I saw the tangible benefits of helping those systems. In the suburban neighbourhood where I grew up, it was easier to think that everybody had the same benefits I did. Taking transit was unheard of--which is why it took Utah getting the Olympics for them to overhaul their transit system and freeway infrastructure; nobody wanted to vote the transportation bonds until that point. Homeless people or people without health care were unheard of--everybody in our comfortably middle class neighbourhood had steady jobs and thus health care. When you live in a city, you get to see the web of interdependency we all live in. Plus the rich cultural benefits are often multiplied, more diverse. I heart city living.

#4 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 03:00 PM:

We've *got* robotic housekeepers (roomba). Will nothing satisfy you people?

Here's your damn flying car.

Sheesh.

#5 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 03:01 PM:

A few months back someone was saying that increasing the amount of high-density housing in the San Fernando Valley would give it an urban character. What they mean was, it would result in fewer high-income and more working-class (read: income under $40,000/year) residents. More (oh, the horror) Brown People. Given that the 'luxury homes' they're building now have minimal space around the structure, I don't know that more apartments and condos would be that different. (Patrick, you probably have as much yard as any one of those houses.)

#6 ::: Dan R. ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 03:11 PM:

Never was The future is already here: it's just not evenly distributed more apropos.

#7 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 03:16 PM:

#2: Stewart Brand is big on cities, for environmental reasons.

He even thinks rambling Third World squatter-cities can be a good thing.

#8 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 03:20 PM:

Today is also the anniversary of the Second Defenestration of Prague; how fitting that it also marks the time when there are more windows than ever before to throw people out of.

#9 ::: PublicRadioVet ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 03:21 PM:

Skwid: LOL!!!!!!!

I'm still waiting for the food replicator.

#10 ::: Craig ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 03:27 PM:

Correction - that's from North Carolina State University, not the University of North Carolina. There's a significant difference between the two.

#11 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 03:36 PM:

Mmmmm, cities! The very definition of civilization. Also a decent way to keep people from messing up too much of the countryside.

I hereby declare "Civilization Day", to celebrate the Earth's transition to being a civilized planet, where most of the people live in cities.

#12 ::: John ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 03:36 PM:

Actually, most people living in urban areas really aren't; they're in the suburban areas, and do tend to use more gasoline since there's very little in the way of transit available.

#13 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 03:42 PM:

David 11: Hmm. I will not challenge your contention that cities are necessary to civilization, but they are clearly not sufficient.

I will celebrate Civilization Day when the world really becomes civilized. Which isn't yet.

#14 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 04:15 PM:

I've been mentioning that this was due ever since I ran across this demented little report from the UN.

http://www.unfpa.org/pds/urbanization.htm

Which would have been in August 2006, judging by this LJ entry.

http://james-nicoll.livejournal.com/434008.html

which also explains why I call the report demented: they admit cities are economic hotspots and still try to think of ways to consign the world's poor to rural poverty (They don't use those terms).

Given how wretched the slums of many cities are, it says a lot that people think moving to them is a better deal than what they have.

#15 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 04:22 PM:

This reminds me of an Asimov story where humanity's numbers have grown so large that their mass is very close to being equal to Earth's, and in fact the authorities are looking forward to it. This sounds ludicrous, yes, except that there is one obstacle to achieving that goal, and that's the last few remaining pets, whose keeper refuses to have them destroyed. Of course he fails to save them. And the goal is accomplished.

#16 ::: Rachel Heslin ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 04:22 PM:

#2 I wonder if that's good or bad (or neither.) I've been thinking about this a lot lately. My instinct says it's good, but perhaps I will be disabused of this idea. I think that people living in cities use less gasoline and less space and so on, so it's good.

#12 Actually, most people living in urban areas really aren't; they're in the suburban areas, and do tend to use more gasoline since there's very little in the way of transit available.

Also, urban areas provide more pollutants over all (industrial waste in addition to individual use of gas, etc.). Then you start getting into an economy in which the majority of "fresh" produce is grown in a relatively small area and trucked a gazillion miles (more gasoline plus more smog, since trucks aren't exactly the most fuel-efficient of vehicles, not to mention the "need" for more pesticides, GMOs and chemical fertilizers needed to grow the types of produce which can survive the trip)....

Then you get into things like the number of trees and growing things in urban areas versus rural, and the scale tips even more steeply against the long-term benefit to the planet of too densely populated (and therefore prone to expansion) cities.

Yes, rural and urban areas need each other to survive (urban areas process raw materials, among other things), but a preponderance of the urban over the rural really isn't good.

(Says she who escaped from the San Fernando Valley to live in Big Bear, an oasis 7k' above the SoCal smog.)

#17 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 04:30 PM:

This reminds me of an Asimov story where humanity's numbers have grown so large that their mass is very close to being equal to Earth's, and in fact the authorities are looking forward to it. This sounds ludicrous, yes, except that there is one obstacle to achieving that goal, and that's the last few remaining pets, whose keeper refuses to have them destroyed.

With all due respect to the good Doctor, this sounds silly because it is. Without transmutation, the best we can get from the solar system's supply of phosphorus is about 10^22 kg of humans, which isn't even equal to the mass of the Moon.

If they have access to materials outside the solar system or transmutation, then the total biomass of pets is probably besides the point.

#18 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 04:36 PM:

James Nicoll... Of course, it is a silly idea. That's not the point. The point is of a humanity so bent upon growing for growth's sake that it'll destroy its last non-human companions. If you prefer, one could look at it, not as SF, but as a fable. Or one could pretend it's a Bradbury story.

#19 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 04:40 PM:

This link talks about a recent study which concluded that as cities get larger, they get more efficient:

What they found were some general correlations of size and resource consumption that more or less fit the biological organism metaphor, meaning as the city grew in size it required less energy (resources) to sustain it in a proportion called sublinear scaling. What was surprising to the team was when they measured creative output (jobs, wealth generated, innovation) as cities grew, the scaling of this output was not sublinear, but superlinear, meaning as the city grew its creative output grew faster and faster.

I think the idea of "sublinear scaling" is that a city of 2 million people certainly requires more energy/resources than a city of 1 million people, but not twice as much -- instead, somewhat less than that.

(I've found the original study, but haven't read it yet, so that's just a guess at this point.)

#20 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 04:43 PM:

Yes, rural and urban areas need each other to survive (urban areas process raw materials, among other things), but a preponderance of the urban over the rural really isn't good.

See, that's almost what I would say, except that I would say the problem is the continued necessity of having rural communities. Specifically, it's painfully clear that growing food is a horribly inefficient way to turn sunlight into chemicals suitable to power humans [1]. Substituting some more efficient process for agriculture would mean that we no longer had any compelling reason for a quarter of the land surface to be devoted to agriculture. Let the former farms go back to wilderness, maybe add some megafauna from Africa to flavour (or perhaps genetically engineer some giant predatory flightless birds, because they tend to be prettier than drab mammals) and it's win-win!

1: A human runs off of 100 Watts, roughly. We need 600 billion Watts in suitable chemical form to power all humanity. Put in a factor of ten inefficiency and that is equal to one part in 180,000 of the sunlight that falls on the Earth surface. Sythetic food production clearly has the promise of greatly reducing the global impact of feeding six billion people, although I grant I don't know how production would work (If I did, I'd be registering patents).

I reserve the right to eat the first person who makes a soylent green joke.

#21 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 04:59 PM:

Re: msg 19, I encountered that paper a while ago and had some fun mindlessly applying it to MegaCity Toronto, a hypothetical city that covers the current Canadian Urban Corridor (pop. 20 million) with a city of 400 million people (Roughly the population density of London's Outer Buroughs).

http://james-nicoll.livejournal.com/780559.html

#22 ::: Dave Hutchinson ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 05:03 PM:

I thought it was getting a bit crowded round here...

#23 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 05:06 PM:

James Nicoll @ 20... I reserve the right to eat the first person who makes a soylent green joke.

Can we turn up the volume to play Beethoven's Pastorale without suffering ingestion?

#24 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 05:12 PM:

James Nicoll... Of course, it is a silly idea. That's not the point.

Why do SF authors insist on making what they no doubt consider serious points in ways that are obviously absurd? Don't they ever stop and think "Say, doesn't it take away from tragedy of this story that for the young girl to have got on board the courier ship, the crew of the courier and its mother ship need to be criminally negligent? Could I possibly rewrite this so that the characters do not appear to have come from some terribly tragic eugenics program?"

Now, if it was a scenario like Half Past Human or The Godwhale, where supporting a human population at the ragged edge of sustainability (2 trillion people, I think) on an Earth with no useful access to the rest of the universe required the entire ecosystem to be us and our commensuals and parasites, that's more reasonable.

#25 ::: Rachel Heslin ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 05:13 PM:

Since cities usually are more economically / culturally / whatever vibrant than rural areas, I like the idea of making cities better places to live (rather than merely lamenting the trend.)

Me, I'm hoping that Greenroofing catches on in a big way.

#26 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 05:26 PM:

James Nicoll said (#21):
Re: msg 19, I encountered that paper a while ago and had some fun mindlessly applying it to MegaCity Toronto, a hypothetical city that covers the current Canadian Urban Corridor (pop. 20 million) with a city of 400 million people (Roughly the population density of London's Outer Buroughs).

Nifty. I like your explanation of what's covered under "Serious crimes," too.

#27 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 05:26 PM:

Whether this is good or bad depends on exactly what a city is, no?

My understanding is that this growth in urban population isn't because we're seeing more people in cities like New York or Tokyo, but because we're seeing more people in cities like Lagos. Cities like Lagos are a new phenomenon, and they're different enough from cities of the past that arguably we shouldn't be using the same word for them. I don't think our 20th century intuitions are a reliable guide to 21st century urbanization.

#28 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 06:02 PM:

re: 27

How pleasant do you think the slums of London were back when the industrial revolution was taking off?

Heck, one of the things that people who are soft on the Slaver's Rebellion like to bring up is that conditions in American factories were dire by modern standards, which says what about the lives people fled to get to those factories?

#29 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 06:14 PM:

In #9 PublicRadioVet writes:

I'm still waiting for the food replicator.

The food replicator has now appeared, and it can make food in any shape, up to a couple of feet long, as long as you don't mind that it's all sugar.

This opens the way to living in a house in the woods with all the parts and decorations made entirely of candy, at least until the first rainstorm comes along.

Perhaps a house in the desert would be better.

#30 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 06:18 PM:

James @ 24... Why do SF authors insist on making what they no doubt consider serious points in ways that are obviously absurd?

If I wrote a story, I wouldn't go down that route. That's me. (And I couldn't write any story to find my way out of a paperbag.) But isn't there a tradition of stories that do just that? We don't look too close at the details because that's not what matters.

#31 ::: Dave Hutchinson ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 06:33 PM:

James Nicoll@21

As someone who lives in one of London's outer boroughs, that doesn't sound so bad. What's the catch?

#32 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 06:39 PM:

Bill Higgins @ 29: Perhaps a house in the desert would be better

And when they're all dissolved by a flash flood, the headlines will scream, Desert Developer Gets Just Desserts.

#33 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 07:05 PM:

Re #31 (Dave Hutchinson)

There are two catches, one specific to Canada and one more general:

1: Despite the fact that Toronto is a vital and necessary part of the Canadian economy, many Canadians (except the ones in Toronto, who are only vaguely aware that there is a Canada outside it [1]) would view being part of Toronto with the same enthusiasm most people would have to being forced to have sex with a week-old corpse.

MegaCity Montreal would be an easier sell. MCT's name has unfortunate connotations, which is what makes it fun.

2: People fear large masses of people when they include people who are not like them. Since humanity is varied, we can rely on the default reaction of a random person to the idea of a large city being negative.

The same goes for large populations, as seen in Paul Ehrlich's doleful predictions of mass famine in the 1980s and his insistance that India be forced to commit to mass sterilizations of all Indian men with three or more children in exchange for foreign aid.

For some reason I don't know, SF is particularly anti-human (at least in large groups). I could pick a dozen examples from SF of reflexive and often rather stupid horror at the idea of large cities or large planetary populations, even if I left out Poul Anderson. I could name a hundred but I don't feel like doing that much typing.

1: True story: My exgf got a better job that the one she applied for because they wanted to hire her and they weren't sure that it was possible to get from Kitchener to Toronto reliably in the winter. Both TO and KW are on the 401, the longest and busiest 400-series highway in Ontario. This is somewhat like being worried that someone living in Lake Ontario might not be able to find water.

#34 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 07:12 PM:

#29:

I saw the candy fab live at the Maker Faire last weekend. Not in operation, but there were plenty of sample products lying around the table.

#33:

Not anti-people. Anti-having-to-live-with- people. At least, the wrong kind of people. So it's OK to live in a crowded space colony or a "arcology" (Oath of Fealty) as long as it's selective and protected from all the fuss and muss of actual civilization.

Was it Spinrad who said that living in a space colony would be like attending Worldcon in a submarine and you could never leave?

#35 ::: j m mcdermott ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 07:15 PM:

do we really want to include "suburbs" as urban? the report seems to lump all suburbanites into the same boat as new yorkers, yet the lifestyle is so vastly different as to make me shiver at lumping us all together like that.

if this were my study, i'd separate the cities into three categories. cities with viable public transportation, cities that rely heavily on cars, and rural areas where the transportation could be anything.

suburbs are a product of the innovations of transportation, after all.

#36 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 07:18 PM:

Not anti-people. Anti-having-to-live-with- people. At least, the wrong kind of people.

I take your point but there are authors who really do seem to see humans as a blight on the universe. In Alan Steele's Coyote series, humans have pretty much killed Earth and are now poised to do the same thing to Coyote.

Was it Spinrad who said that living in a space colony would be like attending Worldcon in a submarine and you could never leave?

Wasn't that the Eagles? Or am I confused?

There's always one escape available, except in Four Bee.


#37 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 07:21 PM:

I like cities: Seattle, London, Chicago, even LA. They're interesting and full of variety and on the whole easy to explore.

Suburbs suck. They're hard to get around in on foot, and one cannot just ramble around and see what's there, because the walking matrix is coarse and the forbidden areas much larger than in cities.

And assuming that food is a mere matter of energy inputs... well, welcome to Fat Butt World, is all I can say.

#38 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 07:27 PM:

And assuming that food is a mere matter of energy inputs

Not just but by looking at the energy inputs and the product, it's clear that if our goal is to reduce the impact humans have on the Earth at any given population, we could do worse than to find a better way of manufacturing food than plants and animals and the odd bit of fungus.

#39 ::: j m mcdermott ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 07:29 PM:

re#37:

as a devoted walker to places and things, i have to tell you that texas is one of the most unforgiving places on earth to live this lifestyle.

the weather is awful. the people driving by will throw things at you. the bugs are so bad you have to drape yourself in denim year round - even in august. there are often no sidewalks. the few cases of sidewalks i have are often poorly constructed and un-maintained. the street design is wide and proud, putting things as far apart as physically possible and smothered in ugly corporate gardening.

also, businesses sometimes assume the guy who walked in off the street covered in dust and sweat is a homeless person and they might try to run you off even as you're buying things in their establishment.

sometimes people who know me pull over and offer me rides. they don't seem to understand that i'm doing this on purpose, and nothing's wrong with my car.

i could go into great detail comparing the culture of vancouver and dallas at this point, but that would only further derail the topic at hand.

#40 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 07:38 PM:

Mr. Nicholls, have you ever grown or raised any food?

There's a reason that all the visible technical advances in modern farming have gone toward making machines to replace the human labor in growing stuff; if humans could come up with a more economically elegant to make food products than in situ photosynthesis and the rest of the food chain, we would have done if by now. Putting the production of food under human control is the oldest science we have; that we are still dependent on farming is not for want of trying to make it elsewise.

#41 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 07:39 PM:

James Nicoll at #17

If you're talking about Asimov's story "2430", the limit wasn't the mass of the earth, it was the calculated maximum amount of animal mass that could be supported by the maximum possible amount of plant mass.

#42 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 08:10 PM:

"See, that's almost what I would say, except that I would say the problem is the continued necessity of having rural communities. Specifically, it's painfully clear that growing food is a horribly inefficient way to turn sunlight into chemicals suitable to power humans [1]. Substituting some more efficient process for agriculture would mean that we no longer had any compelling reason for a quarter of the land surface to be devoted to agriculture. Let the former farms go back to wilderness, maybe add some megafauna from Africa to flavour (or perhaps genetically engineer some giant predatory flightless birds, because they tend to be prettier than drab mammals) and it's win-win!"

My God. I don't know whether to scream or vomit.

Here's your ammunition, if you feel like tossing a small incendiary or something: Yeah, I live in a city now. Yeah, I'm not planning to move out of it any time soon. (And for the record, out of the city would mean back to the country, for me, since suburbs are Not An Option for me. Kind of like kryptonite, personally. Or anti-matter. Or just the bucket of water thrown over the witch. Whatever.) And yet...

OK, go ahead and tell me you don't hate rural life and rural people (farm folks, and folks from little farm towns). You probably don't. But God, reading something like this just gives me the shudders, and makes me never want to talk about where I'm from, or what I think about it, or how I still care about it, in front of somebody who could react to its eradication with just glee.

I'm done. Going to go make some art until I am fit to talk to people again.

#43 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 08:26 PM:

jm mcdermott #39:

Have you considered trying all this in Austin? Much more walk-friendly, at least in the central city.

#44 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 09:17 PM:

"Suburbs suck."

Hey, I'm with you on the desirability of dense urban areas. They're fun and very livable, especially if you don't have much stuff. And I'm with you when it comes to unlivable modern burbclaves with no sidewalks and no local shops and no nothing except giant, energy-inefficient houses and loathesome lawns plastered over a totally inappropriate landscape.

And I would've been with you all the way on suburbs until a few years ago. I grew up in a city where I could walk or ride anywhere in the town, and I lived in the Mission in San Francisco for 5 or 6 years. I've mocked the suburbs as much as any other Mission dweller and I always thought of myself as a city person. I still don't think I could ever live far from a big city. But... I just moved to a nice old 2-story Craftsman in what's basically a streetcar suburb in San Leandro, about 30 minutes from San Francisco by car (assuming no traffic, which is actually often the case if you know when to travel) or BART. By Bay Area standards this is definitely the suburbs, just ask anyone who lives in San Francisco (although they'd tell you downtown Oakland was the suburbs, so: whatever). But although there are a few ways in which it "sucks", and there's certainly nothing like the variety of a big city, there's places to eat and various small businesses within walking distance, there's access to transit - both buses and commuter rail - and there's tree-lined streets and parks. You can walk around and do things, in fact you can walk around and do more things than you could at my loft in SOMA in San Francisco, which was as urban as it gets.

More to the point, though, even as an avowed city person I'm appreciating a house that's 2-3x the size of my first Mission apartment and yet is nearly the same rent. It has a garage I can work in and a big driveway I can park my Airstream trailer in so I can stop paying extortionate storage fees. I have a washing machine, and a dining room, and you know, other rooms besides my bedroom. It's no McMansion, in fact it's decidely cosy, but I think I could get used to this. The lifestyle cost? I'm 30 minutes from the city, and I have to drive about 30 miles a day now instead of about 8 miles. There's no bars in the neighbourhood packed with cute little hipsters, but it turns out I'm such a social retard that I don't actually like that very much (good to learn). When I want to be in the city, I can be there, and the 95% of the time that, as it turns out, I want to be home, I can be home, and I don't have to live on top of myself in a shoebox or bankrupt myself paying rent getting a place big enough for all these damn books.

What I really dislike - but what obviously works for some people, or they think it ought to work for them so they buy them anyway - are the unlivable suburbs with giant houses on even more giant lots, and the places with the bizarre cult-like homeowners associations, and so on. I think in a few decades we're going to be looking at a lot of decrepit developments built in that style, because when it comes down to it, you don't need a mansion for an ordinary family, and it doesn't seem to add much to your life to have one.

Back to the original point: comparisons between modern American cities and the fast-growing developing-world megacities that are driving the rural->urban change now aren't currently much use. Maybe in 50 years, but I think because of fuel prices and the larger overall city size and population density of these megacities, their development isn't going to look much like any American city. For one thing, they're going to need to solve the problem of a cars:person ratio that has to be much smaller than the US or European cities can manage

I do think it's a positive thing for the world as a whole. It seems offensive to some people here, and I apologize, but cities are more energy-efficient and more to the point can be made more efficient more easily than rural societies; they concentrate pollution, which makes it easier to remediate; assuming reasonable controls on growth and enforcing reasonable minimums for density, they leave the countryside emptier for recreation and conservation; and cities are an engine for cultural development. And to the extent that it reflects the increasing mechanization of agriculture, that also reflects a society where more people are doctors, nurses, teachers, researchers, and writers, instead of breaking their backs working in the fields. Developing-world megacities may not be "nice" compared to Western cities, but that's a problem with known fixes - sewers, transit, building codes that are easy to apply as soon as the money is there to do it.

#45 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 09:39 PM:

Jacob Davies @ 44 - My first apartment in the Bay Area was on Dolores @ 24th, just on the edge of Noe Valley. I moved to Burlingame to shorten my commute and to save some money on rent. Truth be told, I liked living in Burlingame better than in San Francisco.

There's something to be said for older inner-ring suburbs, where there are smaller lots, small apartment buildings, sidewalks and shopping streets. In fact, I'd prefer living in downtown Burlingame (or Great Neck Plaza, NY, or Montclair, NJ) to living in Manhattan because you get most of the benefits of the city with fewer of the inconveniences. Add in easy access to the real city, and the package is complete.

As far as third-world megacities go - people are voting with their feet and thronging into shantytowns, which makes me wonder if the slums represent hope, or if the quality of life in the countryside is collapsing. Or both.

#46 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 09:41 PM:

Jacob Davies, I perceive suburbs largely from the perspective of one of those superfluous and useless farmers, so whatever the advantages of the good ones, they are, too me, primarily barriers to travel, sources of noise and trespassers, and eradicator of natural landscapes and plant communities.

So I'm a bit biased on the subject.

#47 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 09:44 PM:

JESR: (37)
The thing I noticed when I started to travel is that the pedestrian explorability of towns depends in part of when they were built. Towns that still reflect their pre-automobile structure have defined "centers" and perhaps villages where commerce clusters but everything tends to be in walking distance of the majority of people, and accessible as market towns to more rural folk. Streetcar suburbs tend to have long commercial corridors along the tracks, yielding stripes of commerce instead of clusters. Before strict zoning laws, "mixed use" was the norm with shops on the ground floor, workshops in back, and housing above. "Modern" zoning tends to arbitrarily separate shopping from industry from residence with large gaps requiring driving to get anywhere, and shopping areas spaced by highway access rather than accessibility (which I guess is the modern version of "accessible").
Old suburbs have some sort of downtown where everyone goes to shop and hang out because everything is there, including the people that live upstairs to provide a background of bit-players and extras and make the environment feel lived-in. So My take is that "modern" post-auto suburbs suck. And confuse me since I've been imprinted by old New England towns, suburbs, and cities.

#48 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 09:49 PM:

The next milestone will be when 50% of the Earth's population lives in Brooklyn.

#49 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 10:34 PM:

Jacob Davies, at #44, writes about unlivable modern burbclaves with no sidewalks and no local shops and no nothing except giant, energy-inefficient houses and loathesome lawns plastered over a totally inappropriate landscape. I suppose this is a European perspective shift - up till then in the thread I was thinking about suburbs in terms of where I live, in a Victorian brick terrace in East London, five minutes from the Central Line and twenty from the City, with all the amenities a dozen cultures could want.

(Except, sadly, a good English-language second-hand bookshop.)

Developing-world megacities may not be "nice" compared to Western cities, but that's a problem with known fixes - sewers, transit, building codes that are easy to apply as soon as the money is there to do it.

It sounds easy on the face of it, but I've just been reading Jerry White's London in the Nineteenth Century, which talks about the problems of London's expansion, and the combination of the rapidly exploding economy with the hideous inequalities between rich and poor.

Old London was growing as fast as the bright shiny New London, but much denser, and of course it was cheaper and quicker to build - being mostly composed of the contemporaneous equivalents of the refrigerator box and the discarded scaffold plank - and it was quite literally choking New London, with only a very few clear access roads in and out. The authorities undertook quite a lot of urban regeneration projects, but mostly with the explicit and primary aim of getting rid of all the inconvenient, unpleasant, and downright threatening poor people who lived there.

Of course, if a beautiful, modern, efficient, pleasant city is what the said authorities want, and they want it now, that's probably the best place to start, and the work can go on unhindered. Move along now. There'll be plenty of affordable housing going up in Phase Three of the project, scheduled for 2021 - design sketches are on display at your local planning office between 9 and 5 on weekdays, and you have plenty of time to leave your comments. Meanwhile, the construction industry is badly in need of skilled workers (own tools essential).

Sorry, I'm rambling now. Anyway, the point I took away from White's book is that that sort of Augustus project didn't happen all at once, and it took massive amounts of dislocation and a fair-sized death toll to make it happen at all. I'm not convinced the same model applies to developing-world cities, with good planning and humanitarian priorities, but I'm also not convinced there is a solution to the question.

#50 ::: Joyce Reynolds-Ward ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 10:36 PM:

Elise @ 42--

I'm with you. When I say "country," I mean by-God country, with ranchers and farmers, not suburbanites.

I'm tired of urban life at the moment. Too much proximity to yuppies in our previous location. I currently work in the country (as in non-suburban, for-real, country), and am posing this particular question to my students tomorrow. I do happen to like the little urban villages that surround the school I work at, but they sure aren't the 'burbs. (for one thing, the kids do prefer to go outside, especially if the outdoor sports involve skis, snowboards, skateboards, BMX....)

Feedback awaits from these kids.

Meanwhile, my own bias is that we lose something of ourselves when we don't have at least a passing exposure to the Wild. I like visiting cities, but they get on my nerves after a while, and I'd just as soon be up in the trees somewhere for long-term living.

Yeah, I'm a mountain woman, what of it?

#51 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 10:52 PM:

Mr. Nicholls, have you ever grown or raised any food?

Nicoll.

I spent 1969 - 1980 (ages 8 to 19) on a farm in Southern Ontario and was volunteered to various neighbors, who grew pigs, chickens and the answer to "what if rocks were slightly stupider, were mobile and grew wool", sheep. I've also prepared fields for plowing and driven tractors. We also had a one acre garden.

It was an aytpical region because lots of people (Especially the Mennonites) were your classic one family farms without a second income but as far most food people eat is concerned, that lifestyle, as beloved as it is in North American folklore, is an increasing irrelevent part of agricultural industry.

#52 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 11:11 PM:

That's all right, I'm used to people telling me that I'm irrelevant.

#53 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 11:21 PM:

Sam Kelly, the gap between London's suburbs and the calico crazy quilt of subdivisions which has grown to surround me couldn't be greater- there is nowhere to buy food closer than a mile,; the closest places are drive-through espresso stands and minimarts. There is only one bookstore of any sort closer than five miles, and that's a Paperback Exchange largely filled with romance novels and the kind of SF collection which develops when books come in according to what people don't feel like rereading and go out according to what they haven't read yet (lots of L. Ron Hubbard, for instance).

#54 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 11:21 PM:

Sam Kelly, the gap between London's suburbs and the calico crazy quilt of subdivisions which has grown to surround me couldn't be greater- there is nowhere to buy food closer than a mile,; the closest places are drive-through espresso stands and minimarts. There is only one bookstore of any sort closer than five miles, and that's a Paperback Exchange largely filled with romance novels and the kind of SF collection which develops when books come in according to what people don't feel like rereading and go out according to what they haven't read yet (lots of L. Ron Hubbard, for instance).

#55 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 11:34 PM:

Oh, dear. That sounds like a quilt from the razorwire-wreathed copper-canopied halberd-held bed of Great Klono himself.

And I thought I was spoilt for choice in comparison, coming from the sleepy sheep-strewn hills and hollows of Wales to here, but there at least we had corner shops for food.

And I freely admit, I don't like the idea of a culture that will produce a drive-through espresso stand. Even if I'm now consumed with curiosity... do US cars come pre-fitted with really small cupholders?

#56 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2007, 11:54 PM:

I'm not wholeheartedly in support of urbanization. The inequities in income between urban & rural in e.g. China has seen a mass migration into cities; people seeking their fortunes. Who will be left to grow the food needed to sustain urban populations?

As discussed upthread, we are still reliant on agriculture & farming. Modern technology, Green Revolution and the like have improved efficiency, but we are all ultimately reliant on photosynthesis.

#57 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 12:21 AM:

Who will be left to grow the food needed to sustain urban populations?

Realistically, at least in the short run? A much reduced rural population (at least as a %) using methods that use human labour more productively.

As an example of how this played out in the past:

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1SEC815728

In 1951 the farm population was 21% of the total Canadian population. By 1961, less than 12% of Canada's population lived on farms. Thirty years later, this was the case for only 3% of the population. As well, farmers are not the only residents of rural areas, accounting for about 10% of rural (ie, non-city) residents.

Farm numbers have shown a steady decline over time. The 1961 Census recorded 480 903 Canadian farms. By 1996, there were 276 548 farms and 453 300 people (3.3% of the total labour force) employed in primary agriculture.

As well, the food available to the majority of the Canadian population is of a wider variety than it would have been in 1961 and represents a smaller fraction of typical household budgets.

#58 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 12:38 AM:

James @57:
I don't doubt that fewer people are needed to produce food thanks to modern technology; combine harvesters vs. the sickle. And certainly, that's how I see it short term. But if you take it further, if this goes on, sort of thing, I think there is cause for concern.

Call me cynical but I see large corporations with monocultures of single variety crops. I've not read your link but I wonder how much of the wider variety of food is a result of imports. Probably a completely different issue.

Living in a city (Auckland) that's got over a quarter of the country's population & where the country's economy is mainly primary production, the rural/urban divide is prominent.

#59 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 12:44 AM:

Stewart Brand's presentation on “Cities And Time”

Related slide show, 'City Planet'.

I saw this live a couple of years back. Brilliant stuff that parallels the discussion here.

#60 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 01:18 AM:

Sam Kelley, most of the espresso around here gets consumed in 16oz (.25 liter) lattes.

James Nicholl, there is so very much wrong with your assumptions about the healthy and responsible choice for food production that I feel like I'm back in college, revisiting the same old arguments I've been involved in since I was a junior in college (at Evergreen, in 1972) and coping with earlier and no less wrong versions of your technocentric vision.

The most important objection to your proposal is that it reduces human freedom- the freedom to farm, certainly, but more generally the freedom of consumers to choose specialty items and locally grown food. That greater centralization and mechanization of food production has already had deleterious effects on public health is undeniable. BSE gets the most media, but hemorrhagic strains of E. coli are much more dangerous and pervasive, and salmonella and listeria may have more widespread morbidity. The more steps between food producer and food consumer, the greater the chance for food born illness.

Add to that the need for flexiblity in the face of global climate change and as far as I'm concerned arguing for a low human input, strictly industrialized agricultural system is either utterly irresponsible or frankly irrational.

I suspect you are convinced only the mad or the foolish would choose to farm in this day and age, and that the dispossessed rural poor fleeing to third world cities are actively chosing the urban environment rather than being quite literally driven from their land by desertification, illegal logging, or modern variants of enclosure and Highland clearance. So far as the relief workers and anthropologists I've read and talked to report, there's more evidence that people are coming to cities because they cannot stay where they wish to be.


#61 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 01:26 AM:

I've not read your link but I wonder how much of the wider variety of food is a result of imports.


I'd love to see variety of foods in Canadian stores mapped against variety of nations of origin for Canadian immigrants. Having lived through what passed for exotic cuisine in KW (Jell-O! With Fruit In! And for the daring, chow mein!) in the 1960s and knowing what I can buy now just by walking over to the Chinese supermarket, I strongly suspect a large part of the growth in variety is because Canadians learned that other foods existed to want.

We liberalized our immigration laws about 1970, you see.

#62 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 02:04 AM:

Msg 60 (JEhSR)

The most important objection to your proposal is that it reduces human freedom- the freedom to farm, certainly,

Wait, there's a right to continue old modes of production regardless of technological advancement? OK, I want the table-top role-playing game market of the 1980s back. That was my traditional lifestyle. At the least, I want Willy Nelson to host Nerd-Aid.

but more generally the freedom of consumers to choose specialty items and locally grown food.

So logically the variety of foods available to me in 2007 should be less than the variety of foods available to me in 1965, right? And if we discover that there are more varieties available to me now, you'll reconsider your model, right?

Anyway, if I want locally grown food, I walk over to the farmers market - the extremely expensive farmers market that we built with our city taxes - and I buy it.

That greater centralization and mechanization of food production has already had deleterious effects on public health is undeniable. BSE gets the most media, but hemorrhagic strains of E. coli are much more dangerous and pervasive, and salmonella and listeria may have more widespread morbidity. The more steps between food producer and food consumer, the greater the chance for food born illness.

So we should expect the death rate to be rising, not falling, over time?

What's the time period you are picking as the reference year? I like 1900, because back then, a third of all human deaths were due to bacterial infection and there were virtually no regulations for the preparation of food.

#63 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 02:19 AM:

JESR @ 60: The most important objection to your proposal is that it reduces human freedom- the freedom to farm, certainly, but more generally the freedom of consumers to choose specialty items and locally grown food.

One of the great ironies of this is that, at least as things stand now, the option of consuming a diet of mostly locally produced food is the province of the well-to-do.

I try to buy local whenever possible, and it's relatively convenient to do so. I live three blocks from a (very posh) regional co-op store (PCC) which would quickly vacuum my wallet if I ever bought more than just specialties there. It's completely out of range for poor people. So, instead I shop mostly at a local chain, which also has quite a bit of local produce.

This time of year, buying local is even more difficult. The only local fruit available now is a limited selection of berries, and some of last season's apple crop. Vegetables offer more options, though, with the springtime flood of asparagus just now rolling into the stores.

Industrial-scale farming and its monocultures are not ideal, but neither is an agricultural sector composed entirely of family farms. I think we've tipped a bit too far towards industry in the US, whereas the ag sector in places like China could use some smart automation.

So, here's my position in a nutshell:
Family Farms - good but not sufficient
Agribusiness - way too powerful and too risky ecologically and nutritionally
A slight shift back towards small farms is probably a good idea

Also:
Exurban McMansion sprawl - Why would anyone want to live that way?
Dense, close-in suburbia and lower-density urban neighborhoods - Actually provides a good lifestyle, and the city's right there if you need it
Inner Cities - Only OK if you're rich enough to have a wall of money around you
and, for completeness -
Rural living - great for some, but not for me. I hate walking into a country store and being treated like I have six arms because I'm not from the immediate area.

#64 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 02:42 AM:

Larry, get a freezer, and you can buy dry-hung pork and beef from my sister at prices substantially below store prices; there are various cheap non-retail sources for produce, but they do involve planning, storage, and futzing about beyond going to the grocery store, and we've all fallen out of the habit of doing those things (the fact that the Kent Valley is under asphalt instead of row crops doesn't help much, though).

PCC... sigh. I remember going to the old store on 65th when it was still a working-member cooperative, and cheap. Now it's pretty much a food version of Nordstrom's.

Mr. Nicholl, all of my academic training and life experience leads me to suspect prescriptive solutions. If you think yours can work, well, just keep thinking that- there are probably more people in the world who are using the Circle of Plenty model than the empty countryside one, anyway.

#65 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 02:47 AM:

Also, Larry- I just came back from staying in a town where my visit will be an item in the local paper; it reminds me of Yelm in the fifties, when my birthday parties got written up. It was disconcerting, but then I live next door to one of my cousins and we've gone from Independence day to Christmas Eve without exchanging a word. We like each other, but there just isn't that much to say.

#66 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 03:47 AM:

The most important objection to your proposal is that it reduces human freedom- the freedom to farm, certainly, but more generally the freedom of consumers to choose specialty items and locally grown food.

Locally grown food is not a right. Hell, in most cases, it isn't even a good thing. I mean, a pound of NZ butter consumed in the UK is far, far, better for the environment than a pound of UK butter consumed in the UK. This is because NZ is a better place for transforming solar rays into milk solids, not only economically, (see the massive subsidies on EU/US agriculture), but also environmentally.

The idea that there is a right to stuff the environment over for the sake of ``locally'' produced food is obscene.

Family Farms - good but not sufficient
Agribusiness - way too powerful and too risky ecologically and nutritionally

Why are family farms a good thing, and agribusiness bad? I doubt there is a connection between family ownership and good land stewardship. In fact, there may well be a negative correlation.

By the way: increased food costs are born by the poor most; and by the rich least. Supporting a bunch of farmers is not a good way to spend societal wealth.

#67 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 03:54 AM:

You know of the two cows jokes. $_ETHNIC has two cows...

The urbanite has two cows, they have one teat each, and the milk tastes funny.

#68 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 04:31 AM:

Keir, what really messes up farming operations is central control.

Monoculture, as a problem, doesn't require anybody giving orders over some huge area; it's driven by things as diverse as climate, geology, and economics. There are benefits to crop rotation, but the secondary crops still have to be viable.

And agricultural crops are grown as multiple varieties, with different susceptibilites to plant diseases. One of the problems with GMO crops is that, for a particular crop species, there isn't the diversity of cultivars that are available from a diversity of conventional crop breeding companies.

Essentially, you hit natural selection head-on, and Monsanto's monopoly on "Roundup Ready" crop species becomes a genetic choke-point, a form of population crash., leading to a meagre gene pool that's short on resilience.

Central Control isn't just about Five Year Plans.

#69 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 04:36 AM:

Keir @66,
a pound of NZ butter consumed in the UK is far, far, better for the environment than a pound of UK butter consumed in the UK

Only if you can teleport that pound of butter 11,000 miles. Otherwise, you might want to factor in the shipping costs, both direct (non-renewable fuel, carbon outputs) and indirect (end of life breakdown of the transport mechanisms).

#70 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 07:15 AM:

Seeing as you use more energy moving a shipping container from Felixstowe to London than you did getting it from Shanghai to Felixstowe on the ship, Keir is almost certainly right.

Shipping *is* teleportation, from an environmental viewpoint. 90 per cent of international trade takes up 10 per cent of the fuel.

#71 ::: John ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 07:37 AM:

Right now there are portions of the Great Plains states that are not inhabited. The farmers that used to live there moved elsewhere, and the land is now unused. I'm talking ND, SD, Montana, Nebraska, etc.

In fact, there are places in my living area (NC/TN) where farmers used to work the land and do so no longer, but the land has not been put to other use. This is happening for two reasons; farming has become Big Business, so the small (a 100 acre farm is small) farmer gets run out of business, and second, few people want to move into areas where it is very, very cold a good part of the year. Down South it's happening in the non-urban areas because there're no jobs anywhere but in the cities.

I grew up on a farm, and I'd move back to one in a heartbeat if it didn't come with a 45 minute+ commute to get to work. So, I grit my teeth and put up with being able to see more than 10 other SFH's from my back porch, and know that my neighbors are within 30' of me on either side of my house. I've lived in an 'urban setting', apartments and townhouses, and it nearly drove me crazy. Way too many people, way too close to me for my mental/physical health.

#72 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 08:30 AM:

hJhEhShR @ 64

I take it that you do not want to look at the numbers then?

I'm not actually prescribing anything more specific than looking for better ways to create food. Is it your contention that looking for better ways to create food is a bad idea?

Just out of curiousity, back in the early 1970s, what was your stance on the famines which people like Ehrlich assured us were told were inevitable thanks to the coming Malthusian Crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.

#73 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 09:57 AM:

James Nicoll @ 28

As usual, everybody gets both profound and prodigously productive just when I have too many commitments in RL to keep up ...

which says what about the lives people fled to get to those factories?

As I understand it (at least for England in the early 19th century), it says that a lot of them got kicked off the land by its owners because they were redundant with the new farming techniques. In America, I believe there was a large buffer of available land* farther west that absorbed a lot of the population that otherwise would have ended up in that position as the farms in the east aggregated, and the land was much fresher and so the new techniques weren't as important or as quick to enter the economy.


* or at least acquirable land in some sense. The problem there was what happened when the push got past the Missippi River and hit a) the solitude of the northern prairie** and the far less arable land to the west of the prairie***

** the suicide rate for people in North Dakota winters was fairly high, from what I've read.

*** and the failure rate in the first 2 years for small farms in the less productive and more hostile environments further west was higher than 2 out of 3 IIRC. Not so much because it was an agricultural life as because it was pioneering, with not much in the way of neighbor community to help when things went pear-shaped.

#74 ::: acm ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 10:19 AM:

@Skwid -- it's not just your gut. high-density living is more economical in terms of energy usage (easier to heat and cool when you don't have to fight weather on 4 sides of your house!) and many other things. centralized distribution is more efficient for most things.

and heck! many big cities even manage to support a smattering of micro-farms to put a dent in the need to ship food in from the hinterlands...

#75 ::: acm ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 10:20 AM:

@individualfrog -- it's not just your gut. high-density living is more economical in terms of energy usage (easier to heat and cool when you don't have to fight weather on 4 sides of your house!) and many other things. centralized distribution is more efficient for most things.

and heck! many big cities even manage to support a smattering of micro-farms to put a dent in the need to ship food in from the hinterlands...

#76 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 10:41 AM:

In America, I believe there was a large buffer of available land* farther west that absorbed a lot of the population that otherwise would have ended up in that position as the farms in the east aggregated [...]

As I recall, better land out west competed with lousyt farmland in New England and as a result, farms in the east were allowed to return to wilderness.

the suicide rate for people in North Dakota winters was fairly high, from what I've read.

There was an editorial in a German paper accusing Lord Strathcona of crimes against humanity for his attempt to get German farmers to move to the Great Plains. Luckily for us, it turned out Ukrainians are not as fussy as Germans.

Actually, I think the paper made no distinction between "Canada as a whole" and "the desolate vista that is Saskatchewan." Parts of Canada are very nearly pleasant.

#77 ::: individualfrog ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 10:54 AM:

Well, this thread goes to show that there is a lot of conflicting information out there. If there was one thing I'd heard enough (from smart people) to start taking for granted, it's that "we must eat locally produced food, or we're all going to die." But Keir@66, and Alex@70, are saying the exact opposite. So that's why I can't be sure that living in the city (I live in Tokyo and love it) is really the best.

It really is important to note, as many people here have, that by "urban" they don't necessarily mean urban as I think of it, and include a lot of people who commute by car from the suburbs and stuff. That's no good. When I got to college I realized that I didn't really know how to dress for cold anymore, because I was never really outside--just running from the house to the car, or vice versa. That was kind of shocking. Now, even though I like driving and have always wanted my own little car, I've resigned myself to the fact that I'll never have one. That's one reason I have to live in not just a big city, but a big city that's not built for cars.

As long as we're talking about this, let me give a link to my favorite blog post ever, maybe, which is somewhat relevant.

#78 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 11:15 AM:

There was an editorial in a German paper accusing Lord Strathcona of crimes against humanity for his attempt to get German farmers to move to the Great Plains. Luckily for us, it turned out Ukrainians are not as fussy as Germans.

Alternatively, winters in Saskatchewan are more like ones in the Ukraine (but without the pogroms, conscription, knouts etc) than Germany. Never underestimate the power of relative judgments.

PS: I did a worked example about ships and energy use on my blog, here.

#79 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 11:25 AM:

Alex @ 78, may I link to that on my LJ?

#80 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 11:28 AM:

Alex @78
OK, point conceded about fuel.

Have you done any research on the full-life costs of shipping? I hear the ship-breaking industry's environmental impact is not inconsiderable.

I don't have information on that impact - wondering if you or anyone else does?

#81 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 11:51 AM:

Flying cars? Food replicators? Bah. I'm waiting for my hyperintelligent dogs.

#82 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 12:35 PM:

78: Clearly.

80: Nothing specific, but I would point out that ships don't have to be torn apart by 12-year-olds with hookworm and welding torches on the beaches of Alang.

And they last 30 years or so.

#83 ::: T.W ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 12:37 PM:

This conversation is reminding me of the British show "The Good Life" 1975 aka "Good Neighbors" in the U.S.
As well as the book set from John Seymour "The Complete Book Of Self-Sufficiency" and "Forgotten Crafts". Both now come as current new editions.

The pros and cons of the urban-rural divide are all personal priorities.
Import food spares your local environment from agriculture but at the expense of the environment it came from; more of a out of sight out of mind issue. That is the biggest thing about cities, the luxury of important things being invisible and someone else's responsibility. On the farm you are confronted by where things come from and where they go when you are done with them.

#84 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 12:38 PM:

James Nicoll,

I'm not sure what you think putting aitches in my name accomplishes, but it's not particularrly effective.

I wasn't so much ignoring your numbers as up past my bedtime.

Your choice of 1900 is interesting: people died of food born illness then in families and individuals; a family of five across the road from mine, dairy farmers, died of botulism from badly-preserved beans that year (nobody's farmed their land since, but then it's a peat bog). People also died of brucellosis and tubercullosis from drinking unpasturized milk. A lot of people died from eating unrefrigerated food contaminated with bacteria; a significant number died from eating food contaminated by the bacterial soup around the ice in their ice boxes.

We developed better food preservation techniques, mechanical refrigeration, animal health standards, and things got better for a while.

The difference, now, is that very small amounts of contaminated food products can cause illness and death in widespread locations (I'm thinking of the Jack In The Box E.coli cases) because of centralized processing.

Keir mentioned the pound of New Zealand butter in England- which may be fine for England but, if NZ becomes a centralized dairy producer for the world, may be very bad for New Zealand, both land and people. We drove through Yakima on our way to Montana earlier this month, and the place stinks from the huge number of confinement dairies moved over from the coast to be closer to the alfalfa and take advantage, for a very short while at the beginning, of a differential in land prices. Intense dairy production is bad for surface and ground water, produces higher particulate air pollution than the immediate past generation's practices, and is a uncontrolled biology experiment producing new strains of bacteria, many of them antibiotic resistant.

It also stinks for the cows: individual animals in modern style confinement dairies tend to be sent to the hamburger plant before they turn four. When they are alive, they are prone to foot rot, mastitus due to the freakishly large mammary system resulting from the combined genetic, dietary, and hormonal imputs the Holstein-Friesian breed is subjected to, and gut problems from their unnaturally enriched diet.

As to freedom of choice being extended to the food one eats and the environment one lives in: I'm averse to agreeing that any human choice is trivial and disposable, myself.

#85 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 12:38 PM:

James Nicoll,

I'm not sure what you think putting aitches in my name accomplishes, but it's not particularrly effective.

I wasn't so much ignoring your numbers as up past my bedtime.

Your choice of 1900 is interesting: people died of food born illness then in families and individuals; a family of five across the road from mine, dairy farmers, died of botulism from badly-preserved beans that year (nobody's farmed their land since, but then it's a peat bog). People also died of brucellosis and tubercullosis from drinking unpasturized milk. A lot of people died from eating unrefrigerated food contaminated with bacteria; a significant number died from eating food contaminated by the bacterial soup around the ice in their ice boxes.

We developed better food preservation techniques, mechanical refrigeration, animal health standards, and things got better for a while.

The difference, now, is that very small amounts of contaminated food products can cause illness and death in widespread locations (I'm thinking of the Jack In The Box E.coli cases) because of centralized processing.

Keir mentioned the pound of New Zealand butter in England- which may be fine for England but, if NZ becomes a centralized dairy producer for the world, may be very bad for New Zealand, both land and people. We drove through Yakima on our way to Montana earlier this month, and the place stinks from the huge number of confinement dairies moved over from the coast to be closer to the alfalfa and take advantage, for a very short while at the beginning, of a differential in land prices. Intense dairy production is bad for surface and ground water, produces higher particulate air pollution than the immediate past generation's practices, and is a uncontrolled biology experiment producing new strains of bacteria, many of them antibiotic resistant.

It also stinks for the cows: individual animals in modern style confinement dairies tend to be sent to the hamburger plant before they turn four. When they are alive, they are prone to foot rot, mastitus due to the freakishly large mammary system resulting from the combined genetic, dietary, and hormonal imputs the Holstein-Friesian breed is subjected to, and gut problems from their unnaturally enriched diet.

As to freedom of choice being extended to the food one eats and the environment one lives in: I'm averse to agreeing that any human choice is trivial and disposable, myself.

#86 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 12:47 PM:

Jon Melzer @ 81... I'm waiting for my hyperintelligent dogs.

Are you sirius?

#87 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 01:01 PM:

The Port of Oakland bears an untoward share of the air pollution from all that energy-efficient shipping, too. If we knew how to remediate it, and charged remediation costs to the energy-users, I would be much happier letting the market sort it out... possibly by inventing mostly-wind-powered intercontinental ships, which people are already working on.

For a SFnal-ambitious, but possibly real, look at designing a city for maximum efficiency, *and* a footprint within its political/legal catchment, *and* aesthetics, see Goa 2100 (or here). Or the Lyons carfree/'String of Pearls' design, not as lovely in its urban/rural/transit interweaving but more imaginable with a built city.

#88 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 01:10 PM:

"On the farm you are confronted by where things come from and where they go when you are done with them."

In my experience, rural people are really conscious of the things that are expenses (hard-money or not) and unconscious of stuff they can externalize. This is exactly the same algorithm as in the city, because hey, we're all human; it's just that the expenses are different, almost complementary, in the two locales.

Rural experience tends to suggest that nature can remediate any pollution and will rebuild any soil; but this was never exactly true, and gets less so as technology gets wilder. Many drinking wells in New Jersey are now unusable with nitrates. The Palouse has soil-loss rates comparable to China's in the last century. It is *extremely goddamn embarassing* to be comparable to the Great Leap Forward for stupid long-term planning.

#89 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 01:13 PM:

Clew, thanks for bringing that up: container ships are hell on the ports that use them, for a list of reasons which just starts with air pollution. There's introduction of exotic species like Zebra Mussells, pollution of near-shore water with spilled fuel, sewage, and random spills of soluable cargos, and onshore impacts from the need for increased transport corridors.

Where I live, one of the worst new impacts of container shipping is the rise of "distribution centers-" warehouses typically a quarter mile on a side, on newly cleared land, servicable only by truck transport, in areas which are impractical, to put it mildly, for rail lines.

#90 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 01:25 PM:

About the Palouse, from clew's later post: it's a good example of the law of unintended consequences, all around. The Palouse loess was an accreting surface for moast of the late Pleistoscene and Holocene, and developed a mosaic of plant communities which take advantage of differences in soil moisture and temperature that inspired a WSU professor whose name I cannot quite remember this morning to develop a whole way of looking at natural communities which is, in its niche, as important as Linneaus' classification of species.

And then the breaking plough, that great randomizer, wiped out the adaptive variety and replaced it with wheat and lentils and the wind started taking the soil away instead of depositing it. When things got bad enough, there was a move to low-till, a technique which depends on herbicides to knock down the weeds before wheat is chisel-planted into the stubble. That's a merry-go-round of its own; herbicide application and formulation has to be managed carefully or there are drastic off-site impacts. multiple years of stubble have begun catching wind-blown silt, and harvest has become a greater source of particulates than before. Evolution being what it is, weeds are developing immunities to existing herbicides. So it goes.

(BA, WSU, 1978)

#91 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 01:43 PM:

#81: "Bah. I'm waiting for my hyperintelligent dogs."

I dunno:

A dog smart enough to sue you for giving them stupid names?

A dog you need to have awkward conversations with when you're bringing him to the vet to get "fixed?"

And then there are those tragic product recalls.

#92 ::: JBWoodford ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 02:10 PM:

JESR (#84 & #85):
James Nicoll,

I'm not sure what you think putting aitches in my name accomplishes, but it's not particularrly effective.

You spelled his name right this time (i.e., w/o an extraneous aitch), so it seems to have had the effect he wanted.

#93 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 02:17 PM:

individualfrog @77: the thing with "local food" is that there are different types of transport, and they have different energy costs. You can indeed ship butter from New Zealand to the UK on one of the giant container ships, and use less energy taking it half way round the world than it will use once it's loaded onto a lorry at the dock and driven twenty miles up the motorway.

It's not the sticking it on a ship that's the problem. It's that when it gets to the destination country, it will go by a lorry to a central depot, and then be sent out again to the individual supermarket sites. This happens with domestic produce as well, so that you get a situation where Scottish produce is driven to Manchester, and then driven back again, for a round trip involving hundreds of miles, to go to a supermarket not ten miles away from the farm where it was grown. Because for a large chain it's far more efficient to have everything go to one or two central depots and then be sent out again to the actual retail points.

There is also the issue of some high value fresh produce being flown in rather than shipped in. Sea freight is very fuel-efficient in a way that air freight.. isn't. Enough people in the UK were willing to pay the premium for fresh runner beans air-freighted in from Zimbabwe out of season to make this a nice little earner for the supermarkets for a while.

#94 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 02:18 PM:

What?

Sorry, but no- my received spelling for that name bled through in the late hours of a hard day, and this morning I was awake.

Rather a juvenile approach, in any case.

#95 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 03:23 PM:

Is it just me, or do people in general seem crankier the past day or two? I include myself there.

As far as the benefits of large scale agriculture, There are the transportation issues discussed above. And for my part, anything that makes California's Central Valley smell the way it does (cattle and dust so bad that even your AC won't completely scrub it out) for such a long stretch is not a good thing.

But the water issue is a much bigger one: the biggest water user in California by far is agriculture. Crops are grown in the middle of what would otherwise be a desert part of the year, all by moving water out of the Sacramento, Trinity, Feather, and other rivers to the great detriment of native fisheries, particularly salmon. Agricultural runoff has posed a serious risk to migrating birds in the Kesterton and Kern Wildlife Refuges.

And the costs of diverting all that water primarily for the gain of large agricultural companies? Heavily subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer. It would be a lot more honest to simply make agricultural users pay the costs of the water, increase prices if necessary, and then help people to pay for the food. If nothing else, it might provide an incentive to the businesses to farm where it actually made sense ecologically.

And 10 percent of the farms control 67 percent of the subsidized water out of the US Bureau of Reclamation's Central Valley Project. We're not subsidizing family farms.

Ok, I'll stop ranting now. Agricultural subsidies are another rant entirely.

#96 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 04:07 PM:

"It would be a lot more honest to simply make agricultural users pay the costs of the water, increase prices if necessary, and then help people to pay for the food. "

Yes, but that would involve subsidizing poor people rather than rich ones -- and that's a whole nother barrel of rants!

----

You'd think that cheap RFID, etc., would make it more possible to ship everything only once. I guess that depends partly on reliably having storage near one end of the chain or the other, and partly on reliable transport.

Which reminds me, for an example of Actually Existing Efficiency, that the ?Dutch? are time-shifting renewable energy by dropping the temps in gigantic cold-storage warehouses several degrees when the grid is in surplus, and letting the warehouses sit in their insulation and do nothing when energy is more expensive. Much better than electrical batteries.

Seems to me that one of these in every relevant production area, chilled by local energy (wind, biogas, Nebraska's stored snowfall) might be a handy thing. We probably had them in 1920, only less efficient.

#97 ::: Bruce Cohen, SpeakerToManagers ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 04:31 PM:

There are other options than hyper-urbanization or carpet-suburbanization, options that allow some form of rural life to continue. I'll make one value judgement before I go on, so that you can go on to the next post if my values don't suit you.

I believe there's a need to leave large swathes of our planet alone, because we don't know enough to keep the biosphere going on our own, and certainly don't know enough to replace it, even just for ourselves*. I also believe there's a need to keep some amount of truly rural human habitation, where alternative forms of food production continue to be used. This is necessary as a reserve pool, for exactly the reason JESR cites: a hedge against massive collapse due to the failure of monoculture agriculture.

That said, I live in Portland, Oregon, a city that's attempting to learn how to grow in a way more like an organism than a cancer. We're not doing an outstanding job, but everyone keeps telling me we're doing better than most places.

The third option I mentioned is to allow the sustainable growth of a larger number of small cities, rather than a few hyper-cities like New York and Mexico City. There are places in the world, maybe a lot of them, where anything but hyper-cities isn't an option, at least for the next generation or two, but that's not a good reason to throw in our cards and go home.

I have lived in Portland for 30 years now; I noved here from the San Francisco Bay Area, and previous to that from the BosWash MegaCity (Philadelphia, New York, and Boston departments). I like cities; I've lived in them for about 3/4 of my life and in small towns the rest. Cities aggregate things that need to be together and they make life interesting. But they have drawbacks, and if they're allowed to grow without some sort of plan in place those drawbacks start to overshadow the benefits (unless you like slums, homeless people, gridlocked traffic, or obscene high-to-low-income ratios).

My house in Portland is not a mansion; it's about 50 years old, and needs some work, but it's in a neighborhood that's set up for walking, is about 600 meters from a shopping district containing several (not fast-food) restaurants, at least 3 of which are quite good. The shopping area has 4 bus routes through it; one of them runs right past our front door. And yet we have trees all over the neighborhood, a creek with some woods and wetlands nearby, and several parks and public green areas within walking distance.

I work in another town entirely, out past the suburban ring; not my first choice of location, but the job is worth it. I can get to work by train if I either drive about three to four miles or take the bus. At the other end it's less than a two kilometer walk (and mostly rather pleasant).
Counting the walk, the total travel time is about an hour and a half one way, of which almost an hour is on the train or bus, and thus can be productive or resting time for me.

All this is possible because the city of Portland has worked very hard to get the mass transit systems in place, and to develop growth plans that create neighborhoods built around small shopping districts surrounded by high-density housing which is in turn surrounded by lower density housing. It's been a lot of work to get to this point, the politics have been ungodly, and there's no guarantee it will work in the long run, but where it has worked it's clearly a better solution than simply letting it all grow into a metropolis and living with the consequences.

* Where 'we' and 'us' refers to the human race.

#98 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 05:09 PM:

Keir mentioned the pound of New Zealand butter in England- which may be fine for England but, if NZ becomes a centralized dairy producer for the world, may be very bad for New Zealand, both land and people. We drove through Yakima on our way to Montana earlier this month, and the place stinks from the huge number of confinement dairies moved over from the coast to be closer to the alfalfa and take advantage, for a very short while at the beginning, of a differential in land prices. Intense dairy production is bad for surface and ground water, produces higher particulate air pollution than the immediate past generation's practices, and is a uncontrolled biology experiment producing new strains of bacteria, many of them antibiotic resistant.

Except, NZ isn't Yakima. New Zealand is, well, New Zealand.

Comparing the effects of dairy farming in Yakima to those in New Zealand is useless. Yes, some of the same issues, but there is such a variant in environmental issues in the two hours drive between the Manawatu and the Central Plateau, that introducing extraneous analogies is pointless.

Dairy farming does have problems; increased soil erosion in the Manawatu, etc. However, New Zealand cows don't get put in confinement. New Zealand cows get put out to pasture; grain feeding is an aberration, not a norm.

Confinement dairies, subsidised out the wazoo, are also reasonably major contributors to climate change, especially when compared to pasture. The ``choice'' to buy local for a US/UK resident here isn't much better than the choice to spew environmentally damaging gases into the atmosphere. That's not a choice I think needs protected to a great extent.

#99 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 05:20 PM:

JESR@85:
New Zealand eschews the use of confinement dairies. Cows & sheep are grassfed. That is not to say that there is no farm effluent, and GHGs are an issue, but most, if not all of us realise that New Zealand's clean, green image is one that we have to live up to if we are to keep selling our produce to the world. Much effort is devoted to reducing waste.

New Zealand has signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol, something the U.S. hasn't.

Historical blocks (tariffs) in export markets, EC tariffs on non-EC products, EC subsidies meant that New Zealand farmers had to innovate & improve efficiency to compete. Keir's comment @66 is closer to the truth than one might intuitively assume.

#100 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 06:07 PM:

Soon Lee, forty years ago I could have stated the same things about Western Washington, minus the bits about the EC; things were changing, incrementally, then, and they are vastly different now. This despite increasingly stringent land use and antipollution laws, tax penalties for moving land out of open space use, and government purchase of development rights.

I am not being compulsively contentious here; my primary point is that any unified strategy for food production is almost certain to run into deviation amplification and failure quite rapidly, especially in a situation where supply lines are long, consumer populations concentrated, and mechanistic models are being applied to living systems. That this discussion started with the assertion that non-living systems for food production would be more efficient and economically elegant than biological ones seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.

I do, however, feel like the rock has gotten heavier today, and the hill more steep.

#101 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 06:31 PM:

I think #97 is about right.

Way back to #49, my impression is that in Britain suburbs just don't get much less dense than, say, a typical 40s suburb in the US. My sister's old house in a suburb of Norwich (UK) was in an area of bungalows that was probably about 50% the density of my current place in the east SF bay and that seems to be about as low as it gets.

But in America the term "suburb" is used to describe just about anywhere that isn't obviously rural and isn't within walking distance of a large city, with "exurb" as a fairly new word for suburbs that basically are rural by any sensible standard. So, people hating the suburbs might be talking about McMansions on 1/4 acre lots sprawled out beside a new freeway across what was agricultural land 2 years ago, or 50s-70s suburbs at a density maybe 4x that but still fairly low-density by British standards, or a much denser streetcar suburb, or anything in between, or - my pet hate - people who happen to live within the city limits of a major city but in an essentially suburban area who then pour scorn on anyone who lives outside the city limits, even if it's at a similar density. (Around here, it crops up with people who live out in the avenues (Sunset/Richmond) in SF and similar housing in Oakland - and in fact it can be faster to get to downtown San Francisco from Oakland than from out in the Sunset, having lived in both.)

What it comes down to is: people gotta live somewhere. Apartments are lovely and I've had a great time living in them in the past. Unfortunately, because housing development in the inner Bay Area has pretty much hit a wall, apartment living is also very expensive, and what that really means is: you get no space. Which is still fine for people who don't need much space.

But you can't just have a sharp divide between dense urban apartment living and salt-of-the-earth rural areas. It's not realistic, because people obviously like houses with garages and yards and, sadly, lawns. You could smear them out across rural areas at extremely low density but I doubt that's what the suburb-haters have in mind.

What you can do - should do - is regulate city expansion into green space and make sure that it happens at a decent level of density and has transit accessibility, sidewalks, some walkability, some areas of higher density around commercial developments, parks and other recreation space left in the gaps, and basically just some variety in density. You can also develop more houses on hills and less on flood-plain agricultural land - not every hill, but many of them.

Now historically variety in density in new development has been unpopular because suburbs were often explicitly built to be approximately uniform in income level, because if you let in poor people that meant letting in black people and god knows we couldn't have that. A great deal of city development in the US seems to have been warped by racism.

But anyway, then you'd wind up with "suburbs" that were actually livable and that consumed countryside at a sharply reduced rate from the large-lot large-house style now dominating in many areas.

I'm not accusing anyone here of this, but I do find that among fan/SF/geek/environmentalist types that an anti-people or Malthusian viewpoint dominates. I understand this since that's how I felt... when I was 12. Fact is, the people are here, their numbers are going to increase in an inexorable demographic wave that will eventually peak - the earlier the better, for sure - and then hopefully stabilize, or less-hopefully decline. (Decline: bad. See also: Russia.)

You have to plan to handle them. You can't wish them away. You can't wish them into a mythical rural existence. And you can't wish them all into high-density urban apartment living either.

This got long but dammit I'm not done. My hope would be that by, say, 2150 we have stabilized world population, mostly urbanized, living efficiently in clean cities at a variety of densities from "extraordinarily high" (many places like Manhattan and central London) to "medium", then cutting off fairly sharply without low-density sprawl - explicitly not the early C20 vision of urban renewal and dramatic change, but basically an organic development of successful patterns we already have; some transit is available everywhere and is predominant in the denser parts, with clean cars becoming more predominant in the suburbs; freeways are kept to a limited level of land use and not built over old, dense urban development; long-distance travel is mostly by high-speed rail and airports are an expensive niche for overseas travel and the very rich; food production is a mixture of reasonably healthy but essentially industrial food production using the minimum possible land area and with pollution well-controlled, located in areas where the water/sunshine/transport tradeoff works well; and fairly-traditional farming methods for local production of some share of food, but with as much of the non-urban area of the world left in a roughly natural state, publicly-owned, and accessible to everyone for a range of recreational uses. I'm a kind dictator: they can even build a few golf courses.

You barely need any new technology to do all of that, just the will, and I think most people can buy into it.

As for rural - I guess I don't get how it becoming an extreme-minority of the population is a negative thing if you like rural life. If you put more people in rural areas, they won't be rural anymore. They'll be, um... exurbs.

#102 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2007, 07:20 PM:

Jacob, again, I'm not going for any absolute solution to the way human beings spread themselves across the landscape; what began this discussion was the proposal of what gets called "empty countryside" (a special class of this is "Buffalo Commons") where food production is intense, specialized, and highly mechaized, and there is no rural population at all; I first heard it proposed by a fan of Stewart Brand's in the early seventies, and I don't disagree with it completely, having more than once proposed returning Kansas to short-grass prairie and archival files. My real preference is for dispersed and diverse food production with no government underwriting of industrial farming beyond current-use taxation and fuel tax rebates, just like the little guys, and sufficient variety in community size that no-one is being driven bats by the place they have to live.

I have never had a driver's license, due to some bad wiring, and my idea of a decent environment includes some sort of long-distance public transportation between rural centers, but most importantly an end to the segregation of commercial and residential life in denser suburbs and the resulting deserts of blacktop for temporary storage of automobiles.

I live in Lacey, a suburb of Olympia, WA with a population of 31,000+ and a footprint of about 30 square miles. What it doesn't have is a real, walkable downtown. Apartment developments are stuck in the middle of low-density residential neighborhoods (mostly 1/4 acre lots in the older parts; around here, 1/10th acre suburban lots are a new thing) so, instead of reducing private automobile traffic, they exacerbate it. There are huge (in excess of 1 sq mile apiece), new (everything is less than five years old) commercial development with no residential components, and no easy pedestrian access to the neighborhoods around them, which all lack even the minor comfort of a gas station where you can buy milk and beer.

I contrast that with a village we stayed in in England, with bus service every fifteen minutes to York and Manchester; the population was about half of Lacey's, but the footprint less than a tenth the size. There were apartments over shops, houses where one wall could be on the property line, terraced housing, and dispersed car parks on the edge of town for visitors. I'm pretty sure it was not Eden, but it was a hell of a lot less stressful to navigate than what has grown up around me in this lifetime.

#103 ::: PublicRadioVet ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2007, 01:47 AM:

I'm late to the thread. So if my comments don't take into account everything already said previously, my apologies.

In my experience urban life is fine, if you are single or a DINK. (Double Income, No Kids) My wife and I were DINKs for about ten years, and we lived in the thick of Seattle for many of those years. And enjoyed it.

However, once kids enter into it, you suddenly find apartment living in an urban setting is not all it's cracked up to be. You find yourself longing for additional space, and especially a patch of yard or somewhere outside that is yours and which is not a public park. Somewhere you can build your child a sandbox and a swingset and have it be fenced in for privacy and security. Somewhere you can maybe have a dog and not have to worry about walking it all night and day.

In the case of my wife and I we also dropped to a single income, because my wife said she didn't want to have to work while our daughter was young. So that pretty much got us out of urban Seattle altogether. The city is fucking expensive! At least out here on the West Coast. I think the only place that beats Seattle in terms of terribly high-priced urban living, is probably San Francisco. Maybe NYC?

#104 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2007, 04:38 AM:

JESR @ 102

One of the trends in Portland that gives me some hope for the place* is what's been happening along the light rail lines. On at least three of the lines the areas around the stations have started to build up rather than out in a classic dense suburb pattern. The developments are typically one to two blocks square, with shops and other public accomodations on the bottom floor and apartments on the upper floors.

This is happening not only in Portland and Multnomah County, where most of the long term planning I've been talking about goes on, but in Washington County as well. Washington County is an amalgam of old inner ring suburb, ex-farming land converted to light industry (Intel for instance) or vineyards, and old farm-market towns converted to bedroom communities. The governing style in the county has always been hostile to any sort of rational planning or regulation, heavy on aid to disadvantaged developers and real-estate speculators. The proliferation of high-density development along mass transit lines is counter to that tradition, and therefore encouraging.

It's to be expected that long range planning will be unpopular in most places in the US; it doesn't fit the culture that rose out of the boom mentality of the land speculators in the West especially. But the plan that was completed about four or five years ago for the neighborhood I live in is intended to carry us through to 2030, at which point the population of the area will have quadrupled. I'm just hoping that the interest in planning continues, so that when the inevitable changes in the operating assumptions occur, we can modify the plans appropriately and move on without having to revisit every decision ever made.

* And where public matters are concerned I'm famous as a real Gloomy Gus.

#105 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2007, 09:06 AM:

When I was young, I believed that Forest Hills was the suburbs, and Suffolk County was "The Country". It still colors my perceptions today -- I think of Ulster county as rural, when mostly it's a patchwork of overgrown farms, residential-converted farmland, and some small farms remaining.

I really don't enjoy living in proper suburbia -- to spread out to not drive everywhere, to dense to have privacy or significant greenery, built to the will of developers rather than the needs of the residents.

#106 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2007, 09:22 AM:

#102 "a village we stayed in in England, with bus service every fifteen minutes to York"

You should not assume all English villages have comparable public transport (not that you said anything to suggest you did): the village my mother-in-law used to live in had two buses a week (on the same day - one into the market town in the morning, and one back in the afternoon).
Similarly, years ago I walked a chunk of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path with my then girlfriend. After a week's walking, we wanted to get back to where we had left the car. We got a bus back to Haverford West, and asked "When is the next bus to Dale?" "Thursday". We hitchhiked.

#107 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2007, 10:32 AM:

Since people are talking about the British countryside...

In Robin and Marian, there's a scene after King Richard has died, and Robin and Little John are now free to go back to England. At some point, after much riding thru the countryside, Robin stops his horse on top of a hill and says with great joy...

"There she is."

Was that the real Sherwood Forest? This of course assumes that there was a Sherwood Forest. Whatever that movie's forest was, it was absolutely gorgeous.

#108 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2007, 12:37 PM:

Alan Braggins, I was, indeed, mentioning a case of near perfection; I doubt that bus service along the A697, for another instance from that trip, is anywhere near regular or frequent.

The differences in footprint and mix are pretty general, though; even in lost in the Southern Highlands, when we came to a village, it had a post office/candy store/pub. It was called "Goblin Haw" though and we didn't stop for directions.

#109 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2007, 12:48 PM:

Bruce @104, I've noticed that, especially in Hillsboro (where my spelling is probably failing me again, and I don't have the Oregon atlas to hand at the moment) and the northern bits of Beaverton. The last time we were in Oregon, in March, we stayed at a friend's vineyard in Newberg and went home via the TJs in Lake Oswego, wasted time trying to figure out where the Tigard Powell's had gotten to (Beaverton, we've since been reliably informed) and thence over Corneilus Pass to Joy Creek Nursery and the Lewis and Clark Bridge. The new development along the Sunset Highway corridor was particularly striking.

Unfortunately I haven't seen the same pattern around the eastern end of the Tri Met, although that's probably because that side of the river was already built up in the first wave of suburbanization.

And yes, I'm one of those Evil Washingtonians who makes buying trips to Oregon when sales tax on the purchase exceeds fuel cost, although it's mostly to take advantage of visits to friends houses and trips to Heirloom Roses, Joy Creek, or, back in the day, the Oregon Hardy Plant Society sales.

#110 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2007, 01:44 PM:

I'm in a startlingly child-friendly section of *extremely urban* San Francisco; there are several public and private schools, the local library is always full of teenagers giggling over their homework, there are tiny pocket parks with very nice and carefully maintained play equipment (and rules against unaccompanied adults, which seem to be followed). The condominium we're in was a revelation: I'd previously known stick-built, unloved, short-termer apartments in places that 'wanted' to be suburbs. This building was built for people to raise families and then get old in one place (there are also excellent elder-care organizations). It's as intelligently laid out as a Tumbleweed House, though much larger, and it's solid enough to be *quiet*.

So now I know that very urban places can be pleasant for all stages of life, if designed for it, and if the people there play along.

It's Chinatown, incidentally; so one of the things going for it, sociologically, is that many of the people who moved here came from places that have long since worked out architecture and manners for surviving densely. (Singapore is doing some lovely planning with vertical greenery.) Their children and grandchildren Americanize and move out to the suburbs at nearly the same rate everyone else does.

----

There's a big, giant, dangerous problem with the 'we'll always have sprawl because people really like it' approach to land-use planning. It's the 'and a pony!' problem: of course everyone likes being on their own acre at the end of a good road to town, and always has - but

a) We can't all be at the periphery, and leapfrogging each other probably reduces the average neighborhood pleasantness; and

b) What if we (society) can't afford it? How much gas and farmland does it require?

This is one of the reasons I like the urban/farmland forms I cited way above; they try to maximize transit access and minimize distance to open space, both at once. Villages with good bus-service work that way, in my limited experience; out your front door you're spang among all your neighbors in a tiny square, waiting for the bus, but out your *back* door you walk not very far and can go stare over a hedge at a cow. There's not much more peaceful than staring at a cow someone else takes care of.

#111 ::: Fitzroy ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2007, 02:13 PM:

"There's not much more peaceful than staring at a cow someone else takes care of."

This may be the most profound statement about rural life that I've ever heard, and sums up exactly my attitude to the village I grew up in.

#112 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2007, 02:24 PM:

Fitzroy, from the other side of the fence, there's nothing more nerve wracking than trying to deal with a bovine obsterical emergency with random suburbanites watching.

Although the time the vet was applauded by the roofers working on the apartments across the road was a hoot.

#113 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2007, 02:28 PM:

PublicRadioVet@103 - Seattle is expensive in some ways, and not so expensive in others. Sure, condos right across the street from me are selling for >$550k, yet my rent for a 2 bedroom apartment is less than $1k. Hence, I rent.

It sounds like you were looking for a set of things that work for you and fit your idea of what the setting for raising kids should be. If you actually compared the safety issues of suburban areas and city neighborhoods you'd live in, you might be very surprised at the relative safety as opposed to perceived safety.

Personally, I grew up in a mix of urban apartments and closely-packed houses. (Low-mid density for NYC, about the same density as Seattle neighborhoods like Fremont and Greenwood.) Truth be told, I feel none the worse for it and would happily raise kids in an urban setting. Although the challenge in Seattle is the low-quality school system, not the housing infrastructure.

#114 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2007, 09:49 PM:

#103: I got a "deja vu" feeling reading this. A young guy on NPR was describing a virtually identical scenario. Starting a family would mean moving to the 'burbs. ("Young men in their 30s aren't earning as much as their fathers" is one of the stories of the day.")

#104: Until the middle of last year, there used to be a huge vacant space between the Orenco Station MAX station and the ten year old urban "downtown" of Orenco Station. Over the last few months, a HUGE apartment complex has grown there. Three stories tall, hundreds and hundreds of units, some retail on the first story corner facing Cornell. There's an empty area in the middle; I'm hoping that it is not all parking because the green space around the edges is maybe five feet wide.

#115 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2007, 01:03 AM:

JESR @ 109

And yes, I'm one of those Evil Washingtonians

I, for one, welcome our new evil ... what? Oh, never mind.

You're quite welcome to come back here anytime, especially as you've been so nice as to validate the very nurseries we've gotten so much of our gardens from. At our previous house we planted so many roses from Heirloom that when we'd transplanted what we could to our present house, we gave away a pickup truck full of bushes to our real estate agent because the new owner would have ripped them all out.

You're right about the East side of Portland and Gresham, but there are several other Trimet lines, and a couple of new ones starting construction. The line that runs out to the airport goes through some pretty empty land that's now being developed in the same dense pattern as on the West side.

And, yes, Powell's has moved to Beaverton. I waited before going there because I was told that it would be awhile before they got settled in and had all the books set out. John Scalzi did a signing there a few weeks ago, which gave me a good excuse to go, and even then there were still some exposed utility areas in the ceiling and some temporary bookshelves. So you don't have to feel too bad about missing it; it'll probably be set up by the time you come back for your next visit.

#116 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2007, 01:34 AM:

The Beaverton Powell's has its book buy-back desk right near the Graphic Novel section, which is kind of like putting a crack house right next to a shady pawn shop.

* * *

The MAX Red Line to the Portland Airport was built by Bechtel; part of the deal was getting a chunk of land to develop. Cascade Station, I think it's called. The station is there, and the MAX train dutifully stops at it, but there's nothing around it. In fact, the platform is surrounded by a fence.

I like that. It's kind of SFish: What is that fence keeping out?

#117 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2007, 02:21 AM:

Bruce @115, oh, lord, another Heirloom addict; I go down every August for the clearance sale, and, when available, buy orphan roses. Some people go to Reno...

The only thing about Powell's having moved was that we wasted time looking for it's new location and, as is somehow our rule, showed up at Joy Creek ten minutes before closing. I've perfected speed shopping there, since I rarely have more time than that. And I still haven't found the excellent out-of-print Golden Field Guide To North American Mammals I was looking for to give to my nephew. Powell's is pretty much unparalleled for such titles, especially since Flora and Fauna books has moved from Pioneer Square and out to the Discovery Park neighborhood and thence, for my purposes, become less accessible than Beaverton.

When gas was cheaper, we spent a lot of time in the Portland area; my husband still takes the train down at irregular intervals to sit in on friends' shows at KBOO.

#118 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2007, 03:09 AM:

Stefan @ 116 - I wondered about that. I though it was odd that nobody got on or off, and that the station seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. I expect that Bechtel will install a coal-fired nuclear fuel reprocessing plant there, staffed entirely by day-laborers imported from desperately poor countries.

#119 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2007, 06:54 AM:

Serge @ 107:
Was that the real Sherwood Forest? This of course assumes that there was a Sherwood Forest. Whatever that movie's forest was, it was absolutely gorgeous.

There was and still is a real Sherwood Forest, in Nottinghamshire. What's officially called Sherwood Forest these days is a rather tiny remnant of what it presumably was in the Middle Ages-- only 1000 acres or so.

IMDB says Robin and Marian was filmed in northern Spain....

#120 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2007, 10:26 AM:

Craig, #10: Thanks. Fixed. Apologies for not noticing this earlier!

#121 ::: Nancy C ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2007, 12:51 PM:

Does this heirloom roses place have a web presence?

JESR, I have picked my roses to grow: Rose de Rescht, Autumn Fire, and the York and Lancaster roses. I also have a book on growing roses organically. All I need is to figure out where to buy the plants!

#122 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2007, 01:04 PM:

They're here but I'll write to my friend the Vermont Nurserywoman and see if I can find a NE source for you.

#123 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2007, 01:44 AM:

PRVet, #103: you may find that once your children become teenagers, both you and they may wish for somewhere more urban. I'm told that the whole business of driving your teenagers everywhere gets old.

#124 ::: James Nicoll ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2007, 09:48 AM:

Bah! I used to bicycle 20 miles into town and it built character and a fine eye as to how fast I needed to be going to escape the packs of territorial dogs. There's no need to drive kids anywhere, although you want to have enough that the occasional bit of natural selection does not truncate your line.

#125 ::: Julia Kosatka ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2007, 01:32 AM:

I live in Houston. As in, inside the Loop (about as inner city as you can get in this behemoth). Six or eight years ago, I could cut through downtown on my way home (8 mile commute) and downtown would be *empty*. I half expected to see tumbleweeds (not that we have any here). Since then, we've experienced what I call "suburban flight". Suddenly, people started wanting to move into the city proper. Now there are condos and townhouses and lofts scattered all through downtown. Stores and restaurants and clubs moved in. Two major sporting facilities (baseball and basketball) are smack downtown now with a soccer stadium being discussed. There are two malls, a movie theater (not to mention the growing theater district), an aquarium and an amusement park. We've got our first rail line with more planned (and fought over - deal with it, folks, we need it). An area down on lower Main has been cut off to traffic and turned into pedestrian space. While it's annoying to find all these interlopers in MY EMPTY CITY, it's very nice to see that even a city that grew up in the car heavy post-war era can grow to include people. I'd live downtown in a split second if I could afford it. Sadly, I will probably have to move out when I retire in a few years since I doubt I'll be able to afford it any more. But no way will I get trapped in suburban hell if I can avoid it. If I could find a spot just outside the loop I could afford, I'd settle there, but the Belt's too far out for me and it looses all the flavor of my hometown. So, barring finding a place like that, I'll end up in a town somewhere, maybe outside of Austin, if I can afford that.

#126 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2007, 04:37 PM:

James & Serge, #17-18: I think you're misremembering slightly. IIRC, it wasn't "a human population equal in mass to the earth," it's that they were about to reach the point where all the animal life that the planet could support was in the form of humanity. Which is quite a different thing, and is much more likely for Asimov to have written. If pressed, I could go find my copy and check, but I'm feeling lazy at the moment.

#127 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2007, 05:07 PM:

Larry, #63: Rural living - great for some, but not for me. I hate walking into a country store and being treated like I have six arms because I'm not from the immediate area.

Indeed. And in many parts of rural America, I just plain don't feel safe -- too many of the words that describe me have been so demonized by the Christianists that I'd seriously need to worry about Uneasy Rider syndrome if I were there longer than it takes to pass thru on the way to somewhere else. People who talk about how much "safer" a small-town or rural environment is have never been The Outsider in such a locale.

Give me my nice safe cities any day. There are things I can do to protect myself from people who only want to take what I have. Against those who hate me for who I am, there is no effective deterrent.

#128 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2007, 05:28 PM:

Julia, #125: You might try looking over by us, in the area around 610 and 290. It's outside the Loop, so prices aren't absolutely sky-high yet, but it's still very convenient to get to pretty much anything we need. And nothing on our street flooded during Allison!

BTW, if you'd like to get together for lunch or coffee sometime, drop me an e-mail.

#129 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2007, 08:15 PM:

Lee @426

You recall correctly. The story is called "2430" and the limit was indeed the amount of animal mass that could be supported by the planet (or more specifically by the maximum amount of plant mass).

#130 ::: Gabrielle ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2009, 02:11 PM:

Well, that is better isn't it?

Choose:
Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.