The New Paradigm

(I’m going to submit this Letter to the Editor of “Planning Magazine,” the organ of the American Planning Organization – I realize that makes me sound like an angry old crackpot sitting in my basement hoping somebody will listen to me…..well actually, that’s it isn’t it? I’ll let you know if they publish it)

 While reading the October edition of “Planning Magazine,” I was struck by how much hadn’t changed in its coverage of the world. There were articles about large-scale master planning projects, housing developments, long range plans, etc. Why, it’s as if the world hasn’t changed at all, and the thread we were holding will be found again.

That world was one of high energy use, unrecognized costs, and high debt. Cheap oil led to cheap energy, which meant that distance, height, and building materials were of no concern. That world didn’t demand that we account for our impact on the environment and climate. And since everything was cheap and we could ignore costs, there was plenty of money to lend. All this created the building boom that we witnessed over the last 60 years, and with it a need for planners as we’ve come to know them.

Cheap energy, unrecognized costs, and debt enabled the creation of the consumer economy. Because things were cheap, because essentially there was no tomorrow, we felt free to create a culture of waste.

That world is over.


Today we live in a world where energy is getting ever more expensive, that all costs (or externalities as economists call them) must be accounted for, and where debt is scarce. Peak oil means that the use of all other carbon fuels have peaked as well – coal doesn’t come out of the ground and make it to the incinerator without oil being involved first. Climate change and other environmental limits threaten our very existence. Both are combining to thwart unlimited growth, which means that debt will be ever harder to sustain.

The upshot is that status quo planning is completely out of date. Instead of discussing new building projects, we need to rapidly retro-fit our existing suburban areas. We need to change the laws that make criminals of those who would sell produce from their yards, or who would run a business out of their home. Instead of comprehensive plans whose goal is to get us to a genteel future, we need to be laying the foundations for a food-based economy. Instead of worrying about what type of house is best – McMansion or Not-So-Big – we need to find ways to suitably house people in existing buildings. Instead of mega building projects on the suburban fringe, we need to be analyzing our existing storm water system to determine how well it can take increased torrential storms brought on by climate change.


And instead of fiddling with our traffic system – the largest, and ultimately the most wasteful, engineering project in history – we need to be planning for a future where we get most of our energy from the sun in the form of PV, wind, biomass, and waves. Renewable energy, not traffic management, must be our primary focus. Automobile congestion will soon be a thing of the past. (Ha, remember that the next time a candidate for office says they will “fix” traffic – nature is going to do it for us, no thanks to them)

The consumer economy isn’t coming back. We are not simply in a lull. This isn’t a prediction, certainly not a hope. This is simply a rational understanding of what’s happening around us. The low energy, full cost, no debt future is here. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t what we wanted. It doesn’t matter that it ain’t fair. Pretending otherwise will only make it harder for ourselves and our children to adapt – and ultimately thrive.

Planning as a profession as we’ve known it must change with the realities or else it will be a dead art by quarter-century.



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2 responses to “The New Paradigm

  1. I have an MLA degree framed on my wall. For the most part, our profession too suffers from the same cheap oil-infused (or is it confused?) myopia. Our practitioners may gussy up some places here and there with ‘native flora’ and ‘reclaim’ a wetland now and then, but there is no vision that embraces a diminished resource future. Most of the folks I talk to are still dreaming Disney dreams.

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