Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Future: Green Sprawl

Andrew D Atkin:

If you want people to become environmentalist's, then the best thing you can do is have them grow up within and amongst the natural world. Then they won't be able to help themselves.


You believe that sprawl is bad. You believe that cars are bad. You believe that public transport is good, or better. You believe that urban rail is efficient. You believe that compact cities are good, or better. You believe there's not enough land. You believe it's natural for house prices to just keep going up, and UP. And you believe that people who wear the environmental badge are, surely, always the good guys?

Well reader, it is and long has been all bullshit. Please read on.


The only images we ever seem to get presented to the general public of the dreaded SPRAAAAAWL are the ones designed to make sprawl look like an environmental apocalypse, where sprawl is supposed to seem like something engineered by the devil himself. But what we are never told by the modern planning saints (who are here to do God's work and force us all into high-density apartments - er, excluding themselves) is that urbanisation in New Zealand is a mere 1 part in 150 of the land area. And globally, maybe less than 1 part in 100.

But the truth is sprawl is not only environmentally benign, it can be environmentally beneficial. The following image gives a simple way of demonstrating my point. We can call it "Green Sprawl". It's drawn (barbarically) to make the point of how green-sprawl property development could work. There is of course no end to the different possible styles of development, but the image gives you the core theme anyway.

Imagine housing development that sprawls out more like a spider-web than a concentrated cluster; covering huge areas, if you like. Everyone's back yard extends out to a forest (well it would certainly look and feel that way), with all kinds of plants and trees all around you. Yet strategically planted so residence can still have the sun on their porches. Imagine all you can hear is the wind and natural sounds, because the transport system supporting your development is near-silent and electric. And your privacy, as you might want it, is almost total.


The transport system can be exceptionally efficient because there's no stop-and-go operation from using largely one-way flow-off/on infrastructure, and it can use fully automated cars. Most of the cars can be for single occupancy only (if it's network-based - it would be). Also, it can be mostly run on solar to keep people happy who believe in problematic AGW.

If power-supply for houses is a little more costly because the development's are so spread out, then all you have to do is fairly step-up the price. In response to this, people can (and will) do things like install good insulation, use pressure-cookers for food, employ ground-based heat-pumps, LED lighting, and a bit of clever technology with showering systems etc. All these things can more than eliminate this concern.

Worried about pipelines? People can turn their human waste into fertiliser if need be (use a compost toilet), and catch their water off the roof. Especially in water-rich countries like New Zealand.

So no problem. Rational price pressures will naturally drive housing and lifestyle design, and with good environmental effect. Great, super ecologically-sound resort-style living.

Distance efficiency:

Imagine I got a typical city, say Christchurch, New Zealand, and stretched it out like a piece of chewing gum to cover 4x the area (and filled in the difference with plants)...

The effect of this would be that you double the distances between the stops, because area increases by the square of the distance. So how would that affect the fuel bill and travel time? Maybe an increase of just ~20% because cruising a little longer between the stops means little in a typical urban environment, in terms of transport costs. Most of the time and energy revolves around having to constantly re-accelerate your vehicle - stop-and-go is the curse of transport inefficiency in an urban environment. This is part of the reason why low-density cities are typically just as -and if not more- efficient in terms of transport costs than typical high-density cities.

Another factor comes from the fact that when cities sprawl out, key services follow them. So new transport demand becomes largely localised to the fringes, likewise resisting the development of severe congestion in a growing city so typical of high-density cities.

The "tyranny of distance" is further numbed with the potentials of telecommuting, and full-automation transport technology (as previously commented on). In particular, with full-automation there is the opportunity for unmanned 'micro-cars' than can conveniently post any given item to your door, from the moment you make your order. This is coming (example). 
So how much of a problem will travel be when you don't have to travel at all?

As you can see, reader, we can well afford to spread out - even dramatically.

What if?

Now imagine if the entire world embraced Green Sprawl, similar to how I have described it, and eventually covered not 1% but more like 10% of the entire earths surface with spider-web style property development*. Would this be the end of the world?...you know, the hideous blight of the evil homo sapien who, unlike all other animals, has no business living with nature and should just damn well get back in his zoo? Nope. The opposite. In fact from an environmental outlook I would say that the more we spread out the better.

The environment enjoyed and loved by people, directly, is the environment that will surely be most well defended. And especially with respect to the people who are lucky enough to grow up in it. Indeed, look at how people so consistently say "Not in my back yard!" when someone tries to build a home in their leafy view.


So why not? I mean how on earth can we justify forcing people out of nature and into a "human zoo" against their will? Is it not so wrong that only the rich should be able to do what humans have done since the beginning of time, and live amongst the greenery? And to say - did you know that astronauts in space stations begin to suffer from serious depression when they don't get to work on the plant experiments? The need for greenery is in our genes!

One rationalisation I have come across, to justify killing the sprawl option, is the [erroneous] claim that humans are more productive when forced to live like battery chickens. Shall I decode the reasoning for you? "We planners hereby declare that we have the right to relate to the people's of our city as though they are our personal resource, and we therefore choose to force-create the conditions that will drive OUR people to work harder and likewise produce more".

This kind of reasoning literally moves in the direction of slavery. This is the sort of thing that happens when people get lost in their political positions, and begin to interpret their power as entitlement rather than responsibility.

To take a more detailed look at the twisted reasoning behind forcing people out of the greenery, and into the concrete, see here.


*Massive green cities, from green sprawl, would actually be the among the most biodiverse and life-dense places on earth, second only to the coral reefs and rain forests. True environmentalists (not people-hating communists dressed in green drag) should love it.


Addition: 3-4-13

Green Sprawl: A model design:

I had a think about how green sprawl would form in practice, and the following diagram gives you my best guess and design suggestion. 

I doubt houses, generally, will be built in scattered or grid form. Scattered ultra-low density housing (which mimics a true rural atmosphere) creates an excessively isolated feeling, and grid-style housing creates an institutional pea-in-the-pod feeling. In both scenarios the houses are left without a feeling of "place", which I believe is important to make a home feel good. A home needs to be part of a family of houses. To preserve a neighborhood feel, you need to build them in clusters, mimicking the private cul-de-sac.

The model presented is a very low-density version of my ideal, originally presented in my club economies article.

The green represents rugged plant life, the orange the houses, the blue the one-way road network, and the orange fine-lined areas represent the walkways. And the white represents private garden and lawn.

The houses, in my ideal, would tend to be 2-story though maybe quite narrow (like a town house). This would provide an elevated deck that looks out onto the housing clusters, from a "safe perch", while saving space in a practical way. I can't explain why exactly, but I think this would have a really good feel to it. It gives you the friendly, sociable atmosphere of a (well designed) town-house setting in the front, and the truly private and essentially rural (lifestyle) atmosphere out the back. Note that people's houses can provide an important three-dimensional* contrast, for an interesting view. It can feel rather barren to look out at nothing but green nature. 

Note: However, one thing to be careful with, with 2-story houses, is designing them so that people do not have immediate neighbours looking down on them in their backyards. Privacy is so important for a relaxed feeling. This might require rules in developments that ensure that people who build 2-story structures only use textured windows (that don't open) or skylights for certain upstairs rooms. I would imagine this would be fine for rooms such as bedrooms and bathrooms.

The road-network would support an electric transport system that is fully automated, and the roads would only need to be about 2-meters wide - virtually just a footpath. Though it would require a system such as ULTra to begin with, it would be designed so that later on a go-anywhere full-automation transport system can replace the ULTra-type system (which would be inevitable).

The walkways would be little more than a dirt track, and in some areas literally a dirt track. This is all they need to be as the electric transport system can be used by anyone, as required. Street lighting would be reduced to actively lit LED's embedded in the ground, which are cheap and provide for a much more pleasant atmosphere at night, as compared to powerful overhead lighting.

Developments built on purely flat land are notoriously boring and sterile. Hence, it could be a good idea to artificially break up the land with gentle hills, wherever required. This sounds expensive but it wouldn't be; the distance between the peaks and troughs only needs to be about 3-5 meters to kill that flat-land sterility. The roading would not be significantly more expensive because it is single-lane and narrow, making it economical to integrate with shallow slopes. Also, with excavation for slopes you can also look at building artificial ponds. 

The roads would be curved (for interest) with super-elevating, making it comfortable and efficient. Typically, the transport speed would be about 30km/h max, with no stop and go, making energy costs a moot concern. Note: When you halve the transport speed, energy consumption drops to a quarter (in electric systems).

These developments, when built at scale, would probably support collectively-owned private facilities. In some ways it would feel more like a holiday park than traditional suburbia...but why not? If it feels better and works better, and saves you from having to buy your own gym, tennis court and pool, etc, then it makes sense. Full-automation transport connects you to standard facilities so efficiently that it makes sense.

Also, as a suggestion, I think it could be a good idea to have an exclusive small vegetable farm, maybe permaculture, and an orchid, collectively owned as part of the master facility. This secures an excellent base for fresh food protected from the variant status of the wider market, and gives you food that you have control over. (You don't have to negotiate with corporate's to not put frog genes in it, etc).

*You need objects in both the foreground and background for a really pleasant view. Otherwise your far-looking view starts to become a "distant postcard", which has a somewhat redundant effect. 


Now that's what I call a backyard. Lawn surrounded my rugged plants - my favorite effect. Everyone in New Zealand should be able to afford a backyard like this, not just the rich. And imagine how immersive it would be if you can't hear any traffic, due to the virtues of small-scale electric transport. 

This is the future because this is what most people want, and we now have the practical tools to give it to them.


Legislating for Green Sprawl:

If 0.8% of New Zealand is really too much for urbanisation, then we can legislate for Green Sprawl and achieve the exact same effect as densification in terms of not paving over anything.

You simply create some rules along the lines of the following:


10% land area for roading.
10% land area for housing.
20% land area for lawns.


60% land area for garden and forest.
1 bedroom per 200 square meters.

Give that rule to developers so that they'll be forced to build within those parameters. The result will be either high-density development concentrated over a small area, or low-density development but with houses that tend to be 2-storey and have either no road going directly to the houses (for the last 20 meters or so from the road) or housing developed with new transport systems, etc. 

Either way, you avoid what some may consider excessive paving-over of the earth, and you do it without taking away the option of detached housing, and without artificially creating crazy high land prices.

The rules would be a bit more complex than that of course, but if these so-called environmentalists are for real, then this is the sort of thing they can and should do to achieve the ends they claim to want to achieve.

But of course they are not for real. They have been indoctrinated into a given planning ideology which is long discredited and morally disgraceful, and they can longer second-guess their group-reinforced beliefs. They are pathetic.

....Following on


  1. Andrew,

    Sprawls negative connotations I've always believed stems from the fact that it represents a choice in living arrangements that galls city planners to no end. I think your idea of 'green sprawl' already exists in many cities like Atlanta, where the population density is extremely low. It lacks the design and the resource allocation that yours has, one still has the ability to live amoungst the trees and greenery.

    Planners and enviromentalist love to point to NYC as the ideal model of living but you couldn't convince any of these people to go beneath the streets of these cities to examine and/or the infrustructure required to keep such a behemoth running.

  2. vandiver49:

    It does exist in all different kinds of forms. The biggest problem is that it has been so aggressively demonised. Most people have no idea that the human footprint has basically nothing to do with houses. My goal is to 'ram' that point home in the most accessible and efficient way I can (for those new to the issue in particular), to create a 'counter-vision' to show the madness of forcing people into high-density cities against their will. It cannot be justified on literally any level. Forced urban intensification, like we see in New Zealand, is devastating and frankly it is just disgusting.

  3. what about the fact that you are fragmenting eco-systems and destroying habitats?
    have you done your ecological research on what is required to sustain the native flora and fauna in this country? about what is required to prevent any further loss in biodiversity.
    its not as black and white as you make it sound....

    1. Habitat? The model is for new green-towns on land that is/was a farm.

  4. I like this. Can we please have a permaculture overlay with a Haikai Tane-style water-management aspect as well?
    Either way, your proposal is superior environmentally to both cities and the sort of 'green desert' pastoral farmland we have here in NZ.

    1. Thanks. My goal is to show that with modern design and tools we can really can have our cake and eat it too!

  5. I totally agree with Green Sprawl. I don't want to buy an unjustifiably expensive apartment in the middle of congested chaos. I want to live with nature.