Muddling 2.0: The only constant is “change”


One of my first reflections is the demographics of land use and transportation as they change over time, in general and in no specific place, but for now, I would think in terms of the US. The land use and transportation are of course strong forces on the built environment and its inhabitants (population). The built environment though has a permanence (rarely does a freeway get uprooted like in Portland, and schools usually last decades at least, as well as most of the housing stock), I think, that is more lasting than the demographics, in general. I mean to say that the rate of change (any kind of popular metric in research, such as age distribution in demography and Housing stock or number of miles of rail or expressway lanes) in the built environment I would think would be slower than in the demographics- war/terrorism and natural disasters aside as one possible rapid change in the built environment. [This reflection is focused more on rates of growth than rates of decline, and without empirical evidence I realize is pure conjecture]

At a more local level, these rates of change may both be “speedy” in growth or decline. One example would be any boom-burb/city), that its built environment has grown rather quickly, but likely coinciding with the change in demographics. I am not suggesting that if total built environment metric is 5% and the population metric increases is 5%, that they are concordant, I would think there is no symmetry in that, so “rate of change” is meant generally and qualitatively. I think when the rates of change are close in magnitude of change it is politically easier to make plans and policies and implement them, but only terms of making any changes. However, when the demographics of the city are growing slower as compared to the built environment, I think we have our common problems in planning, such as getting consensus and finding funding.

That is to say when there is such rapid change in either the built environment or demographics (of course these two concepts are interconnected, but do not necessarily move in the same directions) the public may be more willing to go with changes offered by planners, as they may seem needed solutions. But when the rates are discordant, then I think planners have a problem getting those “best laid plans made”.

So, is it ideal to be in a position of rapid change? Who knows? But there are some serious challenges! Especially in forecasting, you have a shorter time window to assess needs, and develop plans, and hopefully plans that work well in the near term and beyond. A slower changing city while politically more contentious, may also allow more time to assess needs and make incremental changes. Also the homogeneity of the values of the city will decline, and the issues of plurality will increase beyond some population size, my premise is drawn from George Simmel’s work on the effects of the Second Industrial Revolution in urban areas. But the fast changing city will not have time to indulge incremental changes, and may need quick and large changes.

Peter Gordon’s article “Settlement patterns in the U.S. and Canada: Similarities and differences- Policies or Preferences?” I once quipped in my Land Use and Management class, “Smart Growth? How would that be different from Smart Sprawl?” At the time I just thought it was a funny thing to say, and quite glib on my part. Now, I am starting think that I may have been on to something! Sprawl became a “bad word”. My favorite local Punk-Ska band in Houston was a bunch of Rice students who named themselves SPRAWL. Having grown up in the quasi-suburbs I thought Sprawl was bad, but I did not know why. I think maybe we are attributing up stream factors such as inequality, economic and racial segregation, etc. to a space, the suburbs, and a process Sprawl, but what good does that do? If Sprawl is just a reflection of society and the down stream result of up stream factors, then stemming Sprawl would do very little to affect the up stream factors! The proposed policies to stem Sprawl are not without costs, and maybe it might be more cost effective to consider other policies if the real motivation is to affect a social issue such as inequality or racism. I am not for unbridled growth, but maybe we have bought into a political statement, rather than a worthwhile research or policy area; and need to rethink this line of inquiry. I think one person’s Smart Growth may be another’s Smart Sprawl.

Gordon and Lee describe Sprawl as “auto-oriented development”. That may be a good idea, to more clearly state what is meant by Sprawl, rather than a “slogan”. Gordon and Lee also imply counter factual claims on the part of planners opposing Sprawl. An example would be, ‘a World Bank study concluded that if Atlanta could be remade into Boston, its annual VMT would fall by 25%’. Gordon and Lee note that between 1990 and 2000 that Boston metro area grew by 6.7% and Atlanta metro area grew by 38.9%. It is not clear to what actually grew, population, the actual area? Gordon and Lee are actually a little vague through out the article. But I think what is important to note, is that Canada and European countries are dealing with suburbanization and exurbanization and the European counties tend to have more extensive mass transportation and more density, but are still Sprawling.

Gordon and Lee are trying to make the case that free land markets can work, and that personal preferences are an over riding determinant, more so than government policies. I am willing to go along with the idea that, much more is going on than opponents of Sprawl are admitting to, but I am not sure that Gordon and Lee have made their case in terms of preferences and that it is better to let the market decide land use. They have cherry picked examples that support their theory; they quote Hayek and other welfare economists and throw in at the end the issue of “perfect knowledge”. Also, what is the measure for ‘better’, that is how do we measure a planning or policy outcome as ‘better’, when there is no consensus on the goals to be achieved. Gordon and Lee prefer personal preferences be expressed. Opponents of Sprawl may prefer to address inequity. We are still “muddling through”, we are just much more sophisticated in the ways in which we muddle.

Old quotes that come to mind…

Heraclitus– “You cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever

flowing in upon you.”

Lucretius- “What is food to one, is to others bitter poison.”

Confucious- “In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”

David Hume-Men often act knowingly against their interest.

Karl Popper-Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification.”


Gordon, P and Lee, B. “Settlement patterns in the U.S. and Canada: Similarities and Differences- Policies or Preferences? Keynote address presented at the 26th Australian Transport Research Forum. October 3, 2003. Tables.


2 responses to “Muddling 2.0: The only constant is “change”

  1. Ginzu, I am going to write about this on mine in the next few days because it doesn’t exactly respond to your piece but has an odd relationship to it (requires more than a comment box)…will link to you as inspiration. But one note is that you refer to Canada having greater density and more public transportation. Maybe in some places but in Edmonton the mass transit is a joke if you live anywhere off the mainlines and I think we are very much a sprawl city and not particularly amassed. We might be an exception but…

  2. I take your point, I was using poor sentence structure and clarified what I meant to say. Thansk for catching that. My point was more about how Canada and Europe are both Sprawling. American planners seem to think it only happens here-not so. As you have well pointed out to me and in earlier discussions not posted here.

    I thought this post might strike your fancy 🙂

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