Saturday, December 13, 2008

Book: Drosscape

Drosscapes: Wasting Land in Urban America
Alan Berger
This book is exquisitely well crafted and tremendously revealing of the extend to which the American landscape is wasted.

Cities in the United States are characterized by wasted spaces in city center as well as in the periphery. The origins of these wasted spaces are the in-between areas left by aggressive horizontal development and areas left over from previous economic regimes (post-industrial landscape).

There are three archetypes of wasted space:
  • Waste: solid waste, scrap metal, landfill
  • Wasted: abandoned or contaminated
  • Wasteful: vast parking lots, buffer zones
Pro- and anti- sprawl ideals are obsolete, because sprawl is the reality planners must work with now. Rather than thinking negatively about rapid horizontal development (sprawl) it should be seen as an opportunity for redevelopment.

The Drosscape manifesto is then to reuse the waste. The stage is set for designing with waste landscape. Designers must look for the undervalued and overlooked margins and employ inventiveness to make their plans.

Important Themes

The production of waste landscape
Manufacturing in the United States has been on the decline since 1950 leaving relics of industry within the center city. The industrial core is thus devalued and slips into a derelict state. Adaptively reusing this waste landscape is now a great design challenge.

Furthermore, citizens no longer need to live in compact urban areas to be close to their factory job. With the internet, there is no geography; a citizen can work from anywhere. So, urbanization now is a choice instead of a necessity.

Fordism: Rationality of the car society
The United States' landscape is built on the scale of an automobile instead of a human. The effect is that while the population is growing and the urbanized area is growing, the urbanized area density of persons per area is decreasing. This means more surface area for fewer people.

From the ground, a pedestrian finds vacant strips, seas of parking lots, unused land, warehouses, and empty perimeters around development. It looks poorly planned, poorly maintained, and is not enticing to walk through.

Types of waste landscape
  • Waste Landscape of Dwelling: Voids of land designed into housing developments.
  • Waste Landscape of Transition: Developers' holding lots in new-growth regions, sometimes used as storage facilities.
  • Waste Landscape of Infrastructure: Areas associated with infrastructure such as between the highway lanes, under transmission lines, or around gas tanks.
  • Waste Landscape of Obsolescence: The landscape of where the products of a consumer society go to die, such as landfills, junkyards, and scrap yards.
  • Waste Landscape of Exchange: Dead shopping space, created by 'Demalling'. 440 regional indoor malls are abandoned or dying, leaving behind huge empty spaces and parking lots.
  • Waste Landscape of Contamination: Airports, dump sites, ammunition depots. 1,300 sites are awaiting Superfund cleanup and reclamation.
Role of the urban designer
There are profits and opportunities within the wasted landscape. Some businesses, such as Home Depot (a chain hardware store), actively seek contaminated sites to build new stores on because contaminated land has a higher rate of return than clean land.

Opportunities can be found in government incentives, such as the Federal Superfund, to clean up and reuse Brownfields. It should be noted that Brownfields are not systematically mapped, but are rather discovered in the early stages of development, so there are many more than are currently known.

Alan Berger contends that cities should claim the right to reclaim vacant and derelict lots for redevelopment.


Push-pull out of the city: Rationality of the family unit
Many factors pushed families out of the cities and into the surrounding towns. These included inner-city low quality of education, high crime rates, high property taxes, few housing options, and greater amount of air pollution. These repellents must be addressed before revitalization of city centers can be attractive. Meanwhile, an opportunity for better quality of education, the 'garden city' suburban lifestyle, and quieter neighborhoods draw families into the country side.

Negative effects of wasted landscapes
The negative financial and health impacts of poor planning have been exposed by the 2008 credit crisis and high rates of depression and obesity in the suburban United States. In reaction, there has been a push action to slow down horizontal development, such as the New Urbanism Congress and Smart Growth legislation.

Urban sprawl is economically unsustainable. Suburban home purchases on barely qualified credit played no small role in the current global financial crisis. The epicenter of the U.S. foreclosure crisis can be found on the metro fringes. The home buyers who took on variable-rate or interest-only mortgages along with long commutes into their workplace by means of a car found themselves caught in a double bind of too much debt.

The government could save millions on public infrastructure, such as power, water, sewerage, schools and hospital services if development occurred close to central business districts rather than on the city’s fringe. Funding used to build additional infrastructure on the fringe is nothing more than a subsidy to developers.

Transportation costs are also on the rise. The old economy of car dependence is over; with rising oil prices it is not affordable to live in outer suburbs and drive to work.

Spreading cities creates a society dependent upon the automobile. This in turn creates pollution, injuries and death from traffic, mental stress, and a decrease in physical activity.

The US has the fewest percentage of trips in developed areas taken by walking and bicycling which leads to a decline in public health. One-third of US neighborhoods are without sidewalks and less than half of US children have a playground within walking distance of home.
“Most Americans live in suburban habitats that are isolating, disaggregated, and neurologically punishing… This pervasive situational loneliness, of being stuck alone in your car, alone in your work cubicle, alone in your apartment, alone at the supermarket, alone at the video rental shop – that’s how American daily life has come to be organized…” (Frumkin, 2004)
Sprawl not only reduces the opportunity of regular exercise, an important anti-depressant, it also limits opportunities of interpersonal contact, which aggravates social isolation.

Spatial planning policy in the Netherlands versus the United States
The planner's role in the Netherlands is a balancing act between different forces which seems to create an ongoing conversation. The National government, municipal government, stakeholders, environmentalists, businesses, and local citizens can play a part in shaping decisions. The planning process is highly legislated and thereby controlled. The results of this approach are easy to see. The cities remain compact, livable, and centered around public transportation hubs. Farmland and nature are preserved against market demands for increased housing. When new housing is required, the National government specifies the building location.

Conversely, in the United States, planning is only governed by the local town (municipality) with minimal overarching power from higher governments. The town planning boards are left to act withing their own self interest. In the resultant delegislated planning environment, towns are somewhat powerless against market forces; they must plan for economic survival. In many cases, planning for survival entails propagating leapfrog business parks and low-density housing on 1-2 acre lots.

An important piece of the this puzzle concerns local government funding, which is almost exclusively from property taxes. From the property taxes comes funding for all schools, including elementary, middle, and high schools. Compact housing and apartments are avoided because they create more children to be educated on less land than low density housing on more land.

The Boston Globe reported on the connection between spatial planning policy and house prices in an article “Priced Out”:
Local officials say the added property tax from a new house - particularly anything short of the supersized ''McMansions" that are in favor with so many zoning boards - does not cover the added education costs that come with children in those homes. That claim often lies at the root of the endless maneuvers by Massachusetts communities to keep out new residential development in general, and homes that could house schoolchildren in particular.

Local land-use policies ''have become very anti-child," says John Clifford, town administrator of Marshfield. ''The general consensus is, any subdivision that could bring children to town will negatively impact the town's finances. For a state that is losing population and losing younger population, that is a pretty damaging view."(Jonas, 2006)
Business parks and shopping are highly desirable by towns because they generate property tax revenue but produce no children. Located outside of city center, these business parks fuel non-metropolitan population growth, buffer zones, and car transportation.

Instead of a planning conversation like the Netherlands cultivates, the United States engages in a planning monologue in which the only actor speaking is money.

Power struggle
In the United States there is a three-tiered hierarchy of spatial planning power. First, the Federal Government has very limited control over the individual states. This power is only to maintain federally owned land and federal highways. Second, the States have some power such as building codes and lawmaking which can impact land use. Third, the town directly controls land use by means of the zoning board.

One single town on its own does not have the power to promote smart growth except at the town's own economic detriment. Due to this, some States have experimented with Smart Growth land use laws, such as educational subsidies provided for towns which zone for high density housing. For the town, this can be seen as either empowering the land use board to make positive decisions or stripping the town of its autonomy.

In Massachusetts, the Smart Growth land use laws (Code 40R, 2006) are too controversial to be effective and very little change has been inflicted on land use. The problem lies within the interpretation of the Smart Growth laws. The State interprets Smart Growth as an avenue towards sustainable growth. The Town planning boards interpret Smart Growth as an agent usurping power within town borders. For example, if a town in Massachusetts declares a Smart Growth area, any development which matches the Smart Growth codes has legal right to build, with or without the Town planner's consent. The result has been very little implementation of the 2006 Smart Code laws, despite the good will of the State. The following is an example the power struggle:
Framingham, for instance, has been very open to affordable housing, and several years ago approved zoning changes to allow residential development in the downtown business district. That would seem to make the community a perfect candidate for the new 40R zoning. But Framingham planning director Kathy Bartolini wants no part of it.

Her biggest objection is that once a smart-growth district is approved, any development proposal that conforms to 40R's guidelines on density and affordable housing can be built ''by right," with the local community given very little say over what happens within the district's boundaries. ''It's either their way or the highway," says Bartolini. ''I don't know of too many communities that will even contemplate this." (Jonas, 2006)
For any new Smart Growth regulation to seriously take hold and make progress, it must appease both the State power who desires more sustainable communities and the Town power which wants to maintain autonomy as well as high property tax revenue.

American cities are rotting from the inside while families and businesses look further into the countryside where land is still cheap. Factors limiting how far afield from the city development can reach long ago dissolved in the de-industrialized, Fordian environment. Town planners on their own are not powerful enough to stop the expansion. The State or even Federal government must create incentives and/or penalties strong enough to repair the inner-cities while preserving nature and productive land.

Critical Review

Drosscape is a to-do list for an aspiring urban planner. The waste landscapes presented in Drosscape represent holes in the city awaiting adaptive reuse. As a sustainable urban planner, these areas are the highest priority. The game is to find economically competitive ways to turn dead areas into lively communities.

Lessons learned?
Urban sprawl is not good or bad, for this generation it is a starting place.

If you are interested in working in urban planning in the United States, it is a must read. Otherwise, it is a warning for the unwanted results of market based spatial planning.

Berger, A. (2006). Drosscapes.
Frumkin, H. (2004).Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning, and Building for Healthy Communities.
Jonas, M. (2006). Priced Out, The Boston Globe.