This Sunday, I’ll hop on my bicycle at home, where we live in a charming neighborhood of older tract houses with grass lawns and flower gardens. I’ll zip down a trail beside a freeway into Redmond, the home city for Microsoft, and enter the 640 acre Marymoor park to arrive at the start of a Cascade Bicycle Club ride. A hundred or so other riders will have driven or ridden in from the surrounding urban areas, most travelling for less than thirty minutes. We’ll ride up a hill dotted with homes that all have land – mostly about an acre each, down the backside of that hill, and through farmland and small towns, returning to the park after riding about 60 miles.
This is possible because Washington State, and then our county (King County, which includes Seattle) did a great job of land use planning. In 1990, the state passed the Growth Management Act (GMA), which is designed to push urban dwellers together, reduce sprawl, save farmland, and preserve open spaces and vital waterways.
The joke is that we passed the GMA because the Californians were coming, and we saw what they did to California, and didn’t want them to mess up Washington, too.
Earlier in this blog series, I established that whether we like it or not, humanity as a collective has chosen to own pretty much all of the land. We’re using most of it. We use it for cities, suburban housing, livestock, food crops, and public utility like parks and national forest, roads, and sports courts. Much of our land in Washington is now used in line with the grand plan of the GMA (although certainly not all of it). But the uses of most places in the world are less planned, and much of the land serves short term needs at the cost of long-term human health.
Because we now have good maps, big data tools, and the internet to communicate across, we can create a vision. Once we have a vision, we can act.
In fact, environmental groups all over the world are acting. They are setting aside land, working to protect hypercritical systems like the Amazon basin, or even sailing around on big ships risking jail to save the whales.
One way to think of all of this work is many excellent visions…working…not quite together. At best, forces for good are in periodically cooperative competition with each other. Most of them are not directly about land use – they’re going after it to save an animal here and a plant there, or perhaps a whole delta.
But it’s all really one coordinated system.
It’s time to agree on a framework.
We’ve spent a lot of money developing models of the whole globe in order to study climate change. I suspect these models already include a lot of the information and structure that we need to design good land use policies.
To keep the mind-exercise small enough, lets start with the Cascadia ecosystem which includes Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and possibly parts of northern California and Idaho. It’s already been well planned compared to much of the rest of the Earth. There is still a lot of open space. There’s variety: cities and mountains and rivers and ports, wineries and ranches and a lot of raging, rocky coastline. It’s not all good. We have one of the worst superfund sites in America.
We could map out the ideal way to manage this land – design our garden if you will. Do the GMA exercise on a larger scale.
Cities: You’d have to put those where the cities already are and plan around them. Any region needs cities, preferably as attractive and functional as possible. These are economic engines and hotbeds of innovation. Not only are urban centers a cheaper place to keep people, but they’re where most people want to live. Over fifty-percent of the world’s population now chooses to live in cities.
Wild spaces: We have a lot. Keeping the ones we have is probably also a constraint. But we can certainly add to them, and if necessary we might be able to trade one for another in order to aggregate or spread out open spaces, and to protect the right land. This is harder than it looks. In some cases, we’ve protected pretty places that depend on vulnerable land or water we haven’t protected.
Farming: Keep a lot of open space for farmland, but reduce it. Use vertical farming to grow far more produce on far less land, and to farm inside cities.
This smacks of video games from Civilization to Sim City or Farmville. Planning a world is something many humans enjoy. If we look at Cascadia as garden plot, we’ve done quite a bit right, but we’ve also almost wiped out our salmon runs, thrown freeways down across major wildlife corridors, and soiled the beautiful Puget Sound and the great freshwater engine of the Columbia River.
Of course, this isn’t a real game and we can’t start over from scratch. I believe we can start with what we have, and make it better. Significantly better.
Governments have a role. They set land use parameters, manage utilities and parks, encourage or discourage development. Governments can (and do) use zoning and taxation and other tools to manage economic behavior.
Governments, however, are limited by their own boundaries. They can collaborate across them (usually with great difficulty). But non-profits are not boundary-limited. One of our regional non-profits, ForTerra, has purchased land, encouraged swaps of development rights to move development into the cities, and created shared visions for conservation of huge swaths of land in the Cascadia region. Perhaps even more important, they market ecological land use to people and businesses in ways that make it attractive. Some of their major sponsors are our biggest companies.
When I’m riding through forests and farmland for hours, the idea of humans as gardeners of the world feels like pure unadulterated hubris. But all of that land I’m riding through has allowed uses, and disallowed uses. Because of that, I can take my pretty rides. Between government and NGO’s (and others), we need to get about the business of creating a framing vision for land use on a grander scale than we’re used to. I don’t mean detail-managing every piece – centralized control is devastating. But a framework and clear principles that are flexible enough to allow for change and backed by laws would go a long way.
Understanding what we have and seeing what we want to create matters. We know enough now to get going on that job. Then perhaps my grandchildren will be able to take large group rides from their urban doorsteps across wild lands from wherever they live.
The link list is a little more eclectic than usual. Bear with me.
The Vertical Farm: http://www.verticalfarm.com
Where farming is headed, we don’t need soil, business insider, March 26th, 2013, Dina Spector. http://www.businessinsider.com/farmedhere-vertical-farming-chicago-2013-3
Environment Washington: Defending Washington’s Waters: http://www.environmentwashington.org/programs/defending-washingtons-waters
Discussion on banning architecture at The Hieroglyph Institute: http://hieroglyph.asu.edu/forums/topic/banning-agriculture
I am a writer, public speaker, and a futurist. I’m interested in how new technologies might change us and our world, particularly for the better.
I’m excited about my most recent book series, a duology called “Ruby’s Song” which includes the books The Creative Fire and The Diamond Deep, both published by Pyr. I’m also doing a non-fiction blog series, Backing into Eden, which comes out roughly twice a month and explores ways to care for the world, now and in the future.