aesthetics economics Infrastructure

Urban Land Management In A Post Scarcity Economy

This post is inspired from exchanges with Robert Stark of Stark Truth Radio and is part of the lead-up to our next podcast.

A glimpse of the the disordered sprawl of a typical American city from the air, especially the Sunbelt and West of the Mississippi River, tells you everything you need to know about the culture.  The cityscape itself is a Hobbesian nightmare and tragedy of the commons.  A monstrosity that sprang up over-night like a weed.

Except in the very core downtowns, land management seems almost non-existent.  Whoever buys land uses it however they want within the zoning rules and most architecture is rushed.  It can be hard in a town like Phoenix or Vegas to decide what is more disagreeable, grey stucco boxes or the cookie cutter houses with the fake terra-cotta roof tiles.

Because individuals run rampant, it becomes impossible to do anything without cars.  Even public transportation doesn’t work well when the distances are too great and even urban areas too diffuse for any coherent collective activity.
Every single house stands alone with its own lawn.  At the same time all the houses are nearly identical.  In a glimpse, we see the banality and horror of individualism without duty to others.

The price of everyone snatching their little plot is most have to live far away from where they want to go.  Yet every day they climb into their cars, navigate the labyrinth of their neighborhood and then make their way to the same highway everyone else wants to use at the same time of day.

Of course, in America, few people will object much to living far away from the center because they know what the alternative is.
One direct problem of a civilization in denial is the overunning of urban areas by the underclasses.  
The twin threats of skyrocketing property values from making control of land a free-for-all and underclass dysfunction in the city centers creates a perfect pressure cooker that keeps millions of workers stuck paying huge mortgages and car payments for the honor of driving 2 hours each way to work every day.

When we consider it takes 2 incomes to keep up this facade, it’s no wonder the fertility rate of cooperators has plummeted.  They may even have decent money in the bank after all their toil, but they are worse off than homeless bums when it comes to the critical resources of time and energy.

Not only do these harried worker bees struggle to have time to settle down and have a family, they don’t have time to sustain friendships or participate in civic activities.
The setup of the zoned residential neighborhood ensures that they can spend the rest of their lives shuttling between house and job never coming into contact with strangers in a fun and positive way.

When nothing is close to the house but other houses, it creates a dis-incentive to go anywhere.  Any activity outside of the house, even to get groceries carries an extra time penalty that eats up even more of what little is left.

Now that we’ve examined the problem before us, we can see the solution lies in creating pleasant space-efficient walkable areas to live.

In many city centers people live in apartment buildings where the bottom floor is all businesses. Within a block of someone’s flat, they can stop by the pharmacy for aspirin and by the bakery for a loaf of bread.  They get a little bit of exercise, and come into constant contact with strangers who live near them.  The same activities that are annoying chores in the suburbs can be part of a pleasant daily routine where residences are organized around human needs.

This village structure mimics natural habitats peoples have lived in for thousands of years.  Urban sprawl as we know it, on the other hand has been around for barely 70 years and in that short time has contributed to the civilization-wide collapse of commonality and culture.

Clearly, the village structure where commerce and residences coexist in a walkable core should arise as the new unit of urban organization, even as we get further from city centers.  That way, they aren’t as far and they are compact enough that public transport remains practical.

I was already very skeptical about American cities after seeing Argentina and Europe but what really demolished established ideas for me was the several months I lived in Ansan, South Korea as an English teacher.

The town was planned out as a suburb of Seoul during the rule of the dictator Park and didn’t even become a city until 1986.
This town that’s younger than me now has 700,000 people in a roughly 5×5 mile square.  Even so, it didn’t feel crowded and there were parks and greenspace within easy walking distance of downtown.  In 5 minutes, I could walk from my apartment on a busy street to fields of flowers and follow a path by a river where I’d frequently see large herons fishing for prey.

Just as it’s obvious the typical American city visually represents a cacaphony of individual wills colliding, it was clear from one look that Ansan was planned out and built as a single project.

In some areas nearly identical apartment buildings were built like a line of dominoes and had big numbers painted on them.  This wasn’t appealing visually and felt alien but as I got to know the place I saw it was a superior system.  I found multiple high rises were often organized around central courtyards that spontaneously became community common areas. 

I’ve never forgotten walking through these squares and seeing little old ladies putting out red chile peppers out in the sun to dry on blankets.  People were going going about their daily chores in public like they actually lived there.  It was mundane details like this that made me realize how screwed up things were back in the USA where everyone is afraid to go outside and suffer the scrutiny of their neighbors. 

Because thousands lived in high rises, there were always green areas nearby.  In the other direction would be city streets with occasional small grocery stores and internet cafes.  Every 5 or 6 blocks, there was a heavily commercial street with restaurants, bars, and shopping.  Because of this, few residences were more than 10 minutes walk away from a wide variety of services.

The use of space on the commercial streets also intrigued me.  In US cities, it’s usually just the street level that has businesses.  In Korea, I saw four story buildings, each with businesses on every floor.
It blew my mind how half a strip mall worth of rented office space plus parking lots and bland landscaping was put in a single building instead and repeated down a whole city block.  This compression made it so that one block could serve the needs of thousands of people living nearby without feeling congested.

This also made it so enough activity was concentrated in one place that it felt like an active community with plenty of things to do.  This to me was in especially stark contrast to the lifeless and sterile American-style suburban sprawl.  To top it off the Korean suburb’s size made it practical to connect to the big city.  When I got off work on the weekends, it was a 40 minute train ride into Seoul.

My experiences in Korea, the US, and around the world showed me that more control, not less, is needed for a modern society to thrive.  Nations like South Korea and Chile that greatly improved their fortunes both had dictators set up the framework their current democracies grew into and that is likely a common factor in their successes.

In the case of land, it is abundantly clear by now that it cannot be treated like another commodity.  The amount of land never changes and its primary value for most people in modern life is strategic rather than economic especially when it comes to cities.

Barely a century ago, most people were still farmers and our ideas and laws about land still reflect that.  What we need to consider is that very few people now make their living off the land itself.  Land in modern life primarily determines where people can exist in relation to jobs, services, mates, family, friends.

Thus, the main objective of modern urban land management is to keep life near cities affordable for as many productive people as possible with high quality of living.  It should be treated as a basic means of stimulating the economy and incentivizing people to bring forth the next generations of society’s cooperators.

While I’ve been influenced by living in a real-life example of a planned city, with a little imagination we could do it a lot better by enforcing high aesthetic standards,  for instance making each high rise distinct, yet part of a unified theme for the whole town.  I also recognize, that city centers have historically been “gene shredders” with net negative fertility.  This state of affairs was more sustainable in an age where there was always a countryside brimming over with armies of new young people fresh off the farm.  In our present reality most people now live close to urban areas.  That’s where all the jobs are and that’s where the young women go.

 In a modern civilization, the city has to become capable of sustaining and propagating human life for the first time in history.  Where urban sprawl was a new invention that made ancient problems worse we must now figure out how to make urban life demographically sustainable.

By Giovanni Dannato

In 1547 I was burnt at the stake in Rome for my pernicious pamphlet proclaiming that the heavens were not filled with a profusion of aether, but rather an extensive vacuum.
Now, the phlogiston that composed my being has re-manifested centuries in the future so that I may continue the task that was inconveniently disrupted so long ago.
Now, I live in Rome on the very street where I (and others) were publicly burnt. To this day, the street is known as what I would translate as 'Heretic's Way'. My charming residence is number 6 on this old road. Please, do come inside and pay me a visit; I should be delighted to spew out endless pedagoguery to one and all...

12 replies on “Urban Land Management In A Post Scarcity Economy”

I really like having shops, bars, etc. close. I hate the way the US is laid out. It’s a big production to go anywhere. Traffic, massive parking lots. I visited Washington DC once for a week. Just to look at museums and stuff. I found I could use the subways like a village. You find what shops and restaurants were near the subways and travel around between them. I wasn’t sure how safe various places were so I traveled during the day and stayed in at night. Probably plenty of places were safe but I wasn’t familiar at all which were which and wasn’t interested in finding out the hard way.

I like public transportation but the Dindus have somehow deemed this to be theirs alone so it’s difficult to use them. Since this is so it kills peoples enthusiasm for funding more of it. Really when it comes down to it suburbs are just a defense mechanism for Dindus. They are costing an ungodly amount of time and money just to stay away from them. We should go back to being able to discriminate in housing and accommodations and this would immediately solve the whole problem. Those that chose to live in mixed neighborhoods could have all of it they wanted and others that chose different could have what we wanted. Look at places like Baltimore. They have upwards of 35,000 houses that are uninhabited due to Dindus. If you look at these row houses they could be perfectly rehabbed and zoned exactly like you said is done in Korea yet you can’t live there if you value your life. They’re like locust and consume cites and even entire regions.

Type in “Baltimore unihabited row houses” in a search engine and look at the pictures. Some these buildings are stunningly beautiful.

I lived in DC area for 4 years and relied on the metro for transportation. Suffice it to say, making public transit pleasant for ordinary people is probably worth a post on its own. “Dindu” ridership is sadly only part of the problem, worse, they actually run the transit system as a race nepotism racket with predictable results.
You were wise to watch where you were going since you didn’t know the area. As a rough generalization, you’ll be fine any time so long as you stay West of Union Station and maybe West of 14th street as you work your way north into Columbia Heights. It’s pretty easy, because most things you might want to see on a short visit fall well within those lines anyway.
As wealthy people, professionals flee to the city “archipelago” en masse, DC has become far nicer and safer with gentrification spreading further every year. Blacks are officially in the minority now as they’ve gotten forced out further into PG County.
Baltimore, of course, is a different matter. I love the brick rowhouses, the harbor, the fresh breeze off the sea(in contrast to the swampy heat of DC), but it can feel a bit scary there late at night just a few blocks inland right next to fancy hotels.

Are you actually really well read on the subject? It doesn’t seem like you talk about it much yet this seemingly first post on the topic cuts to the heart of the matter.

No I’m actually pretty ignorant on the fine details of the subject, which is why I’m mostly relying on my observations and pattern recognition. There’s countless people out there who would know far more than me about land development, especially in different countries.
However, I try my hand at it because I haven’t seen better qualified people discussing it already. I typically try to write about things that aren’t already being widely said. I see what seems to me an important gap in the discourse and I go for it.
I would say this is my second post lately that I’ve done on land management.
As you will see, there were several commenters who knew far more than I did. Putting out these posts is one way I learn.
Also many hours of reading other people’s blogs, quora questions, wikipedia articles on these subjects before I start to arrive at my own conclusions.

Your article is very interesting, as usual, and timely. Thanks. You triggered me concerning DC.

My twenty-two cents is that you can create these walkable spaces and even push out the dindus but quality of life cannot develop without a sane high culture. I’ve lived in and around DC for over 40 years, moving there in ’69. While the avalanche of white college-educated feminists now pouring into DC have dramatically altered and improved the architecture and housing prices (and I’ve certainly benefited) I actually miss the old DC. It was more cosmopolitan, just not in the stupid modern transplanted suburbanite, multicultural way. Back then we didn’t have fanatical NGOs “changing the world.” (Well, they were there but still small in number.) The majority of government workers were just regular people raising families (in the suburbs by then) and not hell-bent on making DC into bike lanes. There were lots of little shops around rather than Targets – as you pointed out about Korea, little shops add a lot of lively ambience. There were real eccentrics like the fellow who wore a kilt I’d see around Dupont Circle or the black artist who always wore an immaculate bow tie and suit and had impeccable manners. There were many others that made life interesting. Gays were around but weren’t demanding their “rights.”

Presiding over all would be a sophisticated and civilzed elite which had been able to transmit European cultural norms to a middle class which actually aspired to this sensibility. By the time I moved to DC these groups were in fast retreat, routed by 60s cultural revolutionaries and modernists, inspired to destroy everything that was anti-feminist. It’s almost impossible to believe that Masterpiece Theater broadcast Aldous Huxley’s Point Counterpoint in many installments on PBS in the early 70s. Or that Rostropovich was the National Symphony’s conductor and hero-worshipped in the Washington Post. (No doubt partly from cold-war propaganda). Still, high culture was based on a civilization built by European men.

My too-long comment here will end by saying these new feminist, ex-suburbanites are merely transplanting their rigid, dull, politically correct mendacity into the city. There are many streets in DC that look like soul-crushing soviet apartment blocks. (Better designed it’s true than the Russian’s.) The only Republican who recently ran for city council had his campaign headquarters vandalized. They voted 94% for Hillary. It’s not that Republicans are any better. Culturally, they may even be worse. I’m merely trying to give you a sense of the days when feminist/modernist conformity hadn’t completely destroyed real cosmopolitanism. And these were the days, mind you, when DC was 70% black.

I pretty much agree with you that the white inhabitants of DC are both bland and insufferable, some of the most incurious and arrogant people I’ve ever met. Manjaw + Resting Bitch Face = DC. Except in a few designated party areas such as Dupont Circle or U Street, white DC shuts down like a small midwest town by 7 pm. Downtown is abandoned after sundown in the winter, the streets come alive with homeless people who sleep on warm sewer vent gratings.
Though DC is walkable, green parks other than sterile tourist-crowded monument areas are at a minimum. There’s a minimum of benches and everything is structured to keep the cattle moving. Even the coffee shops blast music at ear-piercing volume so customers don’t linger. Their bathrooms have combination locks so homeless people don’t live in them all day. The mentality is if you don’t have somewhere to go in public, you’re a vagabond.
It’s a city where you’re stuck in between snobby schlubs and minority dysfunction, nothing in between. So glad I’m out of there.
If you want to encapsulate DC hipster poserdom in a single example. There’s what they call “dive bars” considered racy and adventurous that have some flyover-ish decoration, dart boards, and where you pay $6 for a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Sorry to hear you left DC. We need more sane young men there. Speaking of dives I used to go to a place called Fox and Hounds on 17th and Q St. NW. That’s still a dive, or at least it was a couple of years ago. But yeah, cheap good bars are just about gone in DC.

y’know, with the rise of video conferencing technology, many jobs such as customer service or sales could be done from home. During the last “recession” when many workers lost jobs, we should have implemented a system where 32 hrs became the new “full time.” Old worker could keep jobs and younger workers could get entry level experience. Productivity has increased but wages have not. The libertarian tough guys will say “workers didn’t get better, the assembly line did.” Whatever, work to live or live to work…

“Driverless cars” would not be an issue if we could get less people on the roads, y’know, less commuting. People could do more shopping online and essentially get most stuff delivered to them. We wouldn’t need to increase “infrastructure” if less people were on the roads and also less people were doing 9-5:30.

The article outlines the problems with American land use patterns rather well, but I think he is wrong on the ultimate causes. It’s not because of lack of planning that American cities are garbage, I think it’s actually because of a two-punch hit of “over-affluence” allowed to run rampant (like the obesity epidemic today) and *too much* “planning” (if you can even call American land use regulations that).

Cities don’t need to be planned to be great. The same style of walkable, mixed-use, communal arrangement that the author loves about Seoul was present in every single human settlement before WW2, including the United States.

It was actually the Modernist Utopians, beginning with [Le Courbusier](, who, like most of his contemporary modernists, thought that they “could do better” through a process of rational design than what humans already collectively did by instinct. To their defense, cities at the time were very terrible environments (imagine the air pollution of Beijing, but without the modern sanitation technology and even worse wealth inequality). However, rather than focusing on the issues afflicting the city, they centered on the organic city *itself* as the problem. The pinnacle of this was probably the destruction of Boston’s West End. Cities, like economies, are emergent social phenomena that is too complex for any one person or organization to correctly design or plan for. Cities don’t need planners, they need stewards.

As far as over-affluence is concerned, I mean the car, or more specifically, in the case of the United States, the general level of affluence that allowed basically every citizen to afford one. Even in well developed urban environments in Europe, China and Latin America, people want to drive and they want the associated infrastructure to support it. Like our propensity to overeat, I think this is an inherent human failure, that if not kept in check, consumes society. This desire to commute everywhere by automobile was not only allowed to run rampant in the USA, but as the epicenter of the automobile boom it was also encouraged by the corporations that stood to profit from this sort of behavior becoming the norm. Circling back, in the USA, many of the regulations and laws (single-use zoning, parking minimums, setback requirements) that make car ownership effectively mandatory were in fact also imposed by city planners. Many certainly at the behest of their constituents (and they in turn, at the behest of oil and automobile corporate marketing), but many also, as in the case of Robert Moses, out of a conviction that they knew what was best for their city.

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