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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.

The Need For Grandeur

In a glorious order, there would be no homeless people and slums within sight of the Imperial Palace.
Living for about 4 years in Washington, DC, I got used to seeing dirty monuments and signs of abject squalor within a few blocks of some of the most important places on earth.
My first impression of DC was that everything seemed to have a dark layer of greasy soot on it, like seeing the world through a dirty old window pane. I was astonished by the horrid infrastructure. Power outages were common during the summer and once I went days without electricity. Growing up in a desert backwater of the American Empire and living for years in the “flyover” Midwest, I’d never seen or heard of such things in a wealthy country—it was embarassing to witness it in the capital of the world’s greatest power.
I went everywhere on the DC metro and was amazed at how often there were major delays and track shutdowns at peak hours. What should easily be a clean, reliable, safe system is instead notorious for its corruption, minor repairs that take months, and fatal accidents.
This sort of incompetence just comes to be met with sullen shrugs after awhile. Everyone knows the metro is a big affirmative action jobs mill and everyone suffers for it.
This kind of nonsense makes a mockery of the system’s legitimacy. At least most fools have the common sense to make sure it’s other people suitably far away who get burdened by their bad decisions. Who can but laugh when even the city of the rulers gets punished by their own stupid policies? They can’t even get incompetence right.
In a glorious system, it would be a point of pride that the trains arrive on time, especially in the Imperial Capital. Only the best would be allowed anywhere near infrastructure that millions of people see every day. When people see the system can get basic things done right, they can focus on higher things, their faith in the rulers is preserved.

Relentlessly literal-minded enlightenment thought has steadily diminished the old concept of grandeur. In the social cosmology, the elites dwell in heaven. Everything surrounding the rulers must be impressive. A rightful imperial capital would be off limits to most people, it would be pristine, its soil sacred. We can see how even ceremonial rulers like the English royal family are looked on by the whole world with a sense of awe. When a princess is with child, it’s as if she’s pregnant with a new God and millions look on in suspense at the prospect of a new addition to the pantheon. When legitimacy is properly cultivated, even the life cycle of the rulers becomes a living symbol of the continuation of an entire people. For society’s heaven is the source of ideal forms for the common people to emulate.

So in the rightful order of affairs, proper rulers cannot have ugly spouses or live in small houses. They must have the best of everything as a matter of course. The rulers can’t be seen eating French fries or consorting with entertainers. They must keep a mythic distance from the ordinary material world. It should be hard for the average person to imagine the rulers pooping, just as they can hardly imagine movie stars pooping. Lack of awe is why masses of millions would rather look up to entertainers than their rulers. The righteous ruler naturally outshines the celebrities and occupies an unquestioned spot at the top of Olympus.
This is not to suggest rulers would be out of touch with reality or sheltered. Running a state is deadly serious business. They would go through many rough trials in their ascent and much of their legitimacy would come from their bravery, integrity, vision, and competence. But once ascended, they would have a rightful role to fulfill.
Meanwhile, every day life below would reflect the grandeur cultivated at the top.

Perhaps police in important areas would be like old fashioned French guards selected for certain height requirements and dressed in imposing uniforms.
Flying airlines outside the US, I’ve noticed a sense of grandeur is cultivated by having mostly elegant and pretty young women as stewardesses.
Going through airports and customs in other countries is night and day compared to the US.
In America airports are heavily staffed by unsightly denizens of the lower and underclasses. Worse, they’re often in positions like TSA where they get to frisk people and question them in unintelligible mono-syllables. They’re placed in a position of power far above their station and the effect on social morale is devastating.
I still remember what it was like to come back from Argentina or Europe and the first sight that greeted me back to the US was lots of morbidly obese underclass blacks of ambiguous gender wearing uniforms that barely fit them. My stomach would sink into my feet and I would find myself wishing I’d just stayed where I’d come back from.
Like the trains, the airports are infrastructural institutions that form the public face of a nation.
We have only to glance at the magnificent rail stations of the 19th and early 20th centuries to see the importance of grandeur was once well understood.

Even outside official insitutions, architecture in general creates a cultural gestalt.
Just as broken windows invite crime, ugly buildings invite malaise and despair.
The USSR is commonly associated with its soul-destroying architecture but surely the USA with the same strip malls with the same floor plans repeating over and over across a 3,000 mile swathe has a similar crushing effect on the human spirit.
Travelling through Europe I saw the beauty of Munich contrasted against Berlin with its drab concrete slabs that dominate entire city blocks. Even the Berlin rail station looked like a borg cube from star trek and surrounding it was acres of empty land paved over with asphalt and concrete. It was depressing!
Where I now live in southern Ohio, I’m astonished to see that even the old water towers were built to look like stylized castles complete with crenellations. People used to simply understand the importance of raising mundane things to the spiritual plane through aesthetics.
In a proper society, grandeur is intuitively understood from the statecraft of rulers to the daily life of commoners. Just like good fiction has themes that tie all of its parts together, a good society engineers its aesthetics so that all its parts tell a compelling story of identity and cohesion.

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