Idea #14

Land Use, Labor, and Local Engagement: The Transformation of Urban Sprawl

by William W. Braham

We face a civilization-defining transition whose challenges will not be met solely through technology. Building a renewable economy is not simply a matter of tools and resources: the greatest challenges are social and political.

A meaningful transition to renewables will radically change how we do and make virtually everything. I believe that transition is possible because we have been adapting to similar rates and scales of change for the last 200 years. However, three sociopolitical shifts are necessary for technology and design solutions to work. All of these changes are integral to the design solution I am proposing, which is the adaptive reuse of the suburban sprawl that emerged from the fossil fuel economy itself over the last 100 years.

Land use. As we move to replace the resources currently consumed by contemporary cities, we will be faced with stark land use choices—food, fuel, or electricity—and the question of who controls the land on which renewable resources are captured.

Whether we are considering solar, wind, water, or biomass, environmental energies are spatially more diffuse than fossil fuels. Vaclav Smil has spent his career determining just how much more land will be required to capture, concentrate, and deliver environmental energies, and it will require thousands of times more land than we have currently devoted to energy capture. So the first constraint on the transition will be the quantity of farm land, forest, rooftop, or parking lot that can be diverted for new purposes.

In earlier renewable, agricultural economies, most wealth was derived from control of the land or water where things grew, and cities or nations expanded by bringing more land under their control (militarily or by trade). The first sociopolitical challenge, therefore will be to manage the redistribution of land rights to and redirection of land use from energy consumption to energy production.

Related to the importance of land areas for capturing renewable resources are the structures and infrastructures that are already built on them. It is much harder, and slower, to change assets than to build on green fields, so the transition tends towards emptier land of lower economic value. The solution I am proposing is to reconceive the land use of low density urban sprawl, integrating renewable resource capture. Suburban development has been an opportunistic form of growth, built on the availability of cheap power. The suburbs present tremendous opportunities to develop new urban arrangements combining food, power, housing, and work.

Labor. The second sociopolitical challenge is the assumption (or hope) that the arrangements of daily life formed in the last 100 years are the normal order of things, that driving to offices, sitting at desks, and processing specialized information are the natural activity of humans. Most of our real wealth—the ability to do, make, or have things—now derives from extracted fuels that captured sunlight over large areas in the distant past. It has been so easy to tap the stored potential of those fuels that most of our current occupations are highly specialized manipulations of the products and services they have made possible. The increased complexity and specialization of work is not only unprecedented, but as climate related costs increase, the marginal returns for that work continue to decrease.

In order to avoid a wholesale return to an agricultural economy, we will have to invent new forms of work based around environmental technologies for capturing wealth, and particularly for the control and administration of land areas. The opportunity presented by this transition is to reduce the anonymity and alienation that commonly exist in complex, highly specialized economies. In other words, reconnecting the economy to the management of land offers the opportunity to recover more interconnected and purposeful occupations.

Local Engagement. A common characteristic of proposals for the transition to renewables is their focus on avoiding the disruption of current patterns, treating the population as difficult customers rather than as citizens. That priority practically guarantees that the disruptions that do occur will be viewed as failures and the changes resisted. In the United States, our current form of retail politics promises people whatever they want, so the most challenging aspect of the transition to renewables will be to change the tenor of our politics. Part of the solution is to approach this transformation as a collective duty, with the emphasis on sharing the burden of change and the opportunities it will present.

As tempting as it is to focus first on the more concrete risks, like land-use planning, the third challenge is integral to the first two. In the US, we have had multiple examples of broad engagement with national challenges, from the military and industrial mobilizations during the world wars, to the many institutions established to reduce economic stress during the Depression, to the enthusiastic exploration of new ways of living in the post-war period. The risks of climate change cut across partisan political affiliations, and the changes required can offer something to people of every ideology. A reduction in the scale and complexity of social and political organization speaks to conservative concerns about government, while the reduction in wealth inequality and environmental consequences should resonate with liberal ambitions.

It may seem poetic to find solutions to the demands of climate change in the landscape that symbolizes the fuel-based economy that caused it, but I believe our future lies in new forms of urbanism that preserve the fruits of our current wealth—science, culture, health care—while learning from the inequalities of our past.

William W. Braham, FAIA is Professor of Architecture and Director of the Master of Environmental Building Design and of the Center for Environmental Building + Design at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design.