Kindling Planning

Samuel Staley's picture
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Downloading my newest addition to my Kindle library-the digital book service provided by Amazon.com-I remembered the gentle criticism of a planner on a list serve not too long ago. The thread was on sustainability and global warming. I had made the point that market economies were innovative economies, and too much of the planning discussion on sustainability focused on reduced consumption without seriously discussing the ways technology fundamentally changed our choice sets. The planner chastised me for my faith in markets, saying, in a nutshell, we need to focus on what we know we can influence and not hedge are bets on the past. The implication was that markets were too ephemeral and undependable to include in long-term planning.

At the time I was struck by the ahistorical nature of the point. The argument was that our historical ability to innovate our way out of problems of the past doesn't mean we can rely on innovation to achieve the same impact now. That's a fair point. Nothing guarantees the future. But, it also ignores five centuries of human progress. Indeed, the best predictor of the future is the past. This principle is imbedded in virtually every data point used in the planning process, from demographic projections to economic ones to forecasting the built environment.

The more relevant point, however, is not that the innovation won't occur, but what institutions are necessary to allow innovation to continue. [I discuss this in more depth in two articles, one in Town Planning Review (vol. 77, no. 1, 2006) and the other in Property Management vol 24, no. 3, 2006).] Planning can have very important impacts on the institutions necessary for sustaining innovation. If planning cuts off the incentives and pathways for innovation, then societies decline, both in standard of living as well as quality of life.

On this point, the role of private markets can't be dismissed. Markets provide an institutional mechanism for promoting innovation. No other public or private institution-cultural, economic, or political-can match (or has matched) the "creative destruction" of market economies. And that, in my view, is a beneficial outcome for societies, communities, and cities. Innovation is what allows us to replace wood with coal, coal with oil, and, more importantly for current environmental problems, oil and coal with nuclear power, all while using fewer resources (most clearly on a per capita basis and often in absolute terms as well).

This brings me back to my Kindle. As I pull books from my book shelves and load up them up in boxes to donate them to the local library, I recognize the revolutionary (and environmentally friendly) impact of this new gadget. I will be able to achieve all my book needs in a smaller space and consume fewer resources.

And I'm not alone. On Christmas Day 2009, Amazon.com sold more Kindle books than regular print books for the first time ever industry watchers think about 500,000 units were shipped during 2009. In the process, Amazon.com is achieving something few people that possible a few years ago: They are making digital formats a consumer substitute for hard copy versions of books.

The environmental implications are significant. As digital formats take even broader hold in the economy, print publications will largely disappear for the most popular books, recessing to niche markets such as graphics intensive coffee table books. The demand for paper, and paper processing, will plummet as the need for all the inks and dyes necessary for printing book covers and the physical printed word fades. Consumers will need less space to store wall-consuming bookshelves. We will have more, but be able to live with less. Digital formats are also cheaper (Kindle books sell for half the retail price of a hard copy, and sometimes more), making reading even more accessible.

While we were certainly will lose something in the aesthetics of place and life (I still enjoy the feel of a book in my hands), in my mind the innovation unleashed by the intrepidness of the inventors at amazon.com and their suppliers is unquestionably progress, for the economy, society and the environment.

This innovation, like the vast majority of innovations, was not planned; it was a spontaneous product of the private market searching for new ways to meet consumer needs (while making money at the same time). More importantly, the Kindle is a metaphor for the kind of innovation that is necessary for achieving meaningful sustainable development in a dynamic context. These innovations allow us to move forward on the Environmental Kuznets Curve, where higher incomes allow societies to adopt more environmentally friendly technologies. (Matthew Kahn discusses this extensively in his highly readable book Green Cities.)

As planners grapple with the real world problems of sustainable development, they will need to figure out ways to sustain this kind of innovation on small (e.g. kindle) and large (e.g., nuclear power) scales. This means embracing the only social institution capable of providing the incentives and forward momentum possible to achieve it: the private market. Unfortunately, I've seen little of this in the formal planning process let alone the dialogue among professional planners.

Innovation, and the private market that sustains it, is not mystical, mythical or emphemeral. It is real and long-term, as long as we provide the institutions necessary to nurture it.

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Comments

Comments

Reading more accessible?

I agree with the gist of your post that we cannot discount markets and innovation as potential fixes for many of our ills, but I do have to question the conclusion that Kindles make reading more accessible. The books may be cheaper digitally but the upfront costs of the Kindle put it out of reach of many people. Books are still free at the library.

Samuel Staley's picture
Blogger

Kindle & reading accessibility

The current price of a Kindle is prohibitive for many, but Sony and other manufacturers are close to putting competitive alternatives on the market. This technology has all the earmarks of other hi-tech innovations and competitiveness that will drive down costs the same way it has in computing technology. So, I'm optimistic. We'll be reaping broad-based social benefits within a decade's time.
Sam Staley

hidden subsidies

I also agree with the point of your post, but you have be wary of hidden subsidies that distort the market. On one hand you have paper books for free at the library (paid indirectly through taxes), on the other you have free internet or unlimited downloads (paid indirectly by other users when you are using more bandwidth). I'm not saying either of these are bad things, but markets are easily skewed and that has to be taken into consideration.

In urban planning circles, these manifest themselves through parking requirements, the portions of roadways not paid by gas taxes (significant), transit subsidies, flat rate garbage collection, water and sewer infrastructure (you pay for what you use, but not for how many feet of pipe or pump capacity it takes to serve you), virtually nonexistant environmental cleanup requirements, mortgage interest tax deductions, and the list goes on.

Like I said, I agree with your argument, but keep in mind to truly make a free market, people are going to have to give up some longstanding and politically popular subsidies on both sides of issues.

Ignoring History

"The argument was that our historical ability to innovate our way out of problems of the past doesn’t mean we can rely on innovation to achieve the same impact now."

I suggest that Mr. Staley is the one who is ignoring history. Looking back at the past century, we can see clearly that technology has been two-edged: it has brought many benefits but has also created many problems.

Mr. Staley is suggesting that the future will be unlike the past: technology will solve all our problems and will not create any new problems.

The real lesson of history is that technology gives us more power, and that power can be used either beneficially or destructively. As we develop new technologies that are even more powerful, it becomes even more important to use technology wisely.

Charles Siegel

Samuel Staley's picture
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Ignoring History

Clearly, technology can be used destructively. But, my contention, and I believe history bears this out, is that technology has been on net beneficial for society. A case in point is the substitution of the automobile for horse power, and the use of technologyto dramatically (and soon eliminate) the air pollution impacts of the automobile. I recommend reading Matthew Kahn's excellent book Green Cities for more on this. Either way, technology and innovation can be used to mitigate harms, and this has happened continually.
Sam Staley

Re: Ignoring History

I agree that technology has been on net beneficial for society.

But that doesn't respond to my point: technology has been both beneficial and harmful, which shows that we should use technology wisely: using it when it is beneficial and limiting it when it is harmful.

Your example of the substitution of automobiles for horses confirms my point. It was certainly a good thing to get the horses out of the city by substituting automobiles. It was not a good thing to build suburbs where it is impossible to leave your house without driving. It was not a good thing to overuse the automoble so much that we double per capita vmt every few decades, that we have burned up about half the world's petroleum supply, that we have created petro-dictators in the middle east, and that we have caused global warming.

This is clearly a case where wise use of a new technology, simply substituting cars for horses, would have been unreservedly beneficial, but overuse to the technology created immense problems in addition to those benefits.

Soon, we will all see that the same is true of the new technologies that reduce air pollution impacts of the automobile. Eg, China currently produces most of the rare earth elements used for electric automobile generators, and reserves of those rare earth elements outside of China are mixed with reserves of radioactive elements, so producing more of them will help solve the problem of air pollution but will create a new problem of disposing of radioactive wastes. That is just one issue: think about the resources of all sorts that will be needed to provide automobiles that let the Chinese and Indians drive at American levels.

Again, if we used plug-in automobiles wisely, they would be immensely beneficial. If we overuse them as much as we currently overuse automobiles, and if that overuse spreads from the US to the developing nations, they will create immense problems in addition to their immense benefits.

The net benefit would be much larger if we put political limits on destructive uses of technology, rather than thinking that we can innovate our way out of every problem.

Charles Siegel

Markets and planning are both needed

The challenge for planners is to understand how to allow market forces to produce outcomes that we cannot predict (when it comes to supporting the creativity of the market for new products) or to channel market forces into desirable results meeting the community's vision and common good. I will focus on the latter because I feel this ties most closely with land use and transportation.
I think this means: at first, avoiding undesirable market distortions such as minimum parking requirements and the mortgage tax subsidy for "Mcmansions;" better pricing of transportation options to reflect the real costs of roads, cycling, and transit; and revision of zoning codes to permit greater densities, varieties of housing, and mixes of use (no doubt with requirements for decent design and amenity). By doing so, we better allow the market to respond. Case in point: Need affordable housing for families in suburbia? Let's let townhomes be built more broadly. These can be supportive of walkign and transit as well.
But I think we cannot ignore the large role the public sector plays in infrastructure investment - in "common goods" such as transportation networks, parks, public education, etc. What does it mean to invest in new highways and highway capacity vs. better cycling routes or public transit to denser nodes? The result in the choices investors make (building sprawling suburbs vs. compact communities) and the choices consumers make (where to live and how to travel) flow from these investments and the regulatory climate, leading to virtuous or vicious cycles in land use & transportation. And, I think it can be demonstrated that locations offering good transportation options, public amenities, education, housing choice and human interaction have often become the locations of choice for clustering of innovative industries.
Land use & transportation issues are problems that cannot be fixed simply thru the invention of a new technology but rather thru the well-thought out application of technology. Sometimes the best technology is a bicycle - in a dense community it gets us around with minimal cost to the individual, uses mininimal space, doesn't pollute, and keeps us healthy, a major problem in today's society. But, it will require public investment in cycling infrastructure and the regulatory framework that allows denser mixed-use communities.

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