Smart Growth


As urban populations grow, the most healthy cities expand. However not all expansion is equal. Smart growth is an urban planning theory that creates small walkable centers in areas expanding away from an large urban site. This allows for public transit and saves taxes because it reduces the amount of new public infrastructure. A 2011 study conducted for the National Society of Realtors shows that 56% of Americans would prefer to live in a smart growth community.

Interestingly, people on both ends of the socio-economic spectrum favor smart growth, while those in the middle prefer more sprawl-type communities. Walkability may mean good health to the affluent, whereas it is essential to someone who does not have a car. Those in the middle do not have the time, nor the necessity to walk to the store. Sprawl is also favored by Republicans or conservatives, while those with liberal or Democratic politics favor smart growth. The preference for sprawl-type communities is linked to a desire for privacy, whereas social safety nets, as well as collaborative and creative enterprises work best in higher densities.

If smart growth is indeed better for the environment and for taxpayers, how can we as designers, encourage more to join the smart growth ranks? The study seems to indicate that people who are in favor of sprawl want a free-standing house and a high level of privacy. Are there places in our designs for these structures? If services from education to street repair were improved in the city, would people feel the same urge to isolate themselves? If citizens felt that they had agency in their metropolis, would they think owning a lot was important enough to spend 90 minutes per day (7.5 hours per week (15.6 days per year)) just driving to work(with two week vacation and the weekends off)? Currently, 39% of Americans are willing to drive that long for a large hose and privacy. What can we design that will get their cars off the roads and give them their days back?



I recently read about the place/phenomenon of Quartzite. It is a winter gathering place in Arizona for millions of people and their RVs. In the essay I was reading, it is used as an example of The Multitude, a concept described by Michael Hardt in the book of the same name. The authors postulate that humans will behave more like animals in reaction to Imperialism, which now spans the globe. The only place to exist outside of the power structure of “the empire” will be places with no centralized power structure to be co-opted or usurped. In the absence of centralized power, animals like bees and fish swarm based on the actions of their neighbors. Quartzite is a site that grows and dissipates due to the actions of individuals. It functions on an economy of trade between people and momentarily escapes the commoditization of goods and the necessity of currency and currency-related institutions. In some cases, rocks, collected from Quartzite itself, are traded for essential goods. 

This reminds me in spirit of the Occupy movement. They have no leaders and no demands and there is no central office. At first they were derided for this, but it has become clear that the only way to counter the establishment (the ultra-wealthy that own the vast majority of capital and use it to control our political system) is to refuse to play their (rigged) game. There is no “in” for capital in Quartzite or Occupy. In Quartzite, everyone is welcome, and everyone gets what they need (water, food, fuel, waste disposal). When living out of an RV, it doesn’t make sense to stockpile food while others go hungry, whereas in the economy at large, stockpiling at the expense of others is encouraged. In the Occupy movement, there are no elections to fund and therefore no leaders to own. There are no demands made, so there is no way to “satisfy” the opposition in deed while continuing to exploit and oppress them in spirit. 

self-organizing systems of humans rely on interactions between people and not top-down control. Though bigger projects can be completed with top-down control (think slave-labor), it seems people are better cared for and treated with more respect and dignity when their lives are governed by their immediate neighbors.



Robert Sumrell & Kazys Varnelis. Blue Monday : stories of absurd realities and natural philosophies. Barcelona.Actar Editorial, 2007.


Urban Nature

6503182107_d3b4d4dd3e_zI am a member of several groups on Flickr. We post our photos within a theme and “like” the best ones. I have long been a member of “Urban Nature.” It is interesting to see what people around the world post as examples of nature in the urban context. Some examples are of carefully planned parks, while others exemplify nature destroying our plans (i.e. weeds in a cracked foundation).Some photos have a field guide objectivity about them, while others are highly stylized. Many are picturesque views of trees, and some are grotesque closeups of insect mouth parts. Contemplate and contribute if you like.

Pure and Natural

I opened the lid of my Daisy sour cream, hoping to find just that. Delicious, tangy “sour” cream to take a little edge of my insanely hot get-well chili. What I found instead was a tiny alpine landscape. The accompanying text entreated me to enjoy the image of pure nature on the foil seal before dipping into pure natural Daisy sour cream. I looked at the rolling hills and mountains, and thought about how far removed the dairy industry is from “nature” as depicted on foil. Of course Daisy offered some qualifications:

* Made with milk from cows not treated with the growth hormone rBST.

No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from

rBST-treated and non-rBST treated cows.

All of these things are great, and factored into my purchasing decision, but to call anything involving the consumption of another animal’s body fluids intended for their young “natural” is insane. Furthermore “pure” cow’s milk is illegal in most states.  Without pasteurization, the wrong kind of bacteria could breed. So, we kill off the bacteria in the animal fluids, then add our own special bacteria to make it tangy.  Delicious? Yes. Pure? I doubt a calf would drink it.

The Lowly Virus


I went to the doctor yesterday hoping for a bacterial infection. No such luck. Looks like a virus. The problem with viruses is that you can’t kill them with antibiotics. AntiBIOtics are for killing living things like bacteria, fungi, and protists. Contemporary textbooks define living as having 6 qualities:

1. they are made of at least one cell

2. they grow

3. they respond to stimuli

4. they are adapted to their surroundings

5. they obtain and use energy

6. they can reproduce 

Viruses are basically DNA or RNA wrapped in a protein coat with legs for landing on cells and shooting their genetic material inside. So they definitely fail #1. They also don’t really grow larger after being built in the host’s cell, so #2 is also grounds for dismissal. Viruses fit the bill for categories 3 and 4 (4 is especially troubling as retroviruses such as HIV can change their genetic code faster than we can keep up with it). So that leaves 5 and 6. Viruses are not considered able to do either, because they rely entirely on the host for energy and the means of reproduction. 

This got me thinking about the interdependence of different species on one another. Can I really obtain and use energy by myself? Or is my gut flora essential to that process? Can I really reproduce without eating foods rich in folic acid? I wouldn’t want to try. Does my reliance on these plants and microbes make me less of a living thing? No. All living things are the result of a “counterpoint” between themselves and other species as described by Elizabeth Grosz in Chaos, Territory, Art. Sure, the virus is not a cell and it doesn’t grow, so it is clearly not defined as living, but the other criteria with which we dismiss the lowly virus are faulty. There is no life in a vacuum.