Wednesday, August 07, 2013

All Aboard For UN Agenda 21 In America

Agenda 21 is the United Nations' suggested policy architecture for sustainable development.  I completely endorse both its spirit and details.  I'll leave aside the straw man arguments charging its proponents with socialism.  You'll read those vituperative objections all over the right-wing blogosphere and they just don't hold water.  Agenda 21 is not a treaty and does not have the force of law in the United States.  It is a framework for solving development problems that local communities may implement as they see fit.  American communities are in sore need of some best practices to mitigate suburban sprawl.

The American preference for suburbia is a unique cultural pattern. The rural configuration of unused but fertile cropland (aka lawn space ) transplanted into an urban setting is a high-entropy lifestyle that encourages waste.  Dense living is common in Asia and parts of Europe.  It has been overdue here ever since the frontier closed, specifically the admission to statehood of those territories West of the Rockies.

I have lived in and visited major Asian cities.  They work just fine with robust mass transit and realistic expectations about livable space.  I lived in the greater metropolitan area of Seoul for a total of over two years.  Air pollution only became a serious problem there once South Koreans began to adopt the American car-centric culture.  Speaking of which, dense urbanism was reality in American cities until the postwar era when automakers and oil companies funded campaigns to remove urban light rail and bus service all across the US.  Check out the exhibits at the Western Railway Museum in Suisun City, California if you question my facts.

The preference for big cars, suburban homes, and random driving excuses is a lifestyle enabled by several factors:  two generations of Detroit's ad campaigns (thank GM's employment of Bernays' techniques) and large discoveries of light sweet crude in the US and Saudi Arabia.  Well, Detroit is bankrupt because the US middle class can't afford its gas guzzlers anymore and the US's oil shale boom isn't reducing gas prices at the pump. That golden age is over.  Feel free to do the math on how to sustain a suburb-centric civilization at a time when the disposable incomes of the suburban middle class are declining.  Yes, I'm serious.

Hybrid-electric cars for everyone in the suburbs are not a completely sustainable solution.  Think how much heavier the drive trains are on hybrids and electric cars than the drive trains of internal combustion cars.  Heavier cars wear out roads faster and their drivers don't pay the gasoline taxes that fund the Federal Highway Trust Fund.  Widespread hybrid adoption to maintain the suburban lifestyle fantasy will accelerate road degradation!  The Mineta Transportation Institute and other policy think tanks have done the math.

Government already has the authority to determine land use.  It's called zoning.  I'm not allowed to build a single family home at One Market Street because it's zoned for commerce.  Nor can I develop a 30-story office skyscraper here in the Outer Sunset on my block because it's zoned for residences.  Government can and does determine what can be built where because development drives the public infrastructure that our taxes must fund to enable said development.  Please compare the per-mile maintenance cost of light rail versus asphalt road and then state which is more cost-effective for our taxes to maintain.  Dense development is better for taxpayers because municipalities can build and maintain public infrastructure more efficiently.

The ugliness of uncontrolled urbanization is evident all around Northern California.  My hometown of Sacramento is now a greater metropolitan area that has absorbed the farm towns that used to be geographically distinct.  I could never tell where Rancho Cordova ended and Citrus Heights began whenever I drove from Folsom Boulevard to Sunrise Avenue.  The East Bay is just as bad; Walnut Creek, Lafayette, Concord, and other cities all kind of blend into each other at some point.  Everything south of San Francisco is a big overdeveloped mess.  Whatever charm was once found in San Mateo and Burlingame is now lost among too many buildings.  One point of Agenda 21 is to promote community integrity by preserving greenbelts and other natural boundaries.

Homework assignments, if you're interested . . . Charles Hugh Smith's "Of Two Minds" blog . . . New Urbanism . . . Plateau Oil (not Peak Oil, as new technology has always successfully postponed that event).  These are among many sources that document the costs of urban sprawl.  Agenda 21 presents a framework for reducing the costs of urbanization in ways that respect traditional communities.  I'm all in favor of using some Agenda 21 ideas where appropriate in the San Francisco Bay Area.