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Chapter 2.12

Occam's Razor
(Planum, January 2004)

By Richard Carson

The words "American planning," while not an oxymoron, are still an ongoing political conundrum. We have struggled for over 200 years to plan our cities and metropolitan areas to reflect the standard of living we aspire to. But such lofty aspirations are curbed by our historical expansionist dreams, our Constitution in terms of property rights and our own capitalist behavior. This uniquely American behavior started with the in-migration of Pilgrims to the "promised land" of America in the 1700s. That led to the great land rush to the new "territories" of the 1800s. In the post-war years of the late 1940s the buzzword was the "fringe land.". In 1970s it was called "leap frog" development. In the 1990s it is became "sprawl." But is there a common thread to our cultural and personal ambitions as Americans, and to our future?

I decided to use a philosophical method, called "Occam's razor," to find the truth. It is named after a Franciscan monk from England named William of Ockham in the fourteenth century. He postulated in Latin that "plurality should not be posited without necessity'' (1) . It is the same as Aristotle's notion that "the more perfect a nature is the fewer means it requires for its operation." In this case the Razor directs us to study the simplest and more straight forward of theories and shave off the more irrelevant or erroneous information about the future of planning in America.

What's Past is Prologue

The psychological roots of "sprawl" are in our history and in our culture. Our ancestors left the crowded and frequently disease ridden cities on Europe by ship in the 1700s to find a new life. That new life was about owning land and being free of tyranny. This desire to escape over-crowded cities replayed itself over and over. We were first European immigrants and later American pioneers in the 1800s. This time we moved west by horse and wagon. Again, we moved to find land. A married couple could "claim" up to 640 acres in the new western territories. In post-war America the migration was by automobile and we moved from the blighted inner cities to the suburbs. Our aspirations for land were smaller. We simply wanted to trade in an apartment for a 10,000 square foot lot.

This modern day "sprawl" was the direct result of the de facto federal policy put in place almost 60 years ago. In December 1945, at the end of World War II, the director of the Urban Development Division of Federal National Housing Agency, described the times in no uncertain terms. The director was Charles Ascher and he said:

"There is not dearth of land on the fringes of most cities. Land appears to be available in large tracts, easily assembled, at reasonable prices. There is not cost for tearing down old structures. There are often fewer controls in the outlying townships, no building code, no zoning regulation. These factors attract the builder to the fringe land.

"Families who are to live in the new homes are also attracted to the fringe in search of human values for themselves and their children; openness, greenery, play space, community feeling. Low taxes are accepted happily, without too much thought for the inadequacy of services that go with them.

"This search is sometimes an illusion. If too few neighbors arrive, services remain inadequate. Streets remain unpaved, there is no good high school with easy reach. If the fringe land becomes more intensely developed, the demand for urban services - police protection, better schools - drives up the cost of government. The empty lots are no longer for softball games. The commuting grind may become wearing after a while.

"Meanwhile, slums and blighted areas in the centers of cities rot."

Now "sprawl" is either a spreading virulent cancer that is destroying the fabric of the American culture or it is the spreading of economic wealth depending on your political views. But in either case it was with full knowledge, as foretold by Charles Ascher, to make "sprawl" federal policy. The government underwrote both the suburban housing boom through Veteran subsidies and then provided the freeway system to feed it.

It was not until the race riots and social upheaval of the 1960s the Americans woke up from their "Happy Days" and finally acknowledged they had a serious problem. Not everyone was living the "American dream."

So Americans started the search for alternative planning models. We have subsequently tried such approaches as comprehensive planning, growth management, smart growth and new urbanism with mixed results.

But we Americans could never resolve our own ambivalence and mixed emotions about sprawl. Philosophically we say we don't like sprawl, but still we physically embrace it. We like our low-density suburbs and we love our gas guzzling automobiles. In fact, fuel consumption has actually increased since the gas shortages of the 1960s, as has the number of cars. We have come to accept traffic congestion as a way of life. As a people we believe in maximum social mobility and housing because it is our Constitutional freedom of choice. However, we also believe in our moral responsibility to provide everyone with a decent quality of life. We have allowed corporate socialism and the New World Order to dictate our futures. Private sector profiteering and our personal freedoms make for a powerful tag team against the rational and comprehensive planning of our landscape.

Today we talk about the virtues of Smart Growth and New Urbanism. However, Smart Growth is just growth management recycled. And New Urbanism is arguably an elitist attempt to change government policy for the few. In other words, it works well for those who can afford it. It is not much different from the post-World War II policies in terms of who it benefits. It is not an agenda that realistically provides for an economically and socially diverse society. It simply makes high density housing more attractive for upper income Americans. It is like we believe we can all live in Manhattan with upscale coffee shops, row houses, and landscaped pedestrian walkways. In reality, the gentrification of our older neighborhoods simply destroys what remaining affordable housing there is left.

The Road Next Taken

However, the next American migration is already at hand and it is driven by two powerful forces - ruralism and environmentalism. The first trend is ruralism. The 2000 Census reveals that Americans are moving from the suburbs to the rural areas. The Department of Agriculture reported that the "The decade of the 1990s has been a period of rebound in rural and small town population growth….nonmetro counties population grew by 5.3 million, or 10.3 percent, during the 1990s compared to just 1.3 million in the 1980-90 decade"(2) .The advent of cellular technology and satellite receivers has given Americans the ultimate mobility. It was the automobile that gave us the ability to travel greater distances. However, it is the information and communication technologies that free us from telephone and cable lines. The telecommuter is becoming a cheaper source for corporate America because all that is needed is a virtual office. Rent will no longer be a major expense for business.

The problem for both environmentalists and New Urbanists is that the ruralization of America is their worst nightmare. It worries the environmentalists because it means humanity is once again going to live on larger tracts of land and they believe there will be more of an impact on the environment. It flies in the face of all they accomplished in terms of containing humanity in urban centers. The use of higher density housing, the need for hard-wired technology (i.e., television, telephone, Internet) and the major investment in mass transit all worked to keep people in the cities and to reduce their mobility. For the New Urbanists, it means that there will be less need for architects to design more high-end Potemkin villages.

The second major trend is the unintended consequences of environmentalism. The National Marine Fisheries Service has recently been saying that the "best available science" to save the endangered salmon is to apply what they call the "65-10 rule" (3) . In essence they are saying that, in order to maintain a maximum habitat, all development should result in only 10 percent of a development resulting in impervious surfaces (i.e., roofs, driveways, roads) and 65 percent of the land and natural vegetation being undisturbed. They have actually started to apply this rule in the Pacific Northwest.

You have to do the math to understand the real impact of this rule. If you have a 100 acre subdivision, then 65 percent of the site's vegetation must remain undisturbed. That means you could only disturb and develop 35 acres. However, only 10 percent or 10 acres can result in impervious surface. So we have 10 acres divided by approximately 3,000 square feet of impervious surface per home and that results in 147 homes (4-5) .That is a density of less than 1.5 units per acre or lots just under 30,000 square feet (6). Is this not "sprawl?" So once again the federal government is setting land policy. The only difference is that this time it is meant to create more land for fish, but will result in more land for people.

There is such irony here. The very same special interest groups who have vilified the 200-year American experience of "sprawl" have just institutionalized it in the name of best available science and saving the planet for salmon. Or at least the is what Ockham's Razor reveals.

The suburbs and the central city can co-exist in relative social and economic harmony without embracing the unrealistic agenda of New Urbanism. Many cities have already reclaimed their downtowns through urban renewal and comprehensive planning. These are still the most powerful and rational strategies to pursue a socially, environmentally and economically responsible public policy.


(1) The Skeptic's Dictionary
(2) U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service 
(3) "Fight Sprawl, Kill Salmon: Is the Portland area's zeal for urban density hurting endangered fish?" Willamette Weekly (October 31, 2001).
(4) Each new home creates roughly 2,969 square feet of impervious surface. The math is 1,694 square foot of roof, 75 square foot of driveway and 1,200 square feet of a half-street improvement (or 12 feet X 100 feet).
(5) National Association of Home Builders say new houses are being built at 2,320 square feet. 47 percent are single story and 52 percent are two story. So the average unit has 1,694 square feet of roof.
(6) Certainly lots could be clustered and therefore be made smaller, but the overall density remains constant in order to make the 65/10 rule work.

Richard Carson. Richard Carson is a practicing planner with 30 years experience, a writer and a lecturer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also an Urban Studies category editor for LookSmart, the largest of the three major Internet directories. He currently manages several websites, including About Planning and the Planning Publications Directory for the American Planning Association. All of his essays can be found on the free Internet publication
"Common Sense." 

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Common Sense
by Richard H. Carson