Friday, May 8, 2009

Principles of Land Use Planning and the California Fire Phenomenon

Every year for the past several years, we have been listening to constant news reports about large brush fires destroying houses in Southern California near Santa Barbara, San Diego, etc. This constant bombardment was not always the norm. People used to live in cities away from yearly fires, but unsustainable development practice, subsidization through infrastructure construction, and pure greed for the value of California homes have changed that.

Then again neither was living in low-concentration sub-divisions the middle of an extremely dry desert or thick brush-filled area without access to proper water resources. The real tragedy of the housing boom has been our environment, where we have seen hugely unsustainable growth as people move toward the southern US-first to California, then to Arizona, Nevada, and Texas. In my hometown near Austin and San Antonio, I have had to watch over the years each time I visit home, more of the beautiful Texas Hill Country be consumed by housing development that then adopt names like "Falcon Wood" or something else completely absurd. These places are building in an area without the transportation infrastructure to maintain them, where new commercial buildings in strip-mall form are constructed because the stores are not close enough and because 70% of our economy is consumption, and where there simply is not enough water to support continued development. And yet we build on, practically subsidizing unsustainable growth through huge investments in water infrastructure and transportation that continues to fuel the consumption of our natural resources. We have known for a long time not to do this. John Nolan, a legendary planner from a century or so ago said that the four principles of development should be:

Conform to the topography
Use places for what they are naturally most fit
Conserve, utilize and develop all natural resources, aesthetic as well as commercial
Aim to secure beauty through organic arrangements rather than through mere embellishments.

The point is this: cutting off a mountain side to build a subdivision and create false topography in the already-beautiful Hill Country is right out.

So is the covering of Las Vegas, NV and Phoenix, AZ with grass. I have promised myself that I will never visit Phoenix if at all possible because that place disgusts me. It is truly profligate sprawl, at the end of which is desert-clearly visible from an airplane or satellite photo. The river that gives it, LA and Las Vegas life is unable to reach the sea, requiring us to pump water into it in order to meet treaty requirements with Mexico for water use. This absurd growth has been spurred on consciously but without morals or the alertness to realize their time is fleeting. The South West of the US is going to be become even more dessicated due to global climate change whether they like it or not so, in other words, they are all screwed.

But so are we. We created the situation where their development was permitted and encouraged, and the government failed in its duty to serve as a guide to prevent what has happened from happening. While those Arizonans get to live there now, unsustainably, we the people are going to pay the cost in the long run as we continue to try to make their lives there possible. We do the same in LA and Las Vegas. We never recognized consciously the danger of promising the water of the Colorado to everyone, and so they never attempted to conserve or moderate their lifestyles. In the word's of a Rodney Crowell song "LA hits my windshield like some Armageddon Sprawl, planting palm trees in the desert makes no sense to me at all." He spoke the truth.

Our disregard for the environment is catching up to us but I believe that it is already too late. As the environmental refugees from projected global warming, we will see people from the Maldives, Bangladesh, Southern Louisiana and Florida...and Arizona.

Now back to California. The unmitigated urban sprawl in Southern California is represented in the houses that are now destroyed by fires, at great expense to tax payers, every year. This is going to be from now on the norm unless we work harder to subdue the environment by creating massive, empty, unvegitated firebreaks. Do we really want to go there? We have separated ourselves from the environment in every other way including by violating its laws, so why not?

Another area where we have failed to recognize our relationship with the environment and what is sustainable is with coastal flooding. Finding it impossible for people to get insurance in coastal cities, the US Government insures people's houses. This likely includes the houses recently damaged on the Texas coast by the hurricanes that hit EVERY FOUR YEARS OR SO. These people came from Dallas, built a house next to the beach and now have the gall to claim that they should be compensated for property lost due to erosion. How about this. DO NOT LIVE IN THE FLOODPLAIN! So, we not only subsidize sprawl by building the infrastructure that promotes it, we subsidize floodplain dwelling by insuring those who live there and cannot get private home-owners or flood insurance for a good reason. These are examples of policy contradictory to the overall well-being of society. The fact is that it took years to engineer the Mississippi, the Columbia, and other rivers, and they still flood. We cannot really engineer the coastal places that are hurricane prone. Our best option would be to stop insuring people who build there. Let them know of the risks, the lack of insurance (or cost of it if it is available), and then let them on their own. If Dallas-ites want to complain that they lost property due to natural erosion when a hurricane hit, tough.

I have taken the time to write a long post on this because it is indicative of a wider problem. The cost to society of not being able to build on the coast is lower than the cost to it from the damage those buildings incur (as evident by the need for a government subsidy). Similarly, the cost to society of fighting global warming now by cutting emissions is going to be much less than resettling half of Florida or accepting Haitian environmental refugees. Government policy should immediately be reviewed to view its externalities, to properly value the cost to society of cities like Phoenix and the wealthy vacation homes on the Texas coast, and of carbon emissions. In sum, stop building infrastructure for desert sprawl, stop subsidizing houses in the flood plain, charge polluters the real cost of their pollution.


  1. Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

    Industrial Society is destroying necessary things [Animals, Trees, Air, Water and Land] for making unnecessary things [consumer goods].

    "Growth Rate" - "Economy Rate" - "GDP"

    These are figures of "Ecocide".
    These are figures of "crimes against Nature".
    These are figures of "destruction of Ecosystems".
    These are figures of "Insanity, Abnormality and Criminality".

    The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

    The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature [Animals, Trees, Air, Water and Land].

    Destroy the system that has killed all ecosystems.

    Destroy the society that plunders, exploits and kills earth 365 days of the year and then celebrates Earth Day.

    Chief Seattle of the Indian Tribe had warned the destroyers of ecosystems way back in 1854 :

    Only after the last tree has been cut down,
    Only after the last river has been poisoned,
    Only after the last fish has been caught,
    Only then will you realize that you cannot eat money.

    To read the complete article please follow any of these links.

    Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

    Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

    Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

    Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

    Delhi, India

  2. Thank you for your post. I believe it is definitely worth taking the time to read and understand. Good luck spreading your message.

  3. LOL! Oh please! You've obviously never had to get a building permit in California. :-D We're having dangerous fires not so much from urban development as from the fact that lawsuits from environmental activists have precluded brush removal in exurban zones for the past 20-30 years. It's a scandal.

  4. You cannot separate the fires from the expansive development in SoCal. Building has persisted at a truly unsustainable rate in places where the infrastructure and resources do not exist to support the mass of people who live there. Please do not dismiss the environmental concerns as inane since there are many good points that they make. Also, building permits work differently for private individuals and private companies. I work for an environmental consulting and engineering firm now, I know how things work now, and I can tell you that, while cumbersom, the regulation is a necessary part of attempting to maintain balance. The SoCal exurbs are the housing equivalent of the current banking and credit crisis-people doing crazy things expecting huge returns, none of it is sustainable or good for the country. Additionally, I bet you that many exurban residents wanted to keep the sage brush and local scrub since it was part of the reason they moved from the city into the exurbs.

  5. LOL! Derrick, we've got the harder working half of Mexico trying to crowd into California. What are we supposed to do, shoot 'em?

    "I bet you that many exurban residents wanted to keep the sage brush and local scrub since it was part of the reason they moved from the city into the exurbs."

    In a natural environment the local scrub and brush was kept down by periodic fires which were suppressed when property development and forestry practices of a few decades ago were instituted.

    As I am sure you know, when you let the brush density build up the brush fires which are now infrequent are much more destructive and tend to crown in forest areas and kill trees.

    Forestry people know this and try to do controlled burns and do deals with lumber companies to clear brush in return for a tithe of trees. Environmentalists seem to go rabid when anybody suggests either controlled fires or lumber companies from what I've seen and haul out their lawyers.

    When it comes down to how the environmental activists think the brush ought to be controlled the program I inevitably see is one where the state hires civil servants to clear the brush. Given that our massively overpopulated civil service has already pushed California into effective bankruptcy this isn't a realistic way of getting things done.

    Thus, for the thirteen years I've lived in California, the environmental activists keep controlled burns and limited cuts and brush removal by lumber companies tied up in court and no money is available to expand the civil service like they demand, so we get these really destructive fires. BTW, Adriaan, who you know, has seen both of the Santa Barbara fires at close quarters this year.

  6. The comments about Mexicans really are not part of this debate, especially since they live in the cities. If we want to talk immigration, that is a completely different issue, and I will post my thoughts on this blog and get yours in return. In regards to the activists, I understand some of your points, such as the need to control massive amounts of brush and scrub, but I still feel that any and all fire prevention efforts need to come with some serious regulations on where people can live.

    Also, in regards to California not getting things done, you know I agree.

    For the Santa Barbara fires, these are going to be a yearly occurrence from now on, especially as the southwest gets drier. Clearing alone will not solve the problem unless it is to completely remove the brush and trees around the area. It will lessen it, but not solve it. The only solution is to recognize the carrying capacity of SoCal has been reached and do what it takes to try and re concentrate development away from the exurbs.

  7. "If we want to talk immigration, that is a completely different issue, and I will post my thoughts on this blog and get yours in return."

    I find it very difficult to separate environmental considerations from the open borders issue. Most environmentalists that I know, yourself included I believe, think that California is already carrying more people than it can reasonably manage. Being a technologist, I don't, but if you maintain technology gridlock which environmental suits definitely do, then California definitely is carrying more people than it can sustain in the mid to long term.

    It seems to me that given this situation not considering the open borders situation that we face in California as directly affecting the environment's health here is just barking schizoid. Mind, it's a common enough attitude. Most environmental organisations support open borders, a situation which makes me doubt their sincerity about being committed to the environment.

  8. To be fair, I have to say that my position on immigration is much more nuanced than just open/closed borders. Also, I do not view it as an issue of "closing" borders (they are already closed and a fence is being built). Really, I do not see how to shut off the flow of immigrants to the US without doing some really nasty stuff like going through neighborhoods and rounding up everyone who looks a certain way to ask for their identity cards. I do not feel comfortable with that since I believe it violates due process rights of citizens.

    That said, what I support is an expansion and improvement of the current system, i.e. the H2A and other related guest-worker programs. These programs create incentives and requirements to hire local citizens first, they legitimize and help control immigration, resulting in less "come to stay" population. Interestingly, while making borders more secure does staunch the flow somewhat, it does not completely, and it leads to more people staying here longer since going back and forth is harder. Overall, though, my family has been using the H2A program in Texas for years and it has been effective, though often stressful since the bureaucracy is a bit thick. Cut that back a bit along with a few other minor adjustments, and I think we would be just fine. I am perfectly alright with limiting permanent immigration, though I feel that the process there should be improved so that, even if people are not going to get to come, they are not kept in limbo for years, which I feel just is not necessary or fair to them. It also creates incentives to break the rules. The reality is that for places outside of California, New Jersey, and one or two other states, immigration provides more benefits than costs. Cali is just dealing with a ton of people coming to stay and making the already difficult problems in SoCo worse. These are problems outside of just population, but also competition between different groups for scarce low-level work. This is actually one of my bigger concerns.

    Anyway, I am rambling. I do not discuss usually a few topics mainly because I am less invested in them, and even though you are right that they are impossible to separate. Immigration is usually one of these since I dislike the response I usually get from people who have watched too much Lou Dobbs.

  9. I grew up in far South Texas outside of Corpus Christi and half the kids I went to school with were either illegal or their parents were. I hold no particular resentment and many good memories of that part of my life. Mind, I was in a minority situation insofar as a lot of my fellow gringos went vis a vis my attitude in that regard.

    These days, I am primarily worried about Mexico, which I love dearly, becoming a failed state and triggering tens of millions of frightened, starving refugees heading north. Given that they've pretty much lost the drug war due to the American penchant for treating substance abusers as victims and they've spent down their oil revenues without reinvesting in their production capacity, the failed state scenario is a very real one in my estimation. I suspect that what we are seeing right now is that failure happening in not particularly slow motion.

    What I take away from all of that is that unless the environmental movement, as it were, can get its act together and get rid of the internal contradictions in what they advocate, American society is in for a very rough ride in the next decade or two.

    The ultimate in schizoid environmentalist behaviour, imo, is the little drama that is playing out east of LA where green power developments find environmental groups tying them up in court when they are trying to develop a transmission line for the solar developments east of LA back to LA. That is barking madness, imo, and the MSM has been very careful to play it down.

    What I fear is that the environmental movement is going to be so reactionary and unwilling to look at the internal contradictions in their many conflicting policy positions that the public at large is going to reject them and their principles out of hand rather than face social the social collapse which their contradictory policies create. :-(

  10. First, I am hoping that our national policy will reorient itself more toward Mexico again. I do not believe that the possibility of a failed state problem occurring is a foregone conclusion or even likely. They are very important to us. Also, we do not treat drug abusers in most places like victims, which is why our prisons are so full of people like the obnoxious pot heads I went to school with and had to see go from pot to more serious drugs. Do not get me wrong, I am against legalization, but I do not feel that it is the way we treat users that is the problem.

    The drug war there was a long time coming. It is about time it happens, and I believe as long as we give them help and stop selling their cartels assault weapons, then they will win and be better off for it.

    I am always surprised to see you connect issues back to environmentalists. I think that you give them more credit and blame more on them than is reasonable. I consider myself an environmentalist, I care about preserving the environment, protecting biodiversity, combating pollution and bad industrial practices, regulating emissions, investing in tech that is cleaner (but doing even it sustainably and in a way that it will become a viable industry with subsidies). I also work for a company that is doing the work for many of the energy companies in SoCal, including Nextera, Cogentrix, etc. This includes building power lines. Also, these processes require attention to things such as biodiversity, but the regulations are not all bad and they serve a purpose. Besides that, there are ways to do things that take into account biodiversity, and ways that do not. In much of the energy development I am working on, things seem to be just fine. Far bigger issues come from rich land-owners who dislike looking at power lines.

    The environmental movement is not nearly as homogeneous and unipolar as you suggest. There is a very large difference between Earth First! and The Sierra Club (or even Greenpeace, for that matter--although they do much less work in the US and I think very little local work). So, of course there are contradictions that need to be dealt with. There will be some give and take, but overall, I believe that the kinks will be worked out. California is just filled with more contradictions than most places, where you have the most radical leftists and the most profligate and unsustainable development.

  11. "Also, we do not treat drug abusers in most places like victims, which is why our prisons are so full of people like the obnoxious pot heads I went to school with and had to see go from pot to more serious drugs."

    Our prisons are full of people who were dealing drugs, not using them per se. Users are typically sent to court ordered rehabilitation. Where I live drug users and too many drug dealers are left to the social workers.

  12. "(but doing even it sustainably and in a way that it will become a viable industry with subsidies)"

    Um, contradiction in terms.

  13. The above was a typo...sorry, it is being fixed now.

  14. Well, not fixed, just know I meant to write "but doing even it sustainably and n a way that it will become a viable industry WITHOUT subsidies"

  15. I meant to write "but doing even it sustainably and n a way that it will become a viable industry WITHOUT subsidies"

    Good luck with that. Subsidies are hard to get rid of. Ask the sugar cane farmers. :-/