Nonconforming (or unsustainable) cities

Machu Picchu –

The article by Craig Pittman in the August/September issue of Planning magazine entitled “Water War. Southern Style” was a fascinating read. My only quibble with the story is it never addressed the toughest question – should cities be allowed to outgrow their water resources?

I tend to be quite liberal on most topics, but draw the line at repetitive, preventative, and recurring waste. “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice….,” as the old adage goes.

As is the case with building cities where there can be too much water (e.g. New Orleans, wetlands, or any floodplain), some arid places on this planet do not lend themselves to massive amounts of urban development. Therefore, why must those who plan, develop, and act responsibly have to shoulder burden(s) created by those who can’t get their act together? Pursuant to the story, that is a question Atlanta and Georgia should answer.

Just like nonconforming land uses, at some point the nonconforming (or unsustainable) cities should either be forced to get their act together by becoming more conforming (sustainable) or have precious financial resources and incentives diverted elsewhere to more sustainable locations. That may be blunt, but at some point we have to be rational and practical instead of foolhardy.

Is it good planning practice to build megacities in the desert like Las Vegas or Phoenix or on a dry, stony ridge like Atlanta, and then expect everyone else to kowtow to their every water need? In short, no. Being a resident of the Great Lakes Region, perhaps I am jaded, but I think the larger planning profession has a lot of egg on its face when it comes to these macro issues.

Cairo, IL –

We can talk a good game, but when push comes to shove…we tend to cave or get trampled by a stampede. Post Katrina was a perfect example – lots of idyllic chatter about the logic of a large city being situated in such a precarious place, but few (if any) truly measurable actions to reverse the mistakes of the past. Instead, more money was thrown at the problem. Like it or not, certain cities decline from their pinnacle (Skagway; Dunwich; Butte; Johnstown; Cairo, IL; Youngstown, and others) or are lost altogether (Angkor, Babylon, CahokiaCarthage, Chernobyl, Machu PicchuPersopolis, Pompeii, Troy, and Xanadu) for a variety of reasons.

Cahokia –

Am I saying Atlanta, Las Vegas, New Orleans, or Phoenix should be abandoned? Of course not. Every location has its pluses and minuses. What am saying is we need to make our urban areas more compatible with their surroundings, based on climate, terrain, geography, topography, geology, flora, fauna, and other factors, and stop attempting to manipulate the environment beyond all reason. Let nature do its job and build our cities to live within its bounty.

I am also saying that there are plenty of cities around the world, but particularly in North America, that have been largely abandoned for greener pastures, where the resources and infrastructure already exist. It is unethical and immoral for us to discard cities wastefully like spoiled children who become bored with a toy. A number of people (though not enough politicos) seem to be finally getting that here in Michigan, as Detroit is in the midst of a remarkable turnaround.

This is not to say that planners are solely or even largely responsible – politicians, engineers, citizens, developers, speculators, financiers, bureaucrats, businesses, environmentalists, etc. all have their fair share of egg on their face. But, sooner or later, after we have all banged our collective heads against the wall enough times, you would think some common sense would get through our thick skulls, other than more pipe dreams.

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10 Responses to Nonconforming (or unsustainable) cities

  1. Sadicka White says:

    Ghost Towns! were the response to unstainability just a few years back! When the gold is no longer in them there hills – the miners (stakeholdeholders) strike out for new mountains, streams and veins! The insiders(risk takers) follow the miners and set up shops and make new places or towns based upon the “miners” quest; be it for riches, fame, power, faith or claim! The townspeople always follow on hopes and dreams of false claims to “also strike it rich.” Some do, some do better and a lot just settle in! The town is built on hopes of those that ignorantly settle in and for awhile the invisible hopes are built and paid for on the “seen.” Eventually, in the life cycle of the town, the hopes and dreams can no longer be paid for (sustained) on the seen. For example, “urban density” in many towns was a “bad guy” because “he” brought a posse of quote/unquote “undesirables” to town. The sheriff (law enforcement) now very costly would have to contain the posse’. In order to escape the urban issues brought on by the bad guy, the settled people, that is who did good or better, moved out to the outskirts of town after a few range wars with the rangers and built new bigger homes on bigger lots (mini ranches). They use the law to maintain the new arrangement, what laws – Euclidean zoning! Of course, they needed better and quicker paths back to town, where the general store, the saloon, the bank and of course the job was located. Short cut – now roads for the iron horse! Local government is born and matures and needs resources to provide for the “settled.” For awhile everything seemed to operate on a “balanced budget,’ that is no deficit spending. One day, one of the “mini ranchers” got tired of riding miles to work and decides to move “his business” closer to the mini-ranch! Domino effect and now we have suburbs, edge towns,…with donut towns (like Detroit) left to fend for themselves, of course the posse’ stays in the original town. Just a STORY of UNSTAINABILITY! My Claim – this is fiction, I could have embellished the story more but you get the fiction!

    Sadicka White


  2. basil berchekas jr says:

    Know Cairo (IL), Atlanta, Cahokia (IL), and other “strange” locations for cities…even Indianapolis Indiana was “strange”, in that it was deemed locatable due to being exactly in the center of the state, in a wetland location…


  3. Thank you Rick for for a great written discussion on an important topic! As resources, inlcuding water, become more scarce in the coming decades, I think politicians and other decision-makers will be forced to consider the idea of resource sustainability in urban growth more seriously. Of course, it’s up to us planners to plant the seed in their minds.


  4. Keep Houston Houston says:

    This is a bit of a schizophrenic post, in that you start out talking about water-sucking cities in the desert, but then you flip to cities that get flooded like New Orleans (though other cities in states like PA flood a lot more).

    What I think you’re missing here is that the midwest is, climatically, a sucky place to live. The summers are brutally hot. The winters are bitterly cold. Demographics and economics favor big cities in general so you’re still going to see growth in places like Chicago or the Twin Cities. But by and large those small towns aren’t coming back absent some massive external shock that obsolesces modern farming methods.

    I’ve heard Houston called “unsustainable” because it sprawls and the highways are big. But Houston draws almost all its water from adjacent rivers and lakes, and it’s cheaper to run air conditioning in a southern city than it is to run heating and snow removal equipment in a northern one. Likewise, Vegas – while dry – sits scarcely more than a day’s walk from the Colorado River. It is thus unclear to me how the Nevadans somehow have less of a claim to that water than the LA Basin, which lies hundreds of miles distant.

    Ultimately what I would suggest is that you leave Michigan, move to the sunbelt, and enjoy a low cost of living, excellent highways, and delicious mexican food.


  5. I agree that there are many cities, and parts of cities, which are unsustainable in their locations – but the basic question is, if they shouldn’t “be allowed to outgrow their water supplies” or remain below sea level, etc., who is the “bad cop” who will enforce this?


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