The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


The Whale on the Beach


The era of massive over-consumption of the earth's natural capital is coming to an end. The only prayer for sustaining our quality of life is to adopt more efficient human settlement patterns.


The End of Summer


A lot of Virginians went to the beach this summer, as they have done every summer for decades. However, not many noted the huge, rotting whale on the shore. The same whale could be found along every roadway that leads to a beach. Indeed, the very same whale was decaying and stinking up the places vacationers left behind when they departed.


Al Gore has made a cottage industry out of “An Inconvenient Truth.” The whale we are talking about is much bigger. Al’s inconvenient truth is just the left flipper of the whale on the beach. As we note in Chapter One of "The Shape of the Future," concerning Gore’s book. "Earth in the Balance," until he comes to understand the importance of human settlement patterns he will miss most of the ramifications of his observations and concerns.


The whale is so much bigger than Global Climate Change that few can bring themselves to acknowledge its existence.

Acknowledging the existence of this whale is to see not just the end of summer but the end of summers as we have known them.

Since October of 1973 – the Arab (OPEC) Oil Embargo – it has been very clear to some that the end of the consumptive epoch that exploded on the planet after World War I was about to end and that many who have built their lives, their enterprises and their expectations for the future on a foundation of cheap energy derived from burning up natural capital were headed over a cliff like so many lemmings. At the bottom of the cliff are rocks, not a beach.

This summer the subsidies, props, myths/illusions that have kept individuals, families, enterprises, institutions and agencies at all levels of governance from facing reality began to shrink, rot and dissipate.

The Anatomy of the Whale


The whale on the beach is made up of two equal, interrelated but distinct parts.  One half of the whale is exhaustion of natural capital. Most of the focus at this point is on burning up the ancient reserve of hydrocarbons. This attention is due to the cost and looming supply interruptions of petrochemicals. We focused on energy consumption in our column, “Soft Consumption Paths” (August 7, 2006).


There are other critical natural capital exhaustion indicators: erosion of top soil, depletion of marine and estuary fisheries, loss of carbon sinks and biological diversity in tropical and temperate forests, desertification of arable lands, shrinking fresh water aquifers, polluted and otherwise wasted surface water sources as well as other indicators of natural system mismanagement, over consumption and imbalance. This list includes only those elements of natural capital with obvious, direct economic impact. There are, in addition, issues of natural capital and natural diversity for which no economic quantification is yet available.


Global climate change appears to be accelerated by burning hydrocarbon in cars, by burning forests and from the consumption of other renewable and nonrenewable natural capital resources. That the climate is changing is beyond question. The extent to which burning natural capital causes or accelerates “global climate change” and/or “global warming” is still debated by some.


That discussion is completely beside the point. The need to shrink human’s ecological foot print is beyond any rational debate. That is especially true for First World citizens who have huge ecological footprints but it is also critical to reverse the rapid population growth in less prosperous parts of the planet which contribute to total human impact on natural capital.

Creating a smaller ecological footprint is more intelligent and safer, regardless of the cause of climate change or other natural system perturbations. As documented in "The Shape of the Future," the sine qua non of shrinking the ecological footprint of humans is to evolve functional human settlement patterns.

The other half of the whale on the beach is over consumption of all commodities and resources driven by winner-take-all global, nation-state and New Urban Region competition. The scale of the current epoch of over consumption is unlike any in recorded history. The excess of many societies like Imperial Rome or other empires was stupendous but it involved just a tiny fraction of the population of any past society. The total impact of these excesses cannot be compared on the same scale as the consumption over the past eight-plus decades.


If Vance Packard could only see us now! But holding up a mirror to see societies' new super “waste makers” might not help because in the US of A, most believe it is their right, if not their obligation and patriotic duty, to consume as much as possible.


Facing the Whale Head On


Some may recall MainStream Media coverage or the Bacon’s Rebellion blog post on the $22 Million Centex proffer to the Town of Warrenton. Jim Bacon’s post (“There is a Limit After All,” August 5, 2006) focused on the issue of excessive proffers. In fact the $75,000 dollars per unit proffer is only a little over eight percent of the $850,000-per-unit starting price for the dwellings that Centex planned to build. In the long run this amount of money may or may not have been enough to cover the added cost of these new units to the Town of Warrenton and Fauquier County. More on that in future columns.


The real story here was not the size of the proffer. It is not the lunacy of staff at Centex thinking the company could make money on the project. The story is not even the dysfunctional settlement patterns that would have evolved from the project. The reason the $22 million proffer story is important is that this case provides the opportunity to examine the scale of that whale on the beach.


In mid-August we held a work shop on the future of Greater Warrenton. The idea of the workshop originated with the incomplete MainStream Media account of how the Town of Warrenton would spend its $22 million share of the too-good-to-be-true proffer before Centex retracted its offer. We fired off a brief note to Mayor George Fitch and several Council persons. George responded quickly with a thoughtful note that corrected much of the incomplete and incorrect press coverage.


While the Town strategy for use of the $22 million was sound from a historic perspective, we had reservations. Our further comments led to a flurry of e-mails and to an invitation for concerned Council members to share a quiet discussion at S/PI’s studio. This offer morphed into a public workshop with most of the Town Council, the Mayor, the Town Manager, town staff and concerned citizens as well as the Fauquier County Supervisor who represents the Center Magisterial District that includes the Town and most of Greater Warrenton.


We took the opportunity presented by the workshop to outline our thinking on the future of Greater Warrenton. Those in the audience at the workshop were attentive and asked good questions during and after the session. Most of the questions were based on the assumption that the trends with respect to transport, settlement patterns and government’s role in shaping the future that have evolved over the past 10, 50 and 86 years would continue.


Few are yet willing to say flat out that the future will not be an extension of the past and that things that were good in the past -- e.g. a low tax rate and solid, traditional municipal services -- will not be sufficient to protect the interests of Greater Warrenton’s citizens – or any other citizens – in the future. We suspected this would be the case and opened the workshop with several vignettes to get everyone focused but the questions revealed that our message about Fundamental Change did not get across to everyone.


Fundamental Change


The Town of Warrenton, the National Capital Subregion and the First World are on the brink of Fundamental Change. It is profound change that has been clearly visible to some since October 1973 and broadly predicted long before that.

The entire First World, but especially the US of A, has been living on our savings account. We have created:

  • Human settlement patterns that require citizens and enterprises to burn up natural capital to access the necessities of life, and

  • An economy that is driven by mass consumption.

Those two realities assure that the past trajectory of civilization is not sustainable.

Over a year ago, on August 9, 2005, we had addressed several Town Council members at an advisory committee meeting on the “through traffic” problem. We pointed out that in both Greater Warrenton newspapers Butch Davies (then the VDOT Culpeper District Representative on Commonwealth Transportation Board) had quoted Phil Shucet (then VDOT Commissioner and now employed by a Hampton Roads developer) as saying, “There is no indication that automobile use will decline in coming generations –- even considering the increased cost of gasoline." (Emphasis added.)


That was insanity in 2005 and it is clearly insanity now.


How Fundamental will the Change be? We framed the scope of change in terms that everyone in the audience could understand: “By the end of next year everyone will travel only by walking on their hands but Business-As- Usual has created an environment paved with shards of glass and you will not be able to afford gloves. Never mind that many of us are too old, too young or too weak to walk on our hands.”


Here is another way to characterize the scope of change:


“By the end of next year no one will be taller than two feet but Business-As-Usual has created an environment with all the physical, economic and social door handles six feet off the ground.”


My advice to the town was that, given the institutional and economic resources of Greater Warrenton, if they acted very quickly, they may still have the option of harnessing and taking advantage of Greater Warrenton’s resources like a surfer on a wave. If not, we will all be washed under like a surfer who falls off their board.


Comparable Times Past


Following the workshop it occurred to us that there are only two events recalled by those living today that are even remotely comparable to what citizens of the United States face at the present:


1. The economic prospects in the Fall of 1930 when it was clear that “The Crash” of a year before was not a blip and that the '20s would not be roaring back.


2. The early months of 1942 when the United States was at war and there were few positive signs that there could be an acceptable outcome even with an unprecedented nation-state effort and the sacrifice of many citizen lives.


The fundamental difference between these two events and the current situation is that:

  • The Great Depression was caused by wild stock market, commodity and land speculation in which only a small percentage of the population actually participated.

  • It turns out that US of A’s entry into World War II was caused by forces beyond the understanding of almost all citizens of the nation-state at the time.

The “common enemy” in both cases was not “us,” which made possible a unified national commitment: 


Stick together, sacrifice, work hard and we can beat this grave threat to America and our way of life.

The Whale on the Beach is Different


The current threat – the whale on the beach – is different. It is the direct, cumulative result of billions of actions by the majority of citizens in the voting booth and in the market place. In taking these actions almost all believed – and most still believe – that they were making the right decisions.


Citizens now hope that the current clouds will pass over and that they can get back to “the way we were.” We call this mass stumbling toward entropy “Business-As- Usual.” The hoped-for-future is a place without terrorism, wars, and dwindling natural capital. The pipe-dream is that somehow the shaky global economic fundamentals fueled by mass consumption will morph into something that is sustainable. So much is riding on this silly assumption that no one is willing to look the whale in the eye, or even admit it is on the beach.


It is not just “global” concerns that impact citizens. Closer to home there are everyday problems of high energy costs, a nation-wide mobility crisis and an affordable/ accessible housing crisis in every prosperous New Urban Region.


Crime and auto deaths are back on the rise. Illegal immigration seems to be beyond the capacity of the nation-state and state leadership to address. All but those at the very tip-top of the economic food chain are concerned with deteriorating public and private services... Then there is the environment... parents are concerned with poor schools and... the list goes on and is well summarized in the current work program for PROPERTY DYNAMICS. More on that soon.


The Big Difference


There is one other common characteristic shared by the two historic events – The Great Depression and World War II -- noted above. Both required, and were addressed by a nation state-scale responses. The litany of problems represented by the whale on the beach and outlined in the prior section has nation-state-scale impacts but many of the solutions must be forged at the Regional-, Alpha Community-, Alpha Village-, Alpha Neighborhood- and Alpha Cluster-scales. This is because most of these problems are rooted in dysfunctional human settlement patterns as documented in "The Shape of the Future."  (Also see “Discordant Trio,” July 25, 2005, and “Collapse, an Appreciation,” August 8, 2005.)

This reality puts governments like the Town of Warrenton on the front line. Because the Town is blessed with economic, social and physical resources that few, if any, small urban agglomerations have, the ball is squarely in the court of the Town's elected and appointed leaders. They could make a difference.

Reality One


Creating functional settlement pattern in 21st Century will be expensive. Governments must invest in the future, not just paper over past problems and hope things will change. Every time a politician says they will lower taxes, finding real solutions or improving the quality of services becomes harder to accomplish.

Talk of keeping taxes low and continuing to subsidize dysfunctional scatteration of human activity and the disaggregation of civilization perpetuates the illusion that society can live off natural capital indefinitely.

A sustainable future will be very expensive and the longer public agencies wait, the more expensive it will be. The longer leadership waits, the less likely it will be that there will remain the resources necessary to do anything but follow conventional wisdom down the path to entropy. We noted in our workshop that those in Greater Warrenton now live in a great place but asked for how long will it remain a great place? (See Chapter 23 of "The Shape of the Future" on sustainability.)


Overarching Forces


After laying out the reasons why workshop participants should be concerned about the prospect of Fundamental Change and should be doing something about it, we next pointed out that the forces causing Centex to back away from the pipedream of selling $850,000 houses to the over-55 crowd are now impacting all residents of Greater Warrenton, and most of the residents of Virginia.


A spot check of Realtor.Com last week suggests that there are about four times the number of houses for sale in Zip Code 20186 as there were a year ago. The prices are lower by a factor of about 20 percent and slipping. Homes are staying on the market far longer.


The day after the workshop the Fauquier Times-Democrat headline for a story by Don Del Rosso read, “Slow Going: Homeowners Cut Prices, Wait for Buyers.” The Business section of the Washington Post for 24 August headlined, “Signs of a Buyer’s Market: Latest Figures Show Sales Dripping, Inventory Rising for Existing Homes.” On 25 August the same section of WaPo printed a Bloomberg News story, “New-Home Numbers Add to Housing Woes.”


So what is the big deal? We have had housing slumps before. We lived through the housing crash of the mid '70s and the one in the late '80s, right?  Why the fuss? The region has survived the REIT crash, the Savings and Load crash, the Dot Com crash.  Why can we not just weather this economic blip?


One simple reason: Every “recovery” since 1930 has been catalyzed either by a war and /or a surge in auto and home sales.

We are now at war over the very resources that are being over consumed. According to the national leadership it will be a long war. That, if you can believe it, is the good news.


The bad news is the non-war economic “silver bullets” have been consumption related to autos, houses and land development. Those are exactly the things that the United States and its citizens will not be able to afford. We cannot afford big expensive cars. Have you noticed what is happening to Ford and GM?


Even worse, for 30 years the shelter industry has been building the wrong size houses in the wrong locations. That settlement pattern accelerates the consumption of energy and natural capital. The majority of the energy consumption is for transport to get citizens from where the are to where they want or need to be. See any of the 80 columns we have written at Bacon’s Rebellion since November of 2002 that have “housing” or “mobility” in the title or the introductory paragraph.

Reliance on the two economic “accelerators” of the past 50 years would be nation-state economic suicide.

There are no silver linings in those clouds. There is no “solution” that does not involve hard work and fundamental changes to settlement patterns so that citizens do not need to consume two thirds of the energy supply in order to assemble the elements of a quality life.  Decisive action must come soon, before the governance structure runs out of social, as well as natural, capital.


Thing Are Worse Here in Greater Warrenton


The housing downturn is much worse right now in Greater Warrenton than it is other locations in the Virginia portion of the National Capital Subregion. That is because buyers are coming to understand the scope of the impact of new development in Western Prince William and along U.S. Route 29 in Fauquier County.

The net result of this “growth” is that soon “you cannot get there from here.” The problem is that without dramatic action by municipal governance agencies to create Balanced Communities, “there” is where one has to go to find a job to pay for the cost of housing and living.

Farther from the Core of the National Capital Subregion -- for example in Culpeper County, and in the panhandle of West Virginia -- sales of lower priced homes were still brisk according to the most recent data.


Getting from southern Culpeper County (near the Town of Culpeper aka, Greater Culpeper) or western Culpeper County (another Centex project at Clevengers Corner) requires commuting through Fauquier County, around Greater Warrenton and then through Prince William County.


Getting to the Core of the National Capital Subregion from West Virginia requires going through several counties in Maryland or Virginia which cannot meet the travel needs of their own citizens, much less accommodate “through traffic.” For this reason the sales of cheaper houses farther out will dry up soon. (See Backgrounder “Anatomy of a Bottleneck,” and “The Commuting Problem,” Jan. 17, 2005.)


The foundation of PROPERTY DYNAMICS is the recognition that the most important asset of most citizens is their house. In Greater Warrenton, members of the Town Council have the economic, social and physical future of 20,000 citizens in their hands. The Town can take the initiative and create a special place or it can allow its citizens to become part of Greater Manassas, which is what the map on the cover of the Yellow Book phone directory suggests has already happened.


There Are Two Choices


For the Town of Warrenton and for municipal and state governments in general there are two choices.


The first choice is what Business-As-Usual will yield. Pursuing Business-As-Usual will mean that in a decade or so, Beta Neighborhoods, Beta Villages and Beta Communities both inside and outside the Clear Edge in Virginia will land somewhere along a spectrum of possible futures, none of which are desirable.


One end of the Business-As-Usual continuum assumes that somehow individual and family prosperity will be maintained for at least for a decade or two. At this end of the continuum, the problem is that there is no place anyone can go because of traffic congestion. A good example is outlined in the Backgrounder, “The Anatomy of a Bottleneck," noted above.


As suggested earlier, the impact is already affecting the housing market in Greater Warrenton. Traffic generated by scattered new urban residences that are...

1. South and west of Fauquier County


2. To the east of Greater Warrenton in Fauquier County, e.g. in Greater New Baltimore/Vint Hill


3. In Prince William County

...make it impossible to count on getting to the Core of the National Capital Subregion from Greater Warrenton in a reasonable time on any given day.


At the other end of the Business-As-Usual continuum, citizens live in places where prosperity has eroded. In these places only a small percentage of the population can afford to drive anywhere. This is the Sao Paulo condition: The rich rely on helicopters, the poor walk, the rest in bus, taxi and private vehicles are stuck in traffic jams up to 60 miles long. (See “Regional Rigor Mortis,”  June 6, 2005.)


The Other Choice


There is an alternative to landing on the Business-As- Usual continuum that stretches from prosperous gridlock to Sao Paulo’s poverty gridlock. This alternative requires the evolution of Greater Warrenton (and every other village-scale and community-scale place) to be one where there is little need or desire to go anywhere else because citizens are where they want to be. In other words there is a Balance of Jobs/Housing/Services/Recreation/Amenity (J/H/S/R/A). (For a glimpse of what “balance” means, see “Balanced Communities,” August 23, 2005.)


Under this alternative there would be plenty of roadway and railway capacity on existing facilities and plenty of energy for the desired travel because everyone will not need to travel long distances or to random locations to assemble every element of a quality life.


As noted in past columns, the first step towards this actuality is for all to pay their fair share of location variable costs. More on this in our next column.


Threshold Guidelines


With Fundamental Change on the horizon and the options limited by the cumulative impact of past mistakes, what can individuals and their governments do?


The Town of Warrenton is a Beta Village-scale urban agglomeration. It is acknowledged that the Town and the surrounding territory in Fauquier County that make up Greater Warrenton needs a new plan – more on that later.


But what can the Town do right now? Here is the advice we gave the Council at the workshop:

  • If you see a plan for public facility or a private development with a parking lot surrounding a building, send it back.

  • If you see a plan for a public facility or a private development that is at the edge of existing development and not surrounded by existing urban land uses, send it back.

In other words, if a “project” does not contribute to functional urban fabric, send it back to the drawing boards.


For most of the northern part of Virginia and West Virginia that falls within the National Capital Subregion, the county is the existing unit of “municipal” governance. The governance structure needs to evolve but that is another story for another time.


Depending on which county one is examining, the county borders may include:

  • A partial Beta Community

  • A Beta Community, or

  • Multiple Beta Communities.

Within the Clear Edge around the Core of the National Capital Subregion, Loudoun County includes four Beta Communities – two of which it shares with Fairfax County. Prince William has two Beta Communities. Fairfax County has nine or ten Beta Communities, depending on how the boundaries evolve. Fairfax County shares two Beta Communities with Loudoun County and it shares two Beta Communities with Arlington County.


For these places the “Threshold Guidelines” are more complex but just as necessary. Here are some possibilities to get the discussion going:

  • If a proposed new/expanded roadway or new/ extended shared-vehicle system does not reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (public or private) by a significant amount, thus supporting functional settlement patterns, send it back. The idea that adding more transport facilities which generates more vehicle travel is a benefit is just denying the existence of the whale on the beach, continues the pipedream and makes mobility and access worse.

  • If someone proposes a new “mixed use center” or a new “town center,” demand to see how this project contributes to functional settlement patterns at the Alpha Neighborhood, Alpha Village and Alpha Community scales. This is the “Next Higher Component Strategy” outlined in "The Shape of the Future."

Of course, the Guidelines listed above for Towns and other small urban agglomerations also apply for every small “project” in any jurisdiction.  These Guidelines at the town level and at the county level will accelerate the demand for truly “Comprehensive and Balanced” Regional, Subregional, Community, Village and Neighborhood scale plans. This is where Regional Metrics and the role of the Clear Edge a balanced of J/H/S/R/A come into play.


The New Plan


At the Town of Warrenton workshop we outlined ideas for a fundamentally new plan for Greater Warrenton. This involved ideas for evolving five neighborhoods each with a balance of J/H/S/R/A that would meld into a Greater Warrenton that has Balance at the Alpha Village scale.   Of course, Greater Warrenton will only function within a Balanced Greater Warrenton/Fauquier Alpha Community.  Such a community must evolve to become a Balanced But Disaggregated Community outside the Clear Edge around the Core of the National Capital Subregion. Any discussion of these future plans requires an understanding of the New Urban Region Conceptual Framework and the Vocabulary to discuss that Framework. Quantification via Regional Metrics will also be key.


Two Spheres


We closed the workshop with a reminder that when considering the future there are two distinct spheres of concern:

  • First is a process to evolve intelligent plans and efficient strategies to implement those plans.

  • Second is developing citizen support for intelligent plans and actions.

There is a need for new and better ideas but there is also the need for citizen education and support for new ideas and intelligent actions without regard to the specifics of such plans and programs. Only with such understandings and support will jurisdictions avoid dog-in-the-manger opposition to positive change. That is the challenge that PROPERTY DYNAMICS has staked out.


To paraphrase Will Rogers: It is not what you do not know that hurts you, it is what you know that ain't so.


The biggest “Aint So” is that “We Can Continue To Do What We Have Been Doing,” aka Business As Usual. This is where those who fear that change will undermine their economic well-being come forward to rant about their rights. The forces of Business-As-Usual are trying to sell the American Delusion and call it The America Dream.


Where to From Here?


The future of evolving Balanced Communities and functional human settlement patterns depends on citizen understanding of three basic sets of relationships:

  • Comprehensive Conceptual Framework of human settlement patterns outlined in "The Shape of the Future."

This Backgrounder introduces Quantification in the context of preservation of open land both inside and outside the Clear Edge. We will be expanding these themes in the next two columns at Bacon’s Rebellion.


-- August 28, 2006















Ed Risse and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


Read his profile here.