The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


What Is Wrong with this Picture?


Yes, the United States does need to invest more money on infrastructure. But without Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns, most of the spending would be squandered.


Last week we received a flier for an Urban Land Institute (ULI) panel titled: “Neglecting Transportation Investment: Are we Turning our Back on the Country’s Greatest Economic Development Story?” (See End Note One.)


Few would argue that at the nation-state, state and municipal levels, citizens and their governance structure are investing far too little in the maintenance and repair of infrastructure including transport. They are also neglecting to intelligently invest in other systems and programs necessary to support contemporary society – for example education, food security, balance of trade, health care systems, etc., etc.

Since World War II, public payments to individuals and subsidies to pressure groups (e.g. sugar and cotton farmers) as well as the interest on public debt have far outpaced investment in the future.

So, what is wrong with a breakfast session that focuses on investment in transportation infrastructure? Two things:

  • Spending money on infrastructure to support the current dysfunctional human settlement patterns is throwing good money after bad.

  • “Economic development” in the context outlined in this flier translates to continuing unsustainable Mass Over-Consumption.

First, the issue of throwing good money after bad: On 9 May Jim Bacon posted “Annual Infrastructure Maintenance Deficit: $ 1.6 Trillion and Counting” on the Bacon's Rebellion blog. The focus of Jim’s post was a Wall Street Journal article reporting on a new infrastructure study by ULI.


Those interested in digging further into the topic of infrastructure will find the links from, and some of the comments on, this post useful.


To ULI’s credit, the Wall Street Journal cites the ULI report as suggesting that leaders and planners addressing infrastructure investment “should reconsider the way U.S. ‘cities’ (sic) are built.” The Journal notes several possible “solutions” set forth in the ULI report. The comments following Jim’s post point out that these are not really “solutions” but merely items to consider when crafting a strategy to evolve Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns necessary create a sustainable future.


There is nothing in the ULI session flier to suggest that before more money is spent on transport infrastructure there needs to be a strategy for evolving functional and sustainable settlement patterns. Once there is a commitment to that strategy, there next needs to be a plan for transport facilities and programs that will serve and support the desired settlement patterns. As we have noted in the past, the last plan to balance land use and transportation in the National Capital Subregion was the L’Enfant plan of 1791.


The second topic – “Economic Development” is more complex and has not yet been intelligently addressed in most discussions of infrastructure planning. It is just “assumed” that economic development is an unvarnished good thing that leads to prosperity, safety and happiness.


We noted in our backgrounder, “A New Metric for Citizen Well Being,” that the political process in the US of A (and in every democracy) must Fundamentally Change to replace consumption- and growth-based prosperity as a measure of citizen well being.


The development industry is now designed to drive consumption: more houses, bigger houses, more offices, larger offices and more roads and rails to serve them. It is clear that we live in a finite galaxy on a finite planet. It is even more clear that citizens, especially in the US of A, are burning through critical nonrenewable resources at an unsustainable rate. (See End Note Two.)


The U.S. economy is in a precarious position and not just because 70 percent of the economy is driven by Mass Over-Consumption of ill-informed citizens. (See End Note Three.) It is not just a recession that is on the horizon, it is the end of free (aka, well-informed and unsubsidized) markets and democracy.


We document in "The Shape of the Future" that transport failure (the Mobility and Access Crisis) is the canary in the minefield of dysfunctional human settlement patterns. Because of the obvious, immediate and widespread impact up and down economic food chain of the Mobility and Access Crisis, questioning all attempts to spend money to “solve” the Mobility and Access Crisis may be the best way to illuminate the need for Fundamental Change in the economic structure.


Since World War II every economic recovery has been driven by autos and home building. Citizens need a new conception of settlement patterns and of transport. Questioning the reliance on Autonomobiles to provide Mobility and Access would be a good place to start. (See End Note Four.)


ULI prides itself on being a (or perhaps “the”) thought leader in the development industry. Before ULI and others launch an initiative to convince citizens to spend more on future transport infrastructure there must be a strategy to evolve sustainable settlement patterns and a path towards those settlement patterns that does not rely on the Mass-Over-Consumption addictions of Business As Usual.


As if to underscore the need for action on Mass Over-Consumption, WaPo's Sunday Business section featured a story titled, "Save the Earth, Sacrifice Your Returns? Investing with Your Conscience Has Its Rewards but May Affect Your Bottom Line," by Jeff Brown.


The message is clear that society can maximize profits for those at the top of the economic food chain or society can evolve a sustainable future. ULI can push for this or for that, but not for both. The WaPo story was a fitting item for Mother's Day -- Mother Earth, that is.


-- May 14, 2007



End Notes


(1) Text from Urban Land Institute flier:


Neglecting Transportation Investment:


Are we Turning our Back on the Country's

Greatest Economic Development Story?


 The Washington region’s exceptional economic growth continues to provide the opportunity to reshape and add value to our communities. This value has been compromised however by insufficient attention to and investment in transportation.


Learn from our experts what strategies are being implemented nationally, regionally and locally to address this imminent issue, as well as who will pay for

our roadways, mass transit, and other transportation improvements. Determine how these region-changing projects will add or create value as they unfold. Will

they keep up with regional growth and, if not, what geographical areas will benefit or suffer as a result?


Series Chair: David Forrester

Moderator: James W. Todd


President, Forrester Construction Company President, The Peterson Companies



Anthony Downs, Senior Fellow, Metropolitian Policy, The Brookings Institute

Thomas J. Murphy, Senior Resident Fellow, ULI-the Urban Land Institute



Gerry Connolly, Chairman, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors


Douglas Fahl, Executive VP, Land Design & Survey Division, Dewberry


David Flanagan, President, Elm Street Development, Inc.


John D. Porcari, Secretary, Maryland Department of Transportation

(2) Last month's discovery of an “earth-like” planet outside our galaxy is not an escape valve. With current technology it would take 1,200,000 years to get there.  The nearest sun-like star in our own galaxy is a mere 250,000 travel years away. 


(3) The folly of dependence on imported energy and vulnerability to a global food security failure grows more obvious every day.  Trade agreements, tariffs and subsidies are yielding the wrong results as demonstrated by the balance of payments, pressure for illegal immigration, systemic unemployment and other dysfunctions.


If there were need for further proof, the performance of the New York Stock Exchange last Thursday and Friday demonstrates that stock markets are just another gambling venue.  The fact that some can make money by offering “sub-prime” mortgages demonstrates that “prime” is a fictitious fabrication of financial institutions. Did it seem very warm to you last week? And what about the first subtropical storm of the season arriving three weeks early? Someone said that Santa Catalina was on fire?


(4) Last week Dan Lienert noted in Forbes that many Autonomobiles lose 40 to 50 percent of their value in the first two years. That means for many, half their investment is gone before the car is paid for. Talk about ways to subsidize the Autonomobile industry!     















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.