The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


 

Words Matter

 

There's no hope of making progress on Virginia's most intractable problems when our words only cloud understanding. Our goal in 2006 is to introduce a more robust Vocabulary.


                                                                            

We are back from a refreshing sabbatical and ready for “Campaign 2006,” invigorated with new goal: Creating broad understanding that functional human settlement patterns are necessary to create Balanced Communities in sustainable New Urban Regions. You expected something different?

 

This column will introduce issues upon which we will focus over the next year in support of Campaign 2006. The 73 “Shape of the Future” columns we have written over the past three plus years have explored events and issues related to mobility and access (“Regional Rigor Mortis,” June 6, 2005) and affordable and accessible housing (“Solutions to the Shelter Crisis,” July 25, 2005) in the context of the theses, principles and understandings found in our book “The Shape of the Future.”

 

The Conceptual Framework and Vocabulary laid out in the book will help citizens understand how to evolve Balanced Communities in sustainable New Urban Regions. “The Shape of the Future” columns have explicated also the failure of the current governance structure both to achieve mobility and access and to ensure affordable and accessible housing. These failures highlight the need for Fundamental Change in governance structure to achieve Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns.

 

A Few Choice Words

 

We returned from our sabbatical more convinced than ever that finding a way to communicate the importance of Vocabulary is a sine qua non for understanding human settlement patterns. Without a robust Vocabulary, it is impossible to hold meaningful discussions of topics related to human settlement patterns, such as Regional Rigor Mortis and the Shelter Crisis.

 

Our discussion of Vocabulary spotlights a few choice words posted on the Road to Ruin Blog by a long-time friend. We will use these words to explore several aspects of why Vocabulary is critical. (See End Note One.)

 

On Feb. 26, Jim Bacon posted an item on the Road to Ruin titled “The Story Less Heard.” Jim Wamsley later added a comment on this post that demonstrates why “debating” “land use/transportation issues” is worse than meaningless without an effective Vocabulary. (See End Note Two.)   For the complete picture you will need to read the whole string on the Road to Ruin blog, but here is what Jim Wamsley said about one aspect of the transportation funding debate:

“This is all a side issue. The main question is who gets the taxpayers’ transportation dollars. Rural areas that need pork, counties that need roads to support new development, or urban areas where congestion is stifling economic growth.”

Jim Wamsley is absolutely right that most of the discussion about transportation and transportation funding “is all a side issue” but not just for the reason I believe he was trying to articulate.

 

The statement: “Rural areas that need pork, counties that need roads to support new development, or urban areas where congestion is stifling economic growth,” is catchy, contains more than a whiff of insight and solicited a round of Atta Boys from later commenters. However, this statement, when carefully considered, is profoundly misleading.

 

Let us be clear on the facts: Every urban area in the Commonwealth falls within one or more counties (and/or cities). As far as we can determine every one of those municipal jurisdictions has an “economic development” agency and economic growth objectives that are linked to “new development.”

 

Further, all nonurban (Countryside) areas in the Commonwealth fall within one or more counties. Almost all of those municipal jurisdictions also have “economic development” agencies and economic growth objectives that are linked to “new development.”

 

Because of these two facts, every acre of the Commonwealth that Jim tries to identify fall into two of the three sweeping alternative categories that make Wamsley’s statement notable and catchy. (See End Note Three.)

If citizens think about or try to discuss land use and transport issues in terms of existing governance jurisdictions and simplistic catchall area generalizations they are lost before they start.

You have heard this before but a careful examination of Jim W’s language brings the issue of terminology into sharp focus. As we have also noted in the past, even the use of specifically defined, but no longer meaningful or relevant, terms like “Central City” are confusing. One step worse is the use of popular catchall terms like “suburban,” “suburbia” or “exurban” which are profoundly confusing. Misuse of the term “city” (that is using the word “city” for anything except as part of the official title of one form of municipal government) causes problems as noted in our late 2005/early 2006 three-part series of columns on Vocabulary. (See “The Foundation of Babble,” Nov. 28, 2005, “Deconstructing the Tower of Babel,” Dec 12, 2005, and “Babble Postscript,” Jan. 3, 2006.)

 

The inadequate vocabulary showcased by Jim Wamsley’s statement is made more critical by the fact that the borders of state legislative districts and county supervisory districts have been gerrymandered to support the goals of political parties and do not respect or represent the interests of citizens in the Beta Communities, subregions or New Urban Regions of the Commonwealth. This is true whether the citizens live and work in Alpha Neighborhoods and Alpha Villages with functional patterns and densities or in non-places with dysfunctional settlement patterns.

 

Until citizens and their appointed and elected governance practitioners agree to describe human settlement patterns by their generic, organic components and recognize the need to evolve Clear Edges and Balanced Communities in sustainable New Urban Regions, every discussion of these issues is “a side issue.” We will further explore aspects of this reality in an upcoming column, “The Book With No Name.”

 

Potential Restatements to Achieve Wamsley’s Intent

 

A fair question is: So, how does one express the conflicting interests which Wamsley noted about programs to achieve access and mobility without creating more confusion? In this section we outline two ways to restate what may have been Jim Wamsley’s intent. Here is the first:

“A critical question is how to effectively spend taxpayers transportation dollars. This issue is complicated by confusion about which group appears to benefit from transport spending.

 

“In municipal jurisdictions and legislative districts where low-density areas predominate and where those who directly benefit from scattered urban development control the governance process, the critical question is: Which specific parcel of land benefits from the new roadway? In other words, who gets the pork that drives the existing political system? (See End Note Four.)

 

“Higher density areas are the generators of regional and subregional prosperity. In these areas traffic congestion is stifling economic growth. Almost no one disagrees with this fact.

 

“Because the settlement patterns within the borders of all municipal jurisdictions are dysfunctional and the borders of these jurisdictions are unrelated to the organic components of human settlement patterns, the roadways intended to support ‘economic growth’ via new development turn out to generate travel demand that thwarts positive, prosperous  economic activity.”

Yes, these four paragraphs are longer than the original but it is far more clear on the points that (we believe) Jim was trying to make.

 

Another way to state the problem is:

 

“There is a conflict between public policy/programs/ regulations/educational actions to accommodate, incentivize and subsidize “economic development” on one hand and the access and mobility impact of public and private location decisions on the other. The result of current policy/programs/regulations/educational actions is that actions intended to promote “economic growth” result in settlement patterns that cannot be provided with mobility and access. Because of this, these actions end up stifling prosperity.”

 

Neither of these statements have the flair of Jim’s original words. However, citizens need to understand that conventional language even when it is catchy or stylish is not up to the task of communicating the economic, social and physical impact of spacial (aka, locational) decisions. Use of confusing words results in simplistic, misleading statements which upon careful examination make no sense whatsoever.

These two restatements also make it much easier to understand that the root cause of transport dysfunction is the failure of state, regional and municipal agencies to agree on a Commonwealth- wide plan/strategy/program that balances vehicle travel demand generated by the settlement pattern with the capacity of the transport system.

In the field of medicine a statement such as “an ouchie in the tummy leads to an ouchie in the toes or a nick in the noggin” would be given no serious consideration as the basis for medical action. Similar statements should not be given serious consideration in the field of human settlement patterns.

 

Never Use “Rural”

 

Jim Wamsley’s words are a good example of why we council never using the word “rural” under any circumstance. The use of “rural” always leads to confusion. Just searching for alternative ways to express the reality that the lower density areas of the Commonwealth are low-density urban areas makes a contribution to evolving a more functional Vocabulary.   With respect to the issue Jim Wamsley framed it is clear that:

  • There is a very small percentage of the 25 million-plus acres of land in the Commonwealth where the state or municipal economic growth/development agencies will not subsidize a new chip factory, a new distribution center or a new call center regardless of the impact on regional and subregional settlement patterns.

  • There are very few places where municipal and state government will not build roadways or approve the expenditure of private funds to provide access to scattered urban dwellings including second homes.   The willingness of public agencies to subsidize “economic development” and support scattered urban land uses in any location reflects the fact that Virginia is now wall-to-wall urban even though some parts of the Commonwealth have very low densities. (See End Note Five.)

We call nonurban areas “Countryside” because there are no “rural” areas in the Commonwealth. Few areas that could be termed “rural” based on widely accepted definitions remained in Virginia following the dramatic shifts in population and economic activity that occurred during and after World War I. No “rural” areas remained after similar shifts during and following World War II. (This is not a condition unique to the Commonwealth; the same is true even in states like Montana.) Over 96 percent of the population in the Commonwealth derives the preponderance of its livelihood from urban activities. Areas with low or very low density are not “rural” -- they are low or very low density urban areas. Using the term “rural” invokes a confusing Neural Linguistic Framework.

 

No One Has Noticed the Whale on the Beach

 

There is another shortcoming of Jim Wamsley’s statement examined above. Jim is far from alone on this one. As we predicted, no one associated with the MainStream Media or with the current legislative process in the Commonwealth noted the whale on the beach during the Devil’s Dance (aka, the 2006 General Assembly Session). The whale looks like this in print:

No amount of money, regardless of how it is distributed will alleviate community-scale, subregional-scale or New Urban Region-scale mobility and access dysfunction unless there is Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns so that a balance between vehicular travel demand and transport system capacity can be achieved.

An Even Bigger Concern

 

There is one other issue raised by Jim Wamsley’s words which will be a focus of Campaign 2006:

At some point citizens must come to realize that on a small planet with finite resources everyone needs to shift from pursuing “development and growth” –  especially growth in population and consumption – and focus on the pursuit of “prosperity and happiness.”

The Major Roadblock to Achieving Consensus on Vocabulary

 

Before wrapping up this examination of Vocabulary, it is important to address one other aspect of the issue. This is the intentional misuse of words, including quibbling about words as a means of obfuscating communication.

 

During the sabbatical we posted several notes on the Bacons Rebellion blog. One addressed the continuing flap over the New London takings case (Kelo v. New London) decided by the Supreme Court last year.

 

In the posting “On Takings and Overarching Solutions” (Feb. 5, 2006) we used the words “Henry George” as shorthand for a policy -- taxing land, not improvements -- that he was famous for propounding. This is one way to help equitably distribute the cost of location-variable services. The fair allocation of location-variable costs also would dry up the prospect of unconscionable windfalls sought by dog-in-the-manger hold outs during the evolution of vacant and underutilized land to more functional settlement patterns. The point of raising this strategy in the post was to identify a way to avoid use of eminent domain. (See End Note Six.)

 

Those who follow the postings on Bacons Rebellion blog may recall that one commenter attempted to sidetrack the discussion of fair allocation of costs as a way to avoid using eminent domain by focusing on what Mr. Henry George may have believed about unrelated topics. The use of “Henry George” was not an attempt to incorporate by reference his entire body of thinking but to identify the strategy of taxing land and not improvements inside the Clear Edge for which he is best known.

 

In his comment under “On Takings and Overarching Solutions” Jim Bacon suggested that the “tax-the-land-only” strategy might be renamed the “Australian” system or the “Kiwi” system – referring to two countries where his ideas have been put into effect -- to avoid getting hung up on any other of Henry George’s views and ideas. Groups advocating the shift to taxing land, not improvements, also have called this tactic the “two tier” or “split rate” tax strategy. To some, this sounds like two taxes. It is clear that more work needs to be done to identify the right terminology.

 

To avoid confusion we could convene a broadly representative focus group on the topic. The group might come up with a new phrase: The “Ben and George’s Kiwi Split Downunder Strategy.” “Ben and George’s Kiwi Split Downunder Strategy” establishes a solid Neural Linguistic Framework and should keep even the mean spirited from attempting to misconstrue the intent. (See End Note Seven.)

 

We came up with “Ben and George’s Kiwi Split Downunder Strategy” to illustrate that if True Believers and those who have an Economic Dog in the fight want to confuse the use of language because they do not like the outcome, it is easy to accomplish their objective. For this reason, the topic of Vocabulary must be carefully introduced within the education process on human settlement patterns. Vocabulary cannot be suggested as a way to solve a problem in the abstract.

 

And, of Course, the MainStream Media

 

As might be expected, there were great examples of the misuse of words with the inevitable result of reinforcement of Geographic Illiteracy in the MainStream Media while we were gone. (See End Note Eight.)

 

Perhaps the most damaging, and the one that represents a significant lost opportunity, was an op-ed by Lee Hockstader in the WaPo’s March 6, 2006 edition. Mr. Hockstader reported on development and transportation issues in the Metro section of the Post for a number of years. He is now a member of the editorial page staff. His appointment was widely viewed by those concerned with creating functional settlement patterns as a significant improvement over the editorial page staffer who previously covered land use and transportation issues.

 

Hockstader’s March 6 op-ed entitled, “We Need to Be Dense,” shows how little can be accomplished even with good intent and relevant experience if confusing words are used.

 

First the headline: One has to be quite dense to use the word “dense” to headline an op-ed that purports to document the need for fundamentally different (and functional) settlement patterns.

 

As far as we can tell, Hockstader is trying to provide a positive and useful examination of an important topic. He quotes Richard Florida, who is familiar to Bacons Rebellion readers. Florida noted that “the only way we’ll really add to our prosperity is to add to our density.” That is good information as those who have read “Five Critical Realities that Shape the Future,” Dec. 15, 2003, know. There is, however, nothing to place this idea in a solid geographic context.

 

The core problem is that Hockstader uses seven Core Confusing Words a total of 14 times in the op-ed. He could have used alternative words that everyone would understand and they would have made the points far more clearly. The net result is another “An ouchie in the tummy leads to ... ” statement.

 

Hockstader coined a new geographic unit in the op-ed: The “cranny.” A cranny is apparently at least 6,000 acres in size. There would be about 55 crannies in Loudoun County and at the density of the cranny profiled there would be room for over four million people in the jurisdiction. Pointing this out would have been very useful. If the vacant and underutilized land inside Radius=20 Miles were developed at this density, six million more citizens could live near the core of the National Capital Subregion. They would have 40 percent open space, etc.  This could have been done without expanding the existing urbanized area, as documented in "Five Critical Realities that Shape the Future." Think how helpful that would have been to readers.

 

Perhaps the most scary perspective on Vocabulary is a March 18, 2006, WaPo front-page story by Candy Sagon.  It is titled “Cooking 101: Add 1 Cup of Simplicity; As Kitchen Skills Dwindle, Recipes Become Easy as Pie.” The jump page has a headline of “Easier-to Understand Recipes Aren’t a Half-Baked Idea.”

 

Sagon reports that “Basic cooking terms that have been part of kitchen vocabulary of centuries are now considered incomprehensible to the majority of Americans. Despite the popularity of the Food Network cooking shows on cable TV, and the burgeoning number of food magazines and gourmet restaurants, today’s cooks have fewer kitchen skills than their parents – or grandparents – did.”

 

If contemporary society cannot prepare citizens to feed themselves without dumbing down the vocabulary, how can we expect to get these same citizens adopt a Vocabulary robust enough to facilitate intelligent discussion and decision making with respect to human settlement patterns in the voting booth and in the marketplace?

 

Where to From Here?

 

So, where do we start? As a hunting partner once advised: “Shoot Newt, the sky is full of pigeons.” We will start by addressing the topics noted above. In addition there will be a focus on consumption and energy production and conservation as well as on land management and food production.

 

When the Devil’s Dance (aka, the 2006 session of the Virginia General Assembly) is over, we will be launching the next phase of PROPERTY DYNAMICS. The PROPERTY DYNAMICS program will be available via the Bacon's Rebellion website.

 

In addition we are working with Jim Bacon to crate a Bacon's Rebellion Glossary to help readers get up to speed on a Vocabulary developed to describe the components and relationships that constitute human settlement patterns. The Glossary will be based on an update of the section on Vocabulary from “Handbook.”

 

Handbook” is in the process of being revised. When reviewing Section 4 on Vocabulary we were reminded that one of the guideposts developed in “Handbook” is that before citizens can make plans for the future they must have an agreed-to Vocabulary. This is a prerequisite for creating goals and objectives, the first step on the Three-Step process outlined in the “Handbook”.

 

There are new tools available to help achieve the goal of Campaign 2006. “The Shape of the Future” is now available at www.baconsrebellion.com. The CD that contains the third printing of “The Shape of the Future” also includes PowerPoint programs that illustrate the in need for Balanced Communities with access and mobility as the fulcrum.

 

-- March 20, 2006

 


 

End Notes

 

(1.) Let me make it clear: I have known Jim Wamsley for years and worked with him on a number of projects. I admire his work and his thinking. I also agree with much of what I think he meant to say. I’m just not certain what he meant to say, and that is the problem.

 

(2.)  Of equal importance is a Comprehensive Conceptual Framework with which to consider them. “The Shape of the Future” outlines a candidate Conceptual Framework.

 

(3.)  We get to use of the word “rural” below.

 

(4.)  Lower density areas where those who directly benefit from scattered urban development control the governance process are ones with large percentages of land that is vacant and underutilized and where amateur and professional speculators are a driving force in scattering urban land uses to create short-term profits from this scatteration.

 

(5.)  The only exceptions to the “we-will-subsidize-your-

investment-anywhere” mantra are the areas that are protected from urban development by private covenant or public regulation. An example of the later are areas that are called “wilderness.” A close look at these areas puts a sharp point on why it is misleading to use the word “rural” for any land in the Commonwealth.

 

When one goes to places that are called “wilderness” those citizens who one encounters are urban citizens.  They are seeking recreation and/or temporary solitude, they are not engaged in full time pursuit of a “rural” lifestyle.  They are almost never among the 4 percent of the citizens who make their livelihoods from extensive uses of land – farmhands, loggers, hunter / gatherers. Loggers and farm hands are most likely to spend their free time in a local watering hole for some “face-to-face.” They get enough solitude being alone on the job.  Now and then you will run into a ginseng digger but they mainly poach where they can ride on ATVs.

 

(6.)  Another strategy to achieve equitable distribution of location-variable costs is to shift from ad valorem taxes on property to the imposition of fees that reflect these costs. As Jim Bacon has pointed out this shift requires a whole new set of procedures, regulations and actions, and thus the advantage of the “Henry George” tactic.

 

(7.)  In the phrase “Ben and George’s Kiwi Split Downunder Strategy,” “Ben” is for Ben Franklin because of the widespread application of the “tax-the-land-already-provided-with-services-to-support urban-land-uses” in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A focus group might consider “Will and George’s” with “Will” standing for William Penn but Ben is known for prudent money management and when coupled with George in “Ben and George’s...” the word “Ben” causes one to jump to pleasant thoughts of ice cream deserts.

 

That Neural Linguistic Framework is reinforced by “Kiwi” (which in this case is for New Zealand and not the fruit) but reinforces the ice cream idea. “Downunder” has risque as well as Australian implications.  But when the phrase ends with “Strategy” one has to go back to square one and ask: “What is going on here?”

 

This is just exactly the “gotcha” that Father Mark Ambrose says is needed to implant new ideas as noted in “Deconstructing the Tower of Babel,” Dec. 12, 2005.

 

(8.)  In a fit of Disaggregated Beta Community media obliviousness that feeds on and reinforces Geographic Illiteracy, Monty Tayloe in the March 1, Fauquier Times Democrat story titled, “The Unique Luxury of The Inn at Little Washington,” makes a big thing of how some are foolish enough to consider Washington, Virginia where the Inn is located to be in the “Metropolitan Area.”  “Now, despite the tiny town’s location almost two hours from the District of Columbia, the Inn routinely tops lists of Metropolitan Area” best restaurants. The Inn at Little Washington has moved the mountains of Rappahannock County inside the Beltway, at least in the minds of restaurant critics.” The New Urban Region is defined by the summation of economic realities such as this. To suggest the Metropolitan area ends at the Beltway is beyond comprehension. Tayloe also call the hills “mountains” and uses the word “rural.”

 

There are other notable MainStream Media transgressions noted during our sabattical:

 

Virginia Business illustrates a March 2006 story titled “Rural counties beginning to attract high-paying jobs” with a picture of a hilly panorama of Russell County.  In the foreground is a cluster- scale agglomeration of urban houses. The editors do not seem to understand that if the area has “high-paying jobs” they are urban jobs or that one of the 95%/5% Guidelines apply and the area is urban, not “rural.”

 

Progressive Farmer makes the same mistake in the text supporting its 2006 list of the 200 “Best Places to Live in Rural (sic) America.” Twelve are in Virginia and include such “rural” places as Albemarle and Fauquier Counties!

 

Anthony Faiola, Akiko Yamamoto and Sachiko Sakamaki reporting from a place they call the “city” of Tokyo in WaPo for March 11 and try to convince readers that developers are building several “cities” within Tokyo for the ultra rich on sites of 25 acres +/-.

 

The story is accompanied by a low oblique photo that depicts perhaps 10,000 acres of urban landscape with no indication where these places may be. Talk about confounding “Geographic Illiteracy.”

 

On March 14 Michael Alison Chandler in a front-page Metro story in WaPo tried to make that case that Waterford in Loudoun County (Georgetown prices in a small package) is in a “rural” area. To dispel this myth try to buy land and make a profit on any extensive use of land anywhere in Loudoun County.

 

On March 16 on the front page of WaPo, D’Vera Cohn and Amy Gardner review the latest census figures and use “suburbs” (including Loudoun County two days before had been described as “rural”) and “Growing Exurbs” to confuse readers. They present useful data but only if one translates the terminology into a intelligent Vocabulary.

 

On March 17 Steven Pearlstein demonstrated that Cohn and Gardner had succeeded in confusing not only readers but a business section columnist. Pearlstein cited data in their story and suggested it meant that “Washington’s Got Enough Growth to Share.” His “solution?” Ship jobs to “Baltimore” and to “Richmond.” He demonstrates no familiarity with the pattern and density or minimum sustainable density of the National Capital Subregion, with the fact that Baltimore is already part of the Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region or with the reality that a massive federal government-related job relocation to “Richmond” would transform the relevant region into the             Washington-Baltimore-Richmond New Urban Region. That is something no one we know would like to see happen. (See “Five Critical Realities that Shape the Future.”)

               

Finally, think how much more useful and educational even threshold Geographic Illiteracy and functional Vocabulary would have made two stories in the first section of WaPo for March 19:

 

Page A1,  Ruane, Michael E.  “Maryland Street’s Soul Hasn’t Strayed Far From Roots: Neighbors Avoid Problems That Define Many Inner Suburbs.”

 

Page A3, Pomfret, John “Where Did All the Children Go?  In San Francisco and Other Big Cities, Costs Drive Out Middle Class-Families.”

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 [email protected].

 

Read his profile here.