We have just had time to read a Sunday Op Ed from WaPo: “Not so Wonderful Now: Looking for someone to blame in the worsening crisis? Let’s go back to Bedford Falls.”

Ross Douthat, coauthor of “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream” spins a fine tale playing off of Frank Capra’s movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

It is worth a read. Douthat nails the reality of evolving, ever more dysfunctional human settlement patterns from 1946 (when the movie appeared) until 2008. Douthat is on target, that is, up until the last three paragraphs. Then he falls into the abyss of Geographic Illiteracy and Spacial Obliviousness.

You have to read to op ed to understand the details but Douthat demonstrates he does not have a grasp of functional human settlement patterns. Every one of the benefits he claims to value can be achieved – and can only be achieved – by patterns and densities he seems to think can be avoided in the future.

For social (and from his other work one would suspect political) reasons Douthat suggests that after a period of crisis recovery, citizens will benefit from a reversion to settlement patterns dominated by Single Household Detached Dwellings and somewhat smaller but still Large, Private Vehicles to access them.

This is a perfect example of political foolishness. Functional settlement patterns are not a partisan issue, they are not a sectarian issue. They are a condition determined by science. One might as well say “vote for the Elephant / Donkey Clan candidate and he will suspend gravity.


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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    “They are a condition determined by science.”

    There is no such science. The purpose of functional settlements is to make it easy and possible for people to be happy, prosperous, and safe.

    It is not to make the settlement itself functional, efficient, compact, or low in energy use. It may very well be none of those, and yet fulfill its main purpose very well.

    And over time it may fail at that, when conditions change. That doesn’t mean it was built “wrong” to begin with.

    If we look at the land mass required to support people today, estimates vary widely according to where you live. In Darfur and some poor countries it is as liitle a 2 hecttares. In the U.S. and Australia it may be upwards of 40 hectares.

    Anyway you slice it, it isn’t 10 persons per acre.

    65% of the population lives in urban areas under 100,000 people, and 80% in places under 200,000 people.

    However, it is not that there is no science. There are some things now know or theorize. But the problem is not single bounded. There are many answers that work, even if they do not meet YOUR criteria for what is functional.

    for example, we know from many studies that people are, in fact, economically rational about their work/living/commuting decisions.

    That being the case, it is hard to see how any planner could claim to have a better collective idea.

    Not unless he is willing to enforce your four silly “rules”.


  2. Anonymous Avatar

    “In a surprising twist to historical settlement patterns, growing numbers of Asian Americans are beginning to bail from the places that have long been their main gateways to the West: California and Washington. Wearied by the same crushing home prices, poor schools, jammed freeways and persistent crime that have sent millions of other Californians packing, Asian Americans are moving to spots in the West they hope will produce better lifestyles — namely Las Vegas and Phoenix.”

    I googled Human settlement patterns under News and this was the ONLY salient hit I got.


  3. Anonymous Avatar

    “Ideally, higher density human settlements and a more compact urban pattern are better for reducing resource inputs (such as land, infrastructure materials, transport, water and energy needs) and for reducing waste outputs (such as air pollutants and greenhouse gases). However, these aspects are often balanced against social, economic and other environmental costs.”

    Western Australia Government report

    The kew word here is “Ideally”. If it turns out that higher density settlements buys you little in terms of the goals mentioned, and you still get all of the offsets mentioned, then where exactly is the gain?

    I suggest that the social costs alone may outweigh all the other efficiencies gained – if they are in fact gained. What we know about the economics of urban spaces suggests that they are NOT gained at all.

    And yet that same report continues:

    Back to Top
    Manage urban growth to limit urban spread by:

    Increasing the efficiency of land use in urban areas;
    Improving the integration of different land uses and transport networks;
    Increasing housing density in urban developments.”

    Without ANY reference to the other problems prevously mentioned. It is exactly as if the decision had been made beforehand, what the solution must be, without any consideration of the totality of results – the ones that actually affect how people live and how happy they are.


  4. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    I’ve been to Western Australia several times. Pretty nice place. Used to have several friends there. I say used to because they got fed up with the increasing socialistic crap and moved to SE Asia and Pacific Islands.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    RH, glad to see you still provide good counterpoint.

    Mr. Risse is always an entertaining read, but that is the sum value of the time spent doing so.

    Until someone BUILDS one of his supposed funtional settlements and stuides it over time, it reamins little more than specualtive entertainment when he expounds.

  6. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Thank You.

    Thanks to Darrell, too.

    I had not realized it until I read Darrells comment, but his sentiments were stirring around somewhere under the surface when I read that article.

    Too often, it seems, we politically presume the right answer and then forge ahead into unintended consequences.


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