Environment and Planning


Natural Resources Use

The Natural Resources are natural. By their very definition they are not man-made, and are therefore not inherently associated with or attributable to any individual. But people need to use natural resources for food, shelter, raw materials and recreation, and must therefore make claims upon resources which do not naturally and inherently belong to them. Thus it is clear that rights to the use of natural resources must be created or apportioned.

Various solutions have been found and practiced through the ages: the law may leave individuals to fight out claims amongst themselves, perhaps with a resulting tenure by a few influential families; the law may attempt a fair and productive apportionment; or the State (or dictator or monarch) may take total resources ownership into its own hands.

In the older nations of Europe, the king claimed ownership of all the lands within his kingdom, awarding lands and titles to those whose financial support enabled him to build castles, enhance his royal lifestyle and fight foreign wars.

In the New World, colonial governments assumed overall title to all land and natural resources, then gave much of it away, in plots to those who would settle and farm, or in large tracts to the railroad barons.

Once initial titles of ownership had, by whatever wild, devious or bloody means been established, these rights could then in the free market tradition be transferred from one user to another by the market mechanism, whereby a current user sells to the highest bidder. "Ownership" was virtually absolute. If you owned a piece of land, you did what you liked with it or on it or to it.

As population densities grew, as people became more urbanized requiring higher standards of urban coordination, and as the perceptions of good social behavior and environmental awareness developed, social qualifications on land and resources use increased.

While many still cling to the historical concept of once-and-for-all distribution of land and resources with unqualified ownership and free market transfer, in reality this view is rapidly losing ground in favor of a more community-, more environmentally- oriented approach involving an on-going assessment of uses and their appropriateness both to changing demands and to evolving perceptions of how we should treat our environment. We need to establish new principles, guidelines and indeed attitudes relating to and regulating the use of the natural resources, to replace the complex and often self-contradictory systems presently in place and to provide more positive direction leading in turn to more respectful, less wasteful and destructive utilization.

The Natural Resources are natural - they are not the product of human creativity or labor, and are therefore not naturally attributable to any individuals as inherently "private property". However we all have a need to use natural resources to some extent or other, and from this need we induce that we have a right to do so. The duty of government is to ensure that proposed uses are not conflicting with, or disproportional or detrimental to, other competing uses and users. Additionally, with today's more enlightened views, we would also expect government to ensure that any and all uses are appropriately respectful of the environment itself, and in terms of husbanding resources for future users.

This in turn requires a much greater degree of commitment on the part of government than has hitherto been the case. It is necessary first to identify land suitable for different uses such as agriculture, recreation, habitation and so on, so that these areas can be earmarked and preserved for those specific purposes. The usage of land for residential and commercial development involves solid structures which cannot readily be moved or eliminated; their location and planning thus requires forethought so that the necessary movement of goods and people between them can be properly provided for.

Anticipation is particularly important in resources-use. It is vital that we should look ahead, taking all actual and anticipated needs into consideration, looking at the effects of what we plan to do before we do it. Much of our land-use today fails to foresee consequences. We plan suburban developments without considering transport, we develop areas of scenic beauty before we realize that we are spoiling the irreplaceable, we satisfy present needs while causing long-term environmental damage or imbalances. Anticipation is vital in resources-use; for once homes and freeways are built, once old-growth trees have been cut, once a chain of environmental imbalance has been set in motion... these physical impacts are difficult if not impossible to un-do or reverse.

If resources are to be productively and respectfully used, serious planning is required, based on detailed and accurate information of resources availability and anticipated requirements. This entails three distinct processes:

first, as a working foundation, the formulation of an overall Land Plan based on a full inventory of natural resources; second, estimates of current and future demands; and third the institution of a Resources-use Forum in which availability can to the best extent possible be reconciled with actual and anticipated demands.

Land has its own inherent potentialities. Certain areas may offer excellent agricultural soil while others offer significant mineral deposits. Some areas are outstanding in natural beauty, while certain forest or river systems make their own demands for special treatment on ecological grounds. Clearly government cannot fulfil its role as adjudicator unless and until it is fully informed as to the detailed nature of the nation's or region's total natural resources.

The Inventory of Availability would take the form of a national map on which every kind of resource is clearly indicated. The duty of those concerned with the provision of Availability Data must be to provide a detailed, continuously updated – and publicly accessible – inventory showing the location, extent and nature of all resources.

The second stage requires the preparation of an ongoing assessment of demands upon the resources both current and anticipated, based on a thorough and fundamental analysis of demographic trends and movements.

As a basis the analysis begins objectively by looking at the size of populations and their broad, predictable needs for urban living, trade and cultural facilities, agriculture, minerals, recreation and retreat. Individuals and special-interest groups as "consumers" will then fill out the picture with additional needs and ideas such as wilderness homes or specific recreation facilities.

The two banks of Resources Data: the Availability Inventory, and the Assessment of actual and anticipated Demands, can then be coordinated by a Natural Resources and Land-use Forum to produce an overall ongoing National Resources Plan.

On this basis, clear guidelines can be established for such broad national and regional uses as major agricultural needs, recreation, mining, transport and urban development.

The Land-use Forum should have its purpose and procedures clearly set out in its own Articles of Constitution. Its members should represent every aspect of land and resources use; its deliberations, as well as the data on which they are based, must be open at all times to public scrutiny and input. Its object is an ongoing National Land plan, representing the continuing definition of zoning and planning guidelines and restrictions at regional level, from which local-level plans can then be made.

The total planning process must expect to give equal consideration to the specific needs of the environment as a living entity. We need to use the natural resources, certainly. But we must do so within the limitations of environmental responsibility, and we must give back the equivalent of what we take through our stewardship and enhancement of our environment.

Some environmental objectives might be listed as follows: zero land/water/air pollution; zero garbage, requiring a determined effort to eliminate garbage at source, for example through recycling and increased use of reusable containers; phase-out of factory farming and pesticides, promotion of organic farming; identification and protection of all significant natural ecosystems and major wildlife habitats.

It will also be necessary to undertake a fundamental revision of our community-development strategies, in order to build new residential and commercial developments using a far smaller footprint. A Mediterranean hilltown offers its fortunate residents terraces and gardens with unrestricted views, as access is behind the dwellings, and the slope affords everyone a view. If we were to build our towns and cities as artificial hills, with homes on the outside and access behind, with all the urban amenities located inside the artificial hill, the whole planted on the outside and sculpted to mold in with surrounding scenery as naturally as possible, every resident would have an uninterrupted view, a garden terrace open to the sky, and complete tranquility, yet with urban amenities a few steps away – and without any need for transportation save for elevators. New concepts in community living such as this can reduce our demand for land in terms of housing, commerce and transportation, thus leaving more for recreation and unspoiled wilderness while providing a hitherto unrealized standard of living environment.

The process thus visualized is not the unregulated free market, nor is it total State control. Rather, it is a process of consultation falling between the two. It is based on the recognition of certain basic, indisputable facts: the resources are natural, we need to use them, and we should do so in a manner reflecting responsibility, custodianship, respect, and mutual sharing. Decisions should be based on objective data providing accurate information on availability and informed estimates of present and future needs, the ongoing plans formulated with the widest possible input. It is our human responsibility, as the life form with what would appear to be the highest form of intelligence, to use the Planet's resources wisely and responsibly, minimizing waste, providing for as many needs as possible, and reaching decisions in the common interest with the minimum of misinformation and acrimony.


Urban Planning and Transport

Homes, jobs, shops, agriculture, leisure facilities, all of these and the many other needs of a civilized society are part of what may be called community, and transport, be it individual or shared, is the vital link which holds together the community's component elements. Random development of individual elements without a proper consideration of their relationship to the whole will not create communities that work, as past policies have clearly proved.

A thorough analysis of the nature and demands of a community can assist in formulating plans and policies which will produce pleasant, functioning communities, their component parts of residential neighborhoods, shops, workplaces and professional services interconnected by a fast, convenient, cost-effective and non-pollutive transportation system for goods and people.

What is a community? The word is derived from two elements: con meaning with or together, and munity which comes from the Latin munire meaning to fortify. The word community means literally to fortify together. How did this meaning come about?

People lived their private, scattered lives in small villages, farms and remote small holdings. But in times of danger they could come together in the town or city for the purpose of mutual defense. All the old towns and cities of Britain and Europe had their stockades or walls, and many of these old city walls with their massive gateways remain intact today. In those medieval times the community was a place in which people came together for mutual defense and protection. Community. Con munire. To fortify, together.

As time passed, the need to fortify became less important. Towns and cities let their old walls and gates fall into ruin. In 1848 Vienna demolished its entire fortification complex of walls and gates and replaced them with the Ring Strasse, a treed boulevard encircling the city lined with fine cultural, administrative and commercial buildings.

This was the new city: a city in which people came together not for defense, but for commerce, trade and culture. The need to fortify is gone. But the con, the together aspect remains, reflecting one of the most fundamental facts of human nature: that a person has two sides, a personal individual side, and a social side.

People want to have a quiet home, a place where they can retire and be themselves. But they also want to come together in order to do those things they can only do as a group: to manufacture and to shop, to use and to enjoy libraries, exhibitions and concerts. That is the modern Vienna, and that is the purpose of the modern community: a place where people can live as separate individuals, yet come together to do those things they can only do as a group.

These two basic needs, for individual privacy, peace and quiet on the one hand, and for social inter-activity on the other, define the nature and purpose of the community. In its simplest, most easily demonstrable form, it represents a wheel, its spokes linking the circumference with the center hub. Around the outside, people live in isolated homes or small village neighborhoods in quiet countryside, or perhaps around the perimeters of small towns or larger cities. They come together to the town or city center, for purposes of joint social, commercial and cultural activity, along lines of movement like the spokes of a wheel. A theoretical pattern of outer habitation and central communal facilities, with radial interlinking movement is thus established.

The home, with its individuality and privacy, is a single unit. 500 homes or so might form a village neighborhood with its general store, church, kindergarten and recreational green; a town of 5,000 or more with its linked surrounding villages offers a wider choice of goods, services employment and activities; and finally, at the center of the region, a city of say 500,000 inhabitants would provide those highly specialized employment opportunities, goods, services and activities which can only be supported by an overall regional market approaching a million or more. The totality is the County or Region, of say three-quarters to a million people, self-sufficient in jobs, in choice of goods and services, cultural and intellectual amenities, and with surrounding land offering space for market-gardening, leisure, recreational facilities and wilderness.

The fundamental definition of the community, its nature and purpose recognizes that the community or county is not simply an assemblage of unrelated parts, but is in its own right a coherent service which needs fundamental planning if it is to function efficiently whilst preserving character and a pleasant livable environment.

The success in establishing functioning Counties or Regions lies in focalizing commercial development at the center and providing coordinated transport links. Without this sense of urban focus, industrial, commercial and retail developments spring up haphazardly. American cities once suffering from freeway congestion at peak times and on roads into and out of the city only, are now experiencing similar problems on circular and cross routes as people drive between work in suburb A, shopping in suburb B, college in suburb C and medical center in suburb D. The phenomenon of cross-route congestion has now become a major, day-long concern.

Re-establishing the natural radial pattern of movement from outside to the center revitalizes the center and allows a coordinated movement pattern to be established. The development of regional transport based on defined cities or community centers may be combined with regional business development especially in economically depressed areas.

In the older nations of Europe, especially densely populated Britain, decisions were made many decades, indeed centuries ago, decisions of permanence (housing and roads can be very permanent!) which make improvements in community planning and transport difficult. Roads are over-crowded and widening generally involves a serious disruption of the rural or urban environment; town and city centers are congested, the pedestrian environment not conducive to the relaxed enjoyment of shopping or taking a quiet coffee. In the light of such obvious past mistakes it is disheartening to see virgin areas of unspoiled land being developed piecemeal without plan or coherence or any consideration of immediate or future consequences.

Vancouver Island on the Pacific Coast of Canada is interesting in that it mirrors Britain 500 years ago in its size and population density. At present relatively unbuilt, in a far shorter time than 500 years Vancouver Island will be every bit as crowded and every bit as chaotic. Much of the wilderness is already desecrated; that which remains offers scenery every bit as spectacular as anything the world can offer, yet without facilities for its enjoyment by the general public.

Around Victoria, the island's major city and capital of the province of British Columbia, planning permissions are given for residential development whenever and wherever a developer so chooses, without apparent consideration of the fact that every home will immediately put one, two or possibly three personal vehicles on the road, in addition to the added goods distribution services. In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that there is downtown gridlock at 3pm in the afternoon.

There is little undeveloped land left in the world. It is unfortunate that in all probability Vancouver Island will be developed in the same random fashion producing the same problems that can be observed in older nations, their towns, cities and roads.

It is vital, in amending older community plans or creating new ones, that the fundamental, radial form of the community is reflected in the location of individual housing communities, shared central facilities, surrounding wilderness, and the transportation links between them.


Transport: Personal or Shared

The question of transport mode is also an issue for fundamental consideration. There are two choices: the private car versus shared public transport. The importance of choosing one or the other at the earliest possible planning stage lies in the fact that once set into place each system tends to perpetuate itself with its own chain of results and influence.

When habitation and urban functions are widely, thinly and haphazardly spread, the individual private car is the only practical solution. But the car itself tends to perpetuate and increase urban and rural spread. The private vehicle system "opens out" housing development densities with its land-consuming roads and sight-lines; it spreads suburbia over a wide area, and it breaks open towns and cities with its demands for roads, intersections, and not least for parking. Suburban or out-of-town shopping and business centers spring up, thus causing the newer phenomenon of cross-town traffic jams. Walking becomes impractical and unpleasant, even the simplest task of daily shopping or taking children to school requires a journey by car. The resulting disorder leads even the most car-oriented communities to put some kind of public transport facility in place; but scattered, plan-less community planning has already rendered shared transport ineffective without heavy subsidy.

The identification of regions each with its center and defined regional movement pattern at the earliest possible planning stage, combined with a move towards more compact residential and urban developments, makes shared public transport a viable and convenient option.

Public transportation can be frequent, comfortable, and technically innovative, with convenient interchanges between inter-city and regional services, and electric hire cars at major stations. If properly provided for at the initial planning stage it can be cost-effective, offering a fast, frequent, quality service at a fraction of the cost of car ownership, operation and maintenance.

With shared transportation playing a larger role, town scale can be humanized and centers pedestrianized with improved amenities; walking now becomes practicable and enjoyable. The environment both urban and rural is improved; shared transportation makes smaller demands on land and fuel; old and young now have full access to transportation and thus to town or city amenities.

Central urban planning should stress compactness, the concentration of development at the core and the exploitation of unused or waste land within that area. Commercial centers can be reinvigorated through environmental enhancement, pedestrianization, and full integration with public transport facilities.

New residential development should take place around country stations, thus strengthening the viability both of the village neighborhood and of the public transport which serves it. Country stations can be developed as social centers for the surrounding area, offering perhaps a village shopping center, post office, a pub or café, and a few budget hotel rooms for walkers and tourists. Regional transport should also link up with country footpaths, parks, rural leisure facilities, lakes, and scenic spots to provide a pleasant day's outing – as indeed can already be found in Switzerland. Concentrating rather than sprawling new urban and residential developments and linking them with the regional transport system provides both transport for the community, and customers for the transport.

In Portland, State capital of Oregon, USA, planners have taken the initiative in providing public transport with integrated land-use zoning, providing green spaces and a green belt around the city with public transit links to both existing, and new commercial/residential developments. The Portland tram system, called MAX for Metro Area Transit, began with one line. The handsome townscaping in the city center, the paving, lighting and street furniture which was combined with MAX, the convenience of parking-free shopping, the enhanced urban environment, the cleanliness and speed of the system, all combined to make MAX an immediate success.

Next, the line was extended in the other direction through largely green countryside; stations were located "in the middle of nowhere", and new residential developments created around them. The two photos below show one of these stations, Orenco, with a new low-key development of community housing built around the station. As part of the new community there are also commercial and shopping facilities.

Britain presents a contrasting problem of existing high density development, yet with a ready-made potential solution in the form of miles of disused trackbed of old rural railways. These can be revitalized as tram lines, connecting towns and villages, as well as new neighborhoods built around remote country stations, with city centers. In Germany, the concept of reviving disused rail-lines, and converting existing heavy-rail but little-used rural lines to tramways is already underway.

Can public transport pay its way? Or will it always need massive subsidies? Public transport can pay its way if it is efficiently designed, built, and operated, and widely used. Japanese private railways prove this point quite conclusively. But the high usage, and to a considerable extent the efficient operation of public transport services, requires the full coordination of transport services with compact residential and commercial developments.


Land Price Inflation

It has always been assumed that land prices should be determined by the free market. But the results of this system are not always beneficial. The free market works at its best when there is multiple competition. But in the case of land-use, this is rarely the case. In the older nations, all the land, or most of it, is used up, as in Britain for example. Even in cases where there is plenty of scope, lack of planning and the resulting inability to initiate new urban centers or purposefully expand existing ones leads to the concentration around existing growth areas even when their naturally productive capacity has been outgrown; in this way an artificial scarcity is created.

This in turn gives rise to speculation, the purchase of land or property not for use but as a speculative investment. Speculation itself drives up prices even further in a self-fulfilling prophecy – until the "bubble" becomes over-inflated, until speculative prices become too far removed from real values to actual users... then the bubble bursts.

The 1989 financial "crash" in Japan, from which the country has still not recovered, was due most certainly to a grossly over-valued stock market. But this was also closely associated with over-inflated land and property prices, combined with speculation and profiteering based to a substantial extent on corruption. Banks holding a large proportion of their assets in stocks and property found themselves dangerously under-capitalized and were therefore compelled to reduce or call-in their loans to business and private customers. The situation has still not been reversed.

In Britain and Japan it is quite clear, given the density of population, that land is a very scarce commodity. However the same situation is artificially created in countries with "wide open spaces" due to a lack of overall regional planning initiative. Where government takes seriously its role in overall regional planning, particularly when faced with the combination of a rapidly growing population and undeveloped land, growth centers can be identified, investment provided, and transportation facilities integrated. What happens in practice is another matter. Growth on Vancouver Island for example, expands around Victoria in ever-increasing circles, driving up land and house prices while the rest of the island remains uninhabited. In a sense one can be grateful that so much land remains in its semi-natural state, for the island's scenery is by any standards outstanding. It should however, in a properly administered society, be possible to provide residential and commercial growth centers in new ways which minimize environmental impact.

On the subject of environmental impact, rising land prices tend to favor sprawl, as homes, shopping malls and businesses naturally seek to move out to areas of less value. Sprawl in turn generates more traffic because people have farther to travel; and it is essentially private vehicle traffic, since sprawl by its nature cannot economically or satisfactorily be served by shared public transport. Private vehicular traffic requires yet more road space, which quickly becomes clogged; speeds gradually decline, journey times get longer, automobile pollution increases, and yet more people seek refuge by building new homes farther out, thus increasing sprawl and road usage.

Another rarely discussed aspect of rising land prices is that they are economically regressive, a fact which classical economists decline to recognize. Prosperity is created by productivity, by increasing value without increasing cost. Rising land prices do just the opposite: they increase the cost of land without increasing its inherent value. And this has a similarly inflationary effect on the services using land, which become more expensive not because they are offering increased value but simply because rents are going up. "Value" in the sense of what buyers get for their money, decreases as land prices increase. This is particularly evident in major cities.

There is little or nothing in the way of goods and services which is not affected by the price of land; rising downtown real estate prices affect everything from offices to retail shops, cafés, and places of entertainment. The escalation of land prices is a major contributor to the high cost of urban living. It can also cause a deterioration in urban quality of life; many of Europe's old established city cafés which have for centuries been centers for meeting and socializing are now being forced to close as a direct result of escalating rents. Likewise the demise of urban centers in the USA came about when steadily increasing rents finally reached the point where businesses could no longer afford them and moved out instead to cheaper green field sites thus creating new suburbs.

If the city or town center is to retain or regain and develop its function as a gathering place, it will be necessary to ensure that newly developed areas in city centers, particularly areas reclaimed from public or industrial use, should be subject to price stability so that rents are economic for those low-profit uses such as markets and cafés which provide vitality and enjoyment for users. This could be accomplished, for example, by vesting tenure in the hands of a locally administered Urban Trust, which would then ensure maintenance and management of the facility either itself or by a contracted agency.

Of equal importance is affordable housing. A home is one of the very foundations of life itself. In much of the developed world today house prices have already risen to the point where young people entering the market cannot hope to afford a decent home unless both are working full time to pay the mortgage costs. Of course, if prices continue to rise, the present generation will eventually make a profit out of the upcoming generation. But at some time the pyramid has to stop.

The provision of new "affordable housing" should aim for no-frills yet quality construction, and a pleasantly landscaped community setting. Building-land costs must be minimized; this can be achieved by utilizing redundant industrial or publicly-owned land, and by locking-in present agricultural prices when agricultural land is given over to housing development. New homes built in the "affordable" category should be rented or leased rather than sold outright so that resale prices can also be stabilized. We should be looking not at subsidy, but at the maximization of productivity and the avoidance of inflated land costs.

An increasing pool of affordable housing, sufficient to meet market demand, would serve not only the affordable market itself, but would also tend to hold down free market prices. The perceived reward of a capital gain on domestic housing is appealing; but the fact remains that increasing cost without increasing inherent value is economically regressive. It raises the cost of living, reduces prosperity, ties up increasing amounts of capital, and puts a home, that most basic of human needs, progressively out of reach, particularly for young families seeking starter homes.

A civilized, properly organized society has certain essential features. Fundamental among these are the opportunity to contribute one's mental and physical labor in a challenging and rewarding job, to receive a just reward, and to be able to purchase the essentials of life at a fair price, including and especially a decent home in pleasant surroundings. A further requirement is the ability to move about one's community, region and nation quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively, causing in the process minimal environmental pollution and urban degradation.

We only need One Law: Do No Harm.