Problem 6 - The Problem of Growth

Florida growth patterns, now and in 50 years

   This post is part of the serialization of the first chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability].

   Every Chamber of Commerce in the US has economic growth as one of its top priorities. Most cities aspired to grow, and grow they did, especially after World War II. Our economic health is measured by a growing Gross Domestic Product. But there is a problem: how do we reconcile the idea of growth with the idea of sustainability?

   The image below shows what will happen to Florida if growth continues along current trends. In 50 years, you can see that with the exception of the Lake Okeechobee area, the peninsula will pretty much be one enormous city. What then? a half-century is a short period in the time scale of urbanism, where cities can live for two thousand years or more. Add another hundred years to the Florida timeline and it’s clear that there will be no farmland remaining anywhere in the state. And then what?

   Somehow, we must come to grips with the idea that growth, as good as it may sound, and as enticing as it may be, simply is not sustainable. We cannot grow larger forever. I realize that this may be shocking to you; it was shocking to me when I first tried to get my mind around the idea. But if we are serious about sustainability, then we must figure out how to keep things going for a long time. And a path that has us running out of things (including land) in the foreseeable future isn’t going to allow us to keep things going. In other words, that course of action, by definition, is not sustainable.

   If growing forever is not sustainable, what is? We will see later in this book that nature provides many excellent models. One of nature’s models is the growth model. Consider this: People are conceived as a single cell and grow in the womb until birth. We then grow to our final height at a fairly early age; often between 16 and 20 years old. From that point forward, our physical size remains (hopefully) about the same for the rest of our lives. But we can grow in many other ways: We can grow wiser, we can grow more talented, we can grow more athletic, we can grow more cultured, or more able in many other ways as we mature.

   If this is nature’s way of growth, why should this not be cities’ way of growth as well? What if cities were to decide that “we’re not going to get any larger on the land, but we will get better; we will get stronger; we will become more cultured; we will become wiser.” The population could still grow, of course, but the city could accommodate that through growing more compact rather than sprawling. This is nothing new; for millennia, cities grew by growing more compact rather than growing out; they just haven’t done it so much recently.

   A few American cities are already trying crude versions of this idea. Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary is the most famous. But the problem with Portland is that while it is growing more compact, the growth inside the Urban Growth Boundary is of no higher quality than the recent sprawling growth in any other American city; it is merely denser. So for nature’s way of growth to really work for cities, the quality of life must also increase, not just the density.

   So let’s go ahead and face up to the fact that we cannot grow larger forever. This is the failed policy of sprawl; it is fundamentally unsustainable. But we can grow better without limits. It is nature’s way; why should it not be ours?

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 - 05:18 PM


   Paragraph 4 hits the nose on the head.  When speaking with real estate/business professionals the only way to help wrap their head around the idea isn't to demonize "growth" so much but type of growth.  This is where I channel Herman Daly and emphasize QUALITATIVE growth over QUANTITATIVE.  

   We've grown quantitatively for so long that is all they know, but we haven't maintained (nor could we) a proportional population growth which is the only logical reason for such growth.  So instead we robbed peter to pay paul, ie the cities for the suburbs.  In many American cities, neither of which are hospitable or humane to live in.

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