Walkable DFW?

It could happen.  This guy definitely wants it to happen, and he scores a few good points.

They’re not panacea, however.  Like most urban planners, the author has a real problem — how to get from “here” (DFW as a non-walkable entity) to “there” (DFW, an area roughly the size of Connecticut, completely walkable).  Some of that is relatively easy, if the political vultures were to make the right choices — such as dismantling some of the decrepit and blight-inducing freeway interchanges on the eastern side of downtown Dallas.

Others, for instance, are not so easy.  Urban Heat Island and localized climate problems are definitely an issue, and while technological fixes are neat, they’re not ready for prime-time, usually failing horribly on economic grounds.  Underground heat-exchangers sitting beneath asphalt?  Great!  Underground heat exchangers that happen to be pipes… under anything… on Dallas’ heaving and buckling clay soils?  Not so great.  Notice I’m talking about local climate. If Anthropogenic Global Warming is real, then it’s also inevitable. Ironically, the only nation to meet the Kyoto Protocol targets was the United States, which refused to sign them.  Right now, sitting between 396-399ppm of carbon hasn’t seemed all that catastrophic to little old me; my roses and I would be fine with, say, 3-5,000 ppm.  In Dallas, what we need is exactly the same thing they needed at the turn of the 1900s.  Dallas wants for water and shade.  Give DFW water and shade, and this becomes a very comfortable place to be.  My front yard is a blighted deathzone in August when it’s 105 out, because it’s full sun.  My back yard in the same circumstances?  Hot but comfortable.

So what to do if you need shade, in aggregate and lots, more than, say, a yuppie designer patio?

It’s gotten so bad they’re selling patios with venetian blinds on top. No, really.

Let’s start with the shade.  The answer, unfortunately, ISN’T painting all of our roofs white.  I thought that was a good idea for a while, but it turns out that  when you paint your roof a light color, you’re actually heating the air above your town and making rain LESS likely.  Sure, you’re reflecting away the light/heat, but that heat has to go somewhere. And as any Texan will tell you, making rain less likely to happen is somewhere on the list of Things People Would Kick You to Death for. 

Planted in front of a white-painted house.
Or, “why do you hate trees?”

We have lots of warehouse space, and lots of yard and highway space, all of it with crappy brush grass that’s prone to burn, does little or nothing to reduce heat, needs massive irrigation, and if not carefully tended, becomes an eyesore.  The urban design people want to see lots and lots of downtown canyons.  That’s okay, if you have lots and lots of demand that will pay for it, and can do what pretty much all urban planners suck at, which is making an uptown or downtown which people who have children and are actually perpetuating the species want to live in.  Urban canyons have plenty of shade…but they’re loud and dehumanizing.  All that sound has to go somewhere, and having worked and lived downtown, I can tell you where it usually goes — straight into my blood-pressure readout.  Add heat-island effects destroying any hope of a breeze to that, and what you get is “polluted hell.” (Remember, boys and girls, cars may pollute, but construction vehicles and machines you need to build these huge cities, pollute a LOT).

Not how most humans define “relaxing.”

So, urban canyons and hives.  Not really likely unless urban planners rule the world, in which case we all get to run and hide from the bulldozers.  On the other hand, trees need a LOT of water, and they have problems.  They take a lot of water to get going.  They take a lot of TIME to get going, and until they do, they throw really marginal shade — at best.  And when there’s a storm, they tend to fall on things and break them.  While that’s not really a big deal in a pocket-park where the hip and childless are playing, for the rest of us, storm damage is a real thing.  They also can’t really be planted right next to sidewalks or building foundations, unless you want to lose your sidewalk or foundation.

Oops.

Compounding this, the elephant in the room is that it’s not the tenants driving this process.  For most of the big commercial structures (office buildings, warehouses, etcetera), the actual physical building is owned by big property management companies, and the people in them are simply leasing out space.

Thousands of office-goblins, slaving under the ever-watchful Eye of Trammell Crow.

So you can write and pontificate and blog away, but until you can sell your ideas to the Property Management Mafia, you ain’t getting nowhere.

Bamboo could help some, though, as could Crape Myrtles if used correctly.  Crape Myrtles are already everywhere, but can be unpopular because ever summer they dump a carpet of beautiful purple blossoms all over the ground (perversely but perhaps predictably, this is why we at Chez Happycrow like them).  Planted two-to-a-greenspace, they’re useless, but they can be planted as a checkerboard and allow for dense, consistent shade.  Of course, there’s still that “storm damage issue.”

(Oops. Also, not a crape myrtle, but couldn’t resist.)

Bamboo has a bad reputation because their roots/rhizomes spread (but so do normal trees), but they’re actually easy to control once you know what you’re doing, and plants like them have some real advantages:  so long as you’re taking care of your foundation and sidewalks, as any commercial property ought to be (CAM = Common Area Maintenance, aka, what the property appraisor had better not see you deferring until later), you can plant them right next to your building, no problem.  They start off a little thirsty, but nothing compared to normal trees — your regular property-maintenance sprinkers are plenty, and are plenty even if run only a couple times a week.  That’s much better than what office buildings spend to keep their grass green.  Meanwhile, they throw shade.  They throw serious shade.

A place I’d rather be than said urban canyon.

They also don’t drop branches on your head during a windstorm.  Depending on what species you plant, they grow either loosely or densely (and thus are GREAT for noise mitigation).  You can plant them in a tiny little dollop of green in your parking lot, or all the way around a building if you want to stick soft, relaxing indirect lighting on your windows, while also not running the chiller (read: industrial-strength A/C ) on your roof quite so hard.  Once established, unlike either grass or “normal” trees, they are also self-mulching, throw down leaves as they grow, rather than in the fall, choking off brush and crap which you otherwise have to pay guys to go out and trim.  And they love hot weather: if you want a shady, relaxing building whose tenants just love to renew their leases, bamboo lets you take that greenspace and turn it into relaxing, nigh-maintenance-free suburban forest for less money and less water than you spend to keep “basic, sun-parched grass” green and weed-free.

Which brings us to water.  Which isn’t quite the same thing when it comes to making a city walkable so much as it is making a city liveable.  The population of North Texas is exploding, and there’s absolutely no sign that it’s going to slow down until the Rust Belt and Left Coast recover from their nearly-religious attachment to the Blue Governance Model, and embrace a liberalism which actually looks towards the future rather than desperately clings to the 20th century (something we at Chez Happycrow have commented upon, oh, once or twice).  That means we need to stop pretending that we’re emerald-green Wisconsin, and start actually making our zoning laws work for the local climate.

Ah, Wisconsin, with its soft blue northern sky. Might as well be Nunavut compared to Dallas here, on the same latitude as Tripoli.

Unlike Minnesota, we are not a land of 10,000 lakes, and the way we waste water just to keep grass green in the summer is criminal.  Even more so because half the time, the only reason we do it is to keep the local zoning ordinances and HOA-Nazis off our backs.  Homeowners and property owners need the ability to let grass or ground cover be longer, because eight inches of traditional grass simply doesn’t hold enough moisture in the soil when it’s 105 outside for two weeks straight.  During a drought, it’s even worse — two years ago, I had cracks in my front hard that were 30 inches deep.  And I was by no means the only one.  We need the freedom to plant taller groundcovers on a widespread basis, if we’re going to keep moisture in the soil, use less water, and not get into giant political dogfights with all our neighbors, because we’re wasting water while trying to get theirs.  Not to give an excuse to the “car on cinderblocks, lawn looks like crap” crowd, but simply to be sustainable.  After all, the first step towards a truly walkable city (let alone gigantic regional metroplex), is to first have a city you’d actually want to take a walk in.

“Help me, Obi-Mondo Grass, you’re my only hope.”

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Everything you know is….nearly obsolete.

We are living on the cusp of huge social change, as old-school governance models creak and die because they were designed for the world as it existed 120 years ago.

There are fundamentally three kinds of consumers:  those who spend to fulfill needs, those who spend as a status marker, and those who “embrace trends.”

Let’s look at the details.

What do we buy?
What we buy falls into four categories

Commodities:  (anything in your corner drug store) more exciting than “a stick,” but not by much.
Manufactured Goods:  (computers) people make it, and all but the poorest can afford one of variable quality
Luxury Goods:  (high-end cars, private planes) Some people can afford it, others can take on debt to pretend they can afford it, it’s economically irrational for most to *try* to afford it.
Unobtainium/Science Fantasy:  Sure, kid, you can have your own private spaceship.  If you’re daydreaming, or among the twenty wealthiest people on earth.  The blog on which you’re reading now used to be Science Fantasy (c.f. Ender’s Game), but is now Commodity.

 

The niche a given item inhabits changes over time, but the categories themselves don’t change much. 
A well-known example: the cellular phone.  Believe it or not, a simple thing like Caller I.D. used to be unobtainium.  I knew the guy who more or less came up with it in analog.  He earned a ton of money making it… for the Saudis.  Because you had to be that kind of rich to afford it.  So let’s extrapolate that out to cell phones.
Cell Phones have gone from Unobtainium (Dick Tracy comics and government-only projects), to Luxury Goods (c.f. “Gordon Gekko brickphone scene”), to Manufactured Goods (the explosion of cellphones in the 1990s), to today… when a base cellphone is a Commodity.  It’s now a basic consumer good, and by basic, I mean Basic.  There’s nothing fashionable about a cellphone any more.  Poor people have them.  Nobody thinks twice about poor people having them.  Good thing they do, too — they’re so ubiquitous that “payphones” have effectively ceased to exist.

Now mobile computing is moving down the same track.  It’s a luxury good that has moved into the Manufactured Good niche — not everybody has an iPhone or tablet computer, but those who want one can generally afford one.

There are fears.  What happens to employment when a factory cranking out manufactured goods can be run by a half-dozen people, and robots are doing all the rest?

Killer robots have already taken over the lucrative “be my pet” job.

This is a 20th-century fear based on linear projection into the future.  Looking forward into the lives of our children, it’s also a context error which will look truly absurd in hindsight.

*Most of the everyday goods that people need in order to live are Commodities, and overpriced ones at that.*  The only reason they cost eight bucks, as opposed to 40 cents, is because of distribution and marketing costs. 

Some things are never going to be Commodities.  Computers and Cars are a good example.  That’s because they’re not items — “car” is not an item like “box fan” is an item.  Look at a car from the 70s and a car from the early 21st century.  We call them both “cars.”  But there are huge differences in capability, performance, and durability between them.  The 70s car is effectively unsaleable today — even if one were manufactured on the cheap, nobody would buy it, because its reliability compared to any modern car design would be so low that it would be cost-ineffective to anyone except those hobbyists for whom “automotive labor” is a syonym for “fun.” (Sounds crazy, but hey, I write essays for fun, and I know people who think that’s outright perverted).  Computers are much the same affair.  There is a class of Category Good which will never be a commodity because it depends on Current Generation Capabilities.  In forty years, driverless cars may be mandatory as a fundamental safety feature.  After all, most rush-hour fender-benders are caused not by drunkenness, bad weather, or even texting, but simply by daydreaming — driving a car in bad traffic is so damned boring that people tune out and *forget to do it*. Capability-Defined Category Goods will never be commodities.

Monday morning, defined.

Thus, not everything becomes a Commodity.  “Base-level-cars” are getting there, but their approach is asymptotic and will remain that way, especially once we figure out how to allow your average car to zip down the freeway at 150+ safely. 

Luxury Goods aren’t going away for similar reasons, though one major type of Luxury Good, based on “this is not mass-manufactured,” is going to go away, because to a certain extent, “mass manufacture” is going to go away, in favor of “mass design.”  (Conspicuous and Status-Display Consumption, otoh, will always be with us).

The Unobtainium category isn’t going away, because as we identify a capability, we desire to exercise it, and many of those desires are unfeasible either technically, economically, or politically.

Technically:  Fusion is hard, folks.
Economically:  Richard Branson can afford a flying car.  I can’t.  Chances are, if you’re reading this, you can’t, either.
Politically: We can have limitless clean energy tomorrow — if our political masters would allow contemporary nuclear plant designs, which are safe and literally *can’t* melt down.

“Factories” are currently Unobtainium for the average guy, but stripped down, economically-inefficient factories called “3d printers” are now a Luxury Good, and set to become a Manufactured Good pretty soon.  Personal Factories knock the entire logic of the late 19th century’s technocracy right on its ass. Learning curves to use these personal factories are pretty shallow, and going to get more so. Past a certain stage, when that learning curve gets sufficiently shallow, “unsophisticated commodities” will no longer have to be purchased – they can be manufactured on demand.  And if the raw materials for same can be conveniently recycled once they’re no longer needed (either in-situ or by-service), then an entire class of relatively unsophisticated goods are going to drop from “mass production” to “produce-on-demand”:

1.  Low-fatigue parts (random appliance parts, hooks hangers, etcetera).
2.  Toys, trinkets, costume jewelry, and minor decorative items (organizers, small frames)
3.  Cases, small containers, easy-assemble bags, packs, and low-end footwear
4.  Children’s (plastic) cups, bowls, and low-end eating-ware.
5.  Building blocks for low-fatigue custom structures (doghouses, sheds, etc).

Once a few patents expire, higher-end materials, and sintering technology becomes as affordable as layered deposition, we add quite a bit to the mix which currently requires one to go to an outsourced print-shop:

5.  Home ceramics
6.  Low-strength-requirement applications in metal
7.  Utility/No-Seam Hardweather gear, and eventually clothing production

That’s an awful lot of stuff.  Add “direct metal laser sintering,” without all the voids which weaken sintered items, and I can 3d-model and print any basic garden tools I happen to need, too, as well as pretty much all of the archaeological replicas I personally would need for my experimental archaeology.  Now, I hear the objections, and they are Legion.  But economically, here’s the important one:  “3d printed objects will never be cheaper than mass-produced goods.”

That is the real argument.  And that argument is wrong, because it’s context-neutral, and human beings….aren’t. 

Cost of 3d Printing:  Appliance Aquisition and Storage, Materials and Storage, Energy, Effort (=time plus labor to create)
Cost of Purchased Good:  Mass Production, Marketing, Mass-Distribution and Storage, Labor Markup, Delivery and/or Time and Fuel to Go to Store and Purchase

It doesn’t take long to see Cost3dPrinting <= CostPurchasedGood once all the other inputs are down.  Retail is already catching it in the shorts, because let’s face it, most of us don’t particularly enjoy standing in lines or going to the store just to pick up random junk.  It doesn’t have to be literally more efficient than mass production for it to take off.  It merely needs to be more economically rational for me as the end-user, especially if it can be done in the background while I’m having fun.  Time isn’t money.  You can always get more money — but when your time’s up, it’s up.  Don’t know a single person who died wishing they’d spent more time at the store buying pillows.

Of course, most households are still going to spend their money on all the stuff that the government schlubs leave out of the CPI so that the Feds don’t wind up with a revolt in the streets — food, shelter, transportation, and of course the included-but-perenially-undercounted healthcare.  In the meantime, the 3d printer and its associated technologies are going to go from “something geeky” to “household appliance.” Only in this case, it’s going to be “that appliance which makes random crap you need.”  At that point, I may literally price my income in terms of manufacturing feedstock, rather than dollars.

Then, add the next step:  once they’re converting vegetable proteins to animal proteins, you’ll be able to:

8.  Easily print and cook your cheeseburgers.

Yes, for you nerds out there, at this point, you’ve essentially gotten to the step where your oven is 3d-printing you a pizza and then cooking it for you.  Early models will be clunky, but early models always are.  Meanwhile, that garage full of tools?  Museum items.  Sure, there’ll always be a need for somebody to have a joiner, a drill press, and a table saw… but it won’t be everybody.  Also, your garage is going to look a lot different, too.  An awful lot of our home architecture is based on some very, VERY old and inefficient “legacy” architectural ideas, that don’t necessarily apply any more.  Sooner or later, your typical stickframe house is going to seem crude, overbuilt, and much, much too heavy compared to what’s currently Unobtainium for the average guy and gal.

So what won’t change?  Well, that will be those things which are so sophisticated that we cannot engage in “reductio ad algorithm” to knock it down to Commodity scale.  And those will be the “Contemporary Performance Goods” like computers, cars, and “new stuff you don’t know you need yet” which must meet continually-evolving performance minimums to be considered worth using.  That’s not a pejorative, either.  A lot of stuff that you currently need to have a bunch of money to afford will cost a LOT less and employ a lot fewer people to make it.  That terrifies the central-planning crowd, and they handle it by forcing the currency to constantly devalue (remember, inflation isn’t a natural phenomenon — it’s something a bunch of dudes in a no-longer-smoke-filled-room decide on every year).  But those floodgates are going to open up.  Just as the average person is vastly more sophisticated and better-educated now than they were when Industrial Technocracy swung into being, the average person will be economically much more powerful, too, and eventually the differences in economic efficiency will force these changes.

Don’t worry about robots taking over the earth.
Worry about this kid taking over the robots.

It’s just a matter of time.  And while it’s a brave new world, it’s also a much, much better one.  Bring it on.

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