A Placemaking Journal

The End is Near, Part II: Leveraging imminent doom as ‘Grand Strategy’

This is maybe one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for moments. But I’m spinning it upside all the way.

In one previous post, I griped about planning’s synaptic delay dilemma. When it comes to the really big issues of our time, the time lapse between doing stupid stuff and suffering the consequences is too great to dissuade us from doing stupid stuff. (See, for instance, three-pack-a-day smoking, triple-decker cheese burgers and sprawl.)

Then, looking on the bright side (thank you, Eric Idle), I suggested in another post that the long-delayed unintended consequences of our bad habits seemed to be heading our way fast enough to steepen the learning curve. Hence: An accelerated sense of urgency for problem solving based on, you know, reality, as opposed to wishful thinking.

And, bam, here we are.

In the latest issue of Foreign Policy — a periodical we haven’t referenced since sophomore PoliSci — Patrick Doherty presents “A New U.S. Grand Strategy” that argues simply, “The status quo is untenable.” (Thank you, Mike Day, Andres Duany, Bruce Donnelly and others for calling attention to the article.) Here’s his core pitch:

In the United States, the country’s economic engine is misaligned to the threats and opportunities of the 21st century. Designed explicitly to exploit postwar demand for suburban housing, consumer goods, and reconstruction materials for Europe and Japan, the conditions that allowed it to succeed expired by the early 1970s. Its shelf life has since been extended by accommodative monetary policy and the accumulation of household, corporate, and federal debt. But with Federal Reserve interest rates effectively zero, Americans’ debt exceeding their income, and storms lashing U.S. cities, the country is at the end of the road.

Doherty is director of the Smart Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation, a left-of-center outfit that right-of-center types will, of course, suspect. But Doherty spends most of his space pointing to threats just about everyone agrees on, even if they might quibble on details and degrees: The world economy is more complicated, interconnected and fragile than we imagined. The weather is getting weird. The old fixes don’t seem to be working.

Conservatives are likely to sympathize, as well, with Doherty’s assumption that, alternatives being what they are, America has to get its act together and lead a global reset. Those of us with a focus on community and regional planning will be nodding at a key item on Doherty’s fix-it list — walkable communities:

The motivations are common across the country. Boomers are downsizing and working longer, and they fear losing their keys in the car-dependent suburbs. Millennials were raised in the isolated suburbs of the 1980s and 1990s, and 77 percent never want to go back. Prices have already flipped, with exurban property values dropping while those in walkable neighborhoods are spiking. Yet legacy federal policies — from transportation funding to housing subsidies — remain geared toward the Cold War imperative of population dispersion and exploitation of the housing shortage, and they are stifling that demand.

Smart Growthers have been arguing these points for years. And in these blog posts we’ve made the connection between compact, walkable, mixed-use planning and community health and prosperity a persistent theme. Still, it’s reassuring to see anti-sprawl perspectives embedded into a global Grand Strategy. Same with a couple other recent reality goosings.

Today, the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee, offers for public comment its latest draft of what to expect from weird weather. The report suggests we’ve advanced far enough into the unintended consequences of climate change that, while the adaptation conversation must continue, it’s way past time to implement adaptation strategies. The study’s understated bottom line echoes Doherty’s assertion of the untenable:

The level of current efforts is insufficient to avoid increasingly serious impacts of climate change that have large social, environmental, and economic consequences.

In addition to the obvious, dramatic impacts of more frequent and more intense storms and flood events, there are climate and weather-connected shifts that threaten food security, clean water and air and disease resistance. Even without the complications of climate change, public health was already high on the worry list of those watching global and national trends. Which gets us to what might be the biggest reason to rethink business as usual when it comes to organizing where and how we live.

In December, The Lancet medical journal published the “Global Burden of Disease Study,” which they called “the largest ever systematic effort to describe the global distribution and causes of a wide array of major diseases, injuries, and health risk factors.” The good news we’re used to hearing is that people are generally living longer. But the lead lining in the silver cloud is that a significant chunk of those added years are going to be unpleasant for individuals and costly for governments. And, just as the other Casandras warn, the authors of the study suggest we simply aren’t prepared for what’s ahead:

The results show that infectious diseases, maternal and child illness, and malnutrition now cause fewer deaths and less illness than they did twenty years ago. As a result, fewer children are dying every year, but more young and middle-aged adults are dying and suffering from disease and injury, as non-communicable diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, become the dominant causes of death and disability worldwide. Since 1970, men and women worldwide have gained slightly more than ten years of life expectancy overall, but they spend more years living with injury and illness.

The implications for the 65-plus demographic segment, and the health systems that serve them, are particularly dramatic, given the aging of the largest generation in world history. I hinted at the challenges in a “geezer glut” post a while back. In the January, 2013 issue of Governing magazine, Jonathan Walters burrows into the topic more thoroughly, connecting the fast-approaching senior health crisis with the senior income and public sector budget shortfalls:

When it comes to the story of aging in America, there are two bottom lines. The first is that everyone is getting older. That of course brings attendant health and mobility issues, as well as added costs. (According to one of the bleaker assessments on the American Medical Association website, by age 65, two-thirds of Americans will have at least one chronic disease and will be seeing seven different doctors; a fifth of elders will have five or more chronic diseases and will be tangled up with 14 doctors.) The second bottom line is that a huge proportion of our rapidly aging population simply isn’t going to have the financial resources to live out their lives in independent comfort and security.

All of which suggests to me a come-to-Jesus moment for those who’ll be feeling the pain and for elected officials and their staffs who’ll be held responsible for mitigating the worst of it. Here comes the bright side I promised: Things will change because they have to. And we already know a lot about the changes required.

Doherty nailed it in the “walkable communities” segment of his Grand Strategy. A mountain of research exists about the connection between compact, walkable, mixed use environments and community health on every level, from mental and physical health to economic vitality. In Jeff Speck’s prologue to his recently published new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, he separates the idea challenge from the responsibility to do something:

An intellectual revolution is no longer necessary. What characterizes the discussion on cities these days is not wrongheadedness or a lack of awareness about what needs to be done, but rather a complete disconnect between that awareness and the actions of those responsible for the physical form of our communities.

Fortunately, actions are in the works. I’m particularly struck by the efforts underway in the public health sector. Credit the CDC for leadership on the federal level with their Livable Cities initiatives. And for obvious reasons, AARP is on the same wave length.

Key regional public health collaboratives, determined to approach community health in comprehensive ways, are examples of how to scale up from city and county public health department programs. The Atlanta Regional Commission’s Lifelong Communities effort, was a ground-breaker. And California’s Bay Area collaborative, BARHII is inspiring imitators, as well.

In future posts, we’ll go deeper into the public health connections to community development and redevelopment. For the time being, it’s worth taking a moment to savor the moment and perhaps admire the urban planning foresight of Dr. Samuel Johnson back in the 18th century. He’s the guy who observed how the eminent prospect of being hanged wonderfully concentrates the mind.

Ben Brown

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