Minnesotans For Sustainability©
Sustainable Society: A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
Regionwide Planning Will Make the Problems Worse
Albert A. Bartlett
January 27, 2002*
What a shock it was to read the editorial of my hometown newspaper ( the Boulder Daily Camera of May 5, 1996 ) and to find there that the paper is advocating a course of action in regard to planning which will make problems worse and which will result in the dilution and destruction of democracy in Boulder County and in the Front Range area of Colorado.
The editorial that conveyed this terrible message carried the title, "Regionwide Planning Needed." The editorial noted that:
This compact quotation neatly identifies the cause of the problems ( Boulder County is "one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation" ), the problems ( "traffic-clogged streets," etc. ), and the Cameraís "solution" ( "planning and action at the regional level" ).
Population growth is causing all the enumerated problems but, as I will
demonstrate, regional planning is not a "solution" because it will
enlarge the problems and make them all worse.
Consider the following two facts:
1.) Regional planning does not address the cause of the problems that was correctly identified in the editorial, i.e. population growth. A fundamental law of nature is, "You canít solve a problem if you ignore its cause." So no matter how much planning is done, none of the problems will be solved if the population growth is allowed to continue in the County. Aspirin is not a solution for cancer, although it may make the patient more comfortable.
2.) At a more fundamental level, we must recognize that, the main point of planning is to "solve" problems that arise from crowding. Thus planning is designed to help accommodate larger populations. To see how this works, letís imagine that the problem is traffic congestion and that regional planning calls for, and ultimately produces, a large expansion of the regional highway system. This will encourage and facilitate further population growth so that soon the added new population will overwhelm and clog the expanded regional highway system. (Bartlett, 1969, 1973)
The taxpayers will have paid for the planning, they will have paid for the expanded highways, and in return they will get traffic congestion on an enlarged regional scale.
Thus, population growth forces us to go to regional planning instead of local planning. This enlarges the problem so that local congestion becomes transformed into regional congestion, and nothing is solved: indeed, the problems of congestion are made worse.
The feedback is positive. Efforts that are made to use regional planning to
"solve" local problems cause the local problems to grow to be regional
1.) Things that impede population growth are regarded as problems that must be
Indeed, one can recognize a fundamental Law of Planning:
Regional Planning Dilutes and Ultimately Defeats Democracy
What does regional planning do to democracy? In 1950 the population of the City of Boulder was 20,000. So when speaking to a member of the City Council in 1950, a citizen of Boulder was one voice in 20,000. In 1998 the population of Boulder is approximately five times larger, so one citizen of Boulder in 1997 is one voice in 100,000. Population growth in Boulder since 1950 has diluted democracy in Boulder by a factor of five! This is bad enough. But look what will happen if we turn to regional planning as we seek democratic "solutions" to the problems. If there are 300,000 people in the "region," then, as seen by the individual citizen, regional planning will further dilute democracy by another factor of three. If the "region" includes the metropolitan Denver counties with perhaps 2.5 million population, one citizen of Boulder will be reduced to being only one voice in 2.5 million! Then, to make things even worse, if regional planning is "successful", it will hasten the population growth in the region to 3, 4, or even 5 million, with the corresponding further destruction of democracy.
For the individual, democracy is inversely proportional to the size of the participating population.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Isaac Asimov made a very profound observation:
The Remote High Priests of Regional Planning
When regional planning is done, the regional planners are almost impossibly remote from the average citizen. The planners can become a priesthood which has access to the "truth" as is determined by pliable computer models and by the plannersí trusted advisers, who generally are the rich and influential promoters. In their centrally isolated office suites, the regional planners are so remote, and the democratic processes are so dilute, that the regional planners can largely ignore individual citizens and citizensí groups. With all their "expertise," they can override the objections of citizens and recommend the destruction of neighborhoods by putting in mega-malls, industrial centers, beltways, and giant tourist attractions wherever their regional computer models or their influential advisors indicate would be "best for the region." Planners almost never question the need for these large intrusive facilities: if promoters want to put them in, planning seems to consist solely of finding the location that is "best for the region," independent of the wishes of the people of the region. In most cases, "best" means "least bad."
To facilitate these developments the regional planners can always be counted on to produce environmental impact statements that assert with great authority that the impact of each proposed new development on traffic, air and water quality, and on the quality of life, will be "minimal."
It is difficult for the average citizen to counter arguments that are
produced by distant and intimidating high priests who are emboldened by their
advanced degrees and are masters of their obedient computer models. Through the
use of regional planning, democracy is thus replaced by an oligarchy.
In 1995 I heard a talk by one of these regional planners for a major metropolitan region in a western state. He had the best professional credentials. His central professional interactions were apparently not with people, but with promoters, planners, statistics and computer models. He was thoroughly insulated from any constituency of ordinary citizens, and when he had to appear before citizens, he made an attempt to sound elevated, erudite, and learned. He showed computer-generated graphs of the projected population growth of the region. With regard to these graphs, he used the term "optimistic" to describe the steeply rising curve of the "rapid- growth scenario" and the term "pessimistic" to describe the less rapidly rising curve of the "slow-growth scenario." The growth lines on his graphs went steadily upward all the way to the right edge of the graphs. Though planners are supposed to think about the future, he gave no sign of having thought about what would happen in the years to the right of the right end of his graphs. Would the growth continue forever, or would it sometime stop? ( Bartlett, 1978 )
What might cause the growth to stop? Will the growth produce better lives for the people of the community whose "commons" are being so eagerly destroyed by the influential few who do thereby benefit?
I am sure that if this planner felt that the greater good of the region was served by bisecting a neighborhood with a new concrete freeway, he would have no qualms about destroying the neighborhood by installing the plannersí equivalent of the Berlin Wall.
Unfortunately, the planner did not stay to hear the talks that followed his.
These talks told of the severe regional problems with the underfunded school
systems, the environmental deterioration, the congestion, the air pollution, and
the predictable problems with water supply and waste disposal, which are all the
direct result of past growth and which were not currently being adequately
addressed even though continued population growth in the area was constantly
We hear a lot today about "smart growth," as though "smart
growth" was the magic key to the achievement of sustainability. A central
ingredient in "smart growth" is regional planning; regional planning
encourages more population growth, and population growth is unsustainable. (
Bartlett 1994, 1998 ) It is thus clear that "smart growth" canít
solve the problems.
It was reported that Ted Turner recently said: "I maintain there is no such thing as smart growth. We are the one species that is out of control in its growth." (Turner, 1998)
Smart growth is a means of making unsustainability as pleasant as possible.
One can guess that regional planning made Los Angeles what it is today. Regional planning in the Front Range area will do for Colorado what it did for southern California. Apparently this is what the Camera really wants, for in supporting the population growth that destroys the commons, the Camera will increase its circulation numbers. Or does the Camera really believe we in Colorado will do things differently from the way they have been done in Southern California?
Bartlett, A.A. ( 1969 ) The Highway Explosion Civil Engineering, December
1969, Pgs. 71-72.
[MFS note: works of several of the
cited authors are available on the "Sustainability Authors" page here.]
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