It is what we do

If you are an urbanist seeking the preeminence of density or an outlander of the city, hoping to save the forest from billions of little houses, the task is clear. Unite on containing urban regions, and you both win. Explore, share, laugh at hopelessness. Everything is possible.


From 1800 to 2000, builders, developers, visionaries, and businesses, called upon the professions of planning, engineering, and architecture to expand the urban world. The grievous mistakes of this settlement and development practice rapidly accumulated vast quantities of material from the Earth’s crust to reveal the misconceptions embedded in the arbitrary assumption of unlimited resources.

Before 1800, these forces developed without harmful environmental consequences. It was not until the beginning of the 21st century that the magnitude of urbanization began to turn elusively unpleasant. Now over eighty percent of Americans and half the world live in the midst of it, yet; the “city” remains a vague notion. Compared to the simplicity of a campfire in the woods, and despite the super-usefulness of urban living, the word “city” remains threatening in its complexity. Nevertheless, from the low-density suburbs to the towers of Manhattan, the city must succeed. It is what we do. It is all we have. For the first time, a global reckoning of human behavior will be fundamental to the intricacy of all life on Earth.

All settlements have politically finite boundaries that yield the average number of people (or workforce, or name it) per square mile, kilometer, hectare, or acre per year or decade by day and night. Density is a way to describe many things. A building’s size is defined by ratios, such as building volume to land area. It can also include a percentage of the total floor area expressed as embedded energy, green area, parking, setback, and even balcony space. Determining the potential of density starts with measures of mass in a space providing services supporting human well-being. The argument is simple; Build cities as finite, measurable entities. The argument must remain a simple one; If a city becomes a measurable entity, it can offer unlimited growth. If the urban places we build cannot be made finite, they will metastasize like cancer on the earth. The solution to this problem is a line in the sand.

From the lowest density to the highest, the epidemiological components of urban settlements exhibit many disasters— floods, fire, drought, crushing isolation, and health crises such as “The Plague” top the list. The world stands braced with the idea of pandemics and their horrors as a recurring theme. These are issues ingrained in the science of why. Urbanized land areas that will flood or burn are known costs expressed in unfathomable amounts with increasing frequency. Still, these tragedies offer a vital nexus regarding public costs in sustaining identifiable urbanized areas as viable. Connecting self-awareness with public consciousness also includes prevention strategies such as knowing the rate of vaccines per area per day to yield intervention methods.

By incorporating self-awareness with public awareness, it may be possible to find a “line in the sand.” As such, it will redefine the importance of an unchallenged, unchanged Wilderness. It will be a line to challenge and redefine the agrarian basis of urban life. How and why should this happen? Medically, the term “critical” means ‘short term.’ Its frequent use in the 21st century is telling on many fronts.

Only a third of the earth’s landscape is urbanized, and each part is instructive in adaptation to restraint. The densest regions are near natural resources and the ocean. They range from heartbreaking failures to soaring enclosures of fully actualized human potential. This duality is now squarely before the change-makers.

The Responsibilities of Membership

The social and economic disparities of the “have-and-have not” construct of global urbanization are rapidly changing to include unique distinctions between the knowing and the unknowing and the desire to know or not to know.

Membership in this project is not hierarchal, nor is it linear. There is no beginning, middle, or end. Instead, participation builds on a share of “prompts.”

Participants will accomplish two goals in response to this challenge. The first is an unfragmented wilderness on land and the global sea. The second is the production of dense urban worlds with unlimited capacity for growth in limited areas. The project “prompts” will facilitate participant functions that lead to steps that assure goal accomplishment, affectionally known to us as our line in the sand. Every imaginable power of human intellect will be sought, identified, and committed to implementing every effort possible for proof of concept.

The densities of regions such as New York or Los Angeles metro areas are abstractions without stable boundaries. The series of posts offered are “prompts,” not essays. The purpose of each is to discuss aspects of one subject. Imagine making one hard-line boundary around “the city,” which could stop itn. Everything inside that line will become super urban; all found outside will become less and less. Both sides’ implications suggest a win/win for both, and I would argue for the planet. See the Table of Prompts for tables of prompts.

People worldwide interested in building instructive density measures have many challenges — vehicle type per square mile of impervious surface cover, people per/ kilometer of rail transit, a gallon of water or gasoline. How about “hotness” in bytes per second exchanged into “meet-ups” per acre?

The use of location-aware communication devices and geographic information systems (GIS) will develop new trade relationships and innovations. Internet protocol (IP) addresses and their linguistic sisters, standard street addresses, combine to command density with mobility to be a product superior to all others. The ingredient of trust is a missing element. The thickness dimensions offer two critical instruments for human development – a vibrant city and an autonomous wilderness.

Density is a way to ensure the “wild” remains vast and unfragmented. The lack of prescribed boundaries for “the city” sustains urbanization with “wild west” rules, spreading to the edges of disconnected fragments of natural space. Regardless of size, the edge-preserving structures surrounding Central Park in New York City could be Yellowstone. If the wilderness is no more, it is to our peril. The boundary belongs to “the city” and nothing else.

Attaining traction on the usefulness of density as a conservation strategy requires one significant proviso. Change the frontier spirit idea as an argument for “moving on.” The wilderness is worthy of captivating, vivid emotions. Today, escape from oppression, even the smell of campfire, is a myth. Historical relevance remains, but the frontier is no longer “out there.” It is rising within the urban boundary of self-imposed restraint. If held firm, it will yield unlimited possibilities.

blue sphere
Sirius, 2006, by Lita Albuquerque, photo by Jean de Pomereu

Axis Points

An axis connects points to define symmetry and locate coordinates along a line. The earth turns on an axis, as will the branch line of a tree. We all carry one that runs from our head to the base of the spine. From seeds to data, the purpose of “an axis” is to have a basis for organizing the placement of objects in a thoughtful space. If the urban form is to thrive as a receptacle of humanity, reasonably building the urban axis is the first step.

The urban axis shifts the perception of growth from ideas of “limitlessness conquest” toward an alternative landscape revealed by one compelling question. What are the limits to the action of all of us? Some would give it a number for organizing, say groups of 150, and if that is it, then so be it. Small groups will find hundreds of answers to the “ten billion” questions because they must.

The new frontier is finding ways to create dense, compact, efficient cities. Knowing its vast wonders requires a sense of awe equal to the adventure once held for the natural world. The idea of hyper-dense places supporting unlimited human potential is, without doubt, as great a mystery as the wilderness itself. Draw a line in the sand to make an urban world and the pure wilderness. If it is not, the wonder of both is lost.

With fixed boundaries, the urban body offers similar awareness potential. Both a large city and an individual can control what they can make recur. The axial center (balance, vision, timing, awareness) is the human body’s core and represents humanity’s expansive capacity to create change. Take a stroll around an urban block to sense positions for change and imagine it as a part of a vast conurbation and how it enlarges the sense of what we are now to all we might become.

Table of Prompts