Wild Urban Federalism

Pedestrian Pockets

The last section closed with a look at the sale of Stuyvesant Town. This property was persistently sought after until the deed was executed by a real estate investment trust (REIT). We then took another brief look at New York City’s source of fresh, unfiltered water.

All of us have a nagging, throat-choking sense of something going very wrong with those two examples that up next, we have put the confusing heading of “wild urban federalism” up for consideration.

Peter Calthorpe introduced the Pedestrian Pocket solution in 1989 along with several colleagues.  A sketch from that book is above. The population of such “pockets” with eight to twenty thousand people can sit in a country landscape connected to others by mass transit. A similar population living in a hundred towers on 80 acres in NYC’s Manhattan also sit in a country landscape connected by mass transit. These communities are known today as transit-oriented development (TOD).1

Since 1989, more information about the unique value of separating natural systems’ from complex urban systems continues to validate a vision as old as the hills of their origin. What is missing? Lines are not drawn to permanently enclose a pedestrian pocket are not drawn in the sand. Getting down to why no uncrossable line can be drawn and how the sand is strewn to the winds is the only valid question given one principle– the earth should not be covered with all this stuff from its crust.

The mix of regulating agents that combine to review the acquisition of 110 apartment buildings (Stuyvesant) by international businesses are unable to manage the responsibility for delivering billions of gallons of water daily in a megaregional structure. This combination creates an organized political system that is no longer accountable to or represented well by the organization of states.

Regional Cities

Compare two programmatic approaches. One is found in the economic valuation methods of California’s open space program.  The other is New Jersey’s use of an election ballot referendum to fund its open space deficit policy. Both may lead to a viable TOD/ pedestrian pocket system. Oregon, Washington, and Maryland have similar packages, all of them duly examined as failures, with exceptions.

Calthorpe & Fulton outlined a detailed solution in The Regional City. One dense place connected to another surrounded by “the wild,” agribusiness, and recreational space. It serves an urban planning philosophy and little else. It cannot shift away from decades of “Dillon’s Rule” and “home rule” arguments. Solutions are unlikely without a better discussion or until the racist caste structures of urban development are fully excoriated.

Strategic funding generated by energy savings and a few new production sources will continue to occur. The use of per capita arguments build on a dollar saved is one earned. Talking mass transit is also a super logical first step, but it is still in a field of dreams that take an “if you build it, they will come” position.

A strategy limited to existing centers with a capacity for density remains viable, but small “old town” politically weak urban centers barely offer a way to succeed. Massachusetts has argued for preserved open space because it is a small, already dense urban state with only 6 million people. If you can maintain the wild, urban density of Boston by a rule that it can become unlimited then the exquisite countryside of Massachusetts can be saved.

Common Ground Strategy

The phrase “we are losing 40 acres a day” is found in the report Losing Ground by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. It strongly encourages several organizations to fund legal services and public education campaigns. They are similar to the New Hampshire-based Bear-Paw Regional Greenways, Highstead, and the North Quabbin Regional Conservation Partnership, and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. The list is growing and we see the depth of these organizations is built on common ground. They have all of the tactical resources needed to release public opinion. Their purse is not in favor of fast trains and cute little walkable communities. I see true fighters for the wilderness.

When forty acres are lost every day to development, it exposes a problem. It does not solve it. A review of the consequences could lead to higher conservation funding levels and the protection of 130,000 additional acres making Massachusetts the sixth-largest state park system in the U.S. That was in 2012. The prompt here is to bring results up, conduct an evaluation, and get it done by 2022-5. Good urban policy is to support the fighters for the wilderness.

I am afraid that I don’t see much hope for a civilization so stupid that it demands a quantitative estimate of the value of its own umbilical cord.

T. H. Watkins, “The Worth of the Earth,” quoting Conservation Biologist David Ehrenfeld)

The convergence of values set by the weakening water policy pathways on the east and west coast offers one insight, a misleading index known as the property value criterion.  In part, this indicator is a product of the policy for suburban development. Steadily a full-time residential density occurs in most national parks and a good number of the large state parks leading to increased values at the edges.  In the same vein, open space in dense centers, albeit permanently fragmented, increases in size, and high residential densities are encouraged in adjacency.  It is the same legal practice that sustained the open “air” space above Grand Central Station and transferred it to adjacent buildings. This is wild urban federalism (WUF). At the heart pf these policies lies a view of the wilderness as eventually becoming “a park.” Nothing short of a pandemic could be more dangerous. The ongoing unregulated formation of the wild urban interface (WUI) continues to build on the property value criterion. These are value destinations linked to large recreational open spaces. The gain in the number of economic functions at the wild edge is a force no different than those that now surround Central Park in Manhattan.

The Open Space States

Open space mobility is defined best as walking or cycling from place to place within that system.  Human-powered and modest power-assist vehicles are an essential alternative offering the potential or inevitable replacement of cars for 90 percent of trips. Assigning similar full-cost valuation schemes to preserve wilderness does not require a tax for wilderness preservation. The economic demand within the spread of urbanism has political and jurisdictional elements that promote strangling growth. The unfragmented wilderness is only a counterbalance beginning with the implementation of growth boundaries and high-density mass transit-oriented land development schemes.

Population in19762000% Change% Units in Multifamily Buildings 2008
New Mexico1,189,2951,819,04653%15.3%
Total38,509,66361,986,39561%22.5% AVG

The king of all marketable commodities is the single-family home, and the how and where. Innovations such as the zero lot line and other low gross density designs yield some useful experiments in compromise. Little or weak connection to transit links presents haphazard locations that remain the central problem in most regions.2

The Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA) legislation promotes land swaps to reduce low density residential and consolidate land.  This means the central issue put into play here is anti-Federal intervention, not urban development policy or the preservation of treasured wilderness.

The regulations of FLPMA demand respect for state land-use laws. It supports the tenets of federalism of the American West. The state and federal government relationship continue to evolve by selecting the best way to manage the nation’s natural resources. This is a tightrope walk, but it should be a walk in the park.

In much of the nation’s rural and remote areas, and especially in western states, the minimum lot size can be thirty-five acres reflecting the local interest in keeping the wilderness wild, or pressure off schools, or housing prices up (or down), or the population density as low as possible and human impacts to super minimums. These simple measures are no match against the population explosion in the American West. Widespread urbanization presses across an ever-yielding landscape of local regulations. State land use regulation in this context is very weak without a Federal partner.

Dense Urban States

City, state, and federal agencies and reasonably vigorous nonprofit watchdogs observe development densities dropping to 1950 levels nationally. The percentage of multi-family housing in New York State is over 50%, as an outlier, but because of this policy New York City does not have to filter water (chemicals) it has a membrane known as the forests to the north. From this city we can take a three hour bus, a backpack, and a tent to a place where a one-hour walk leads us to a visit with a treasured wilderness for as long as a week. We can’t be Daniel Boon any longer, but we can pretend and imagine the good and bad of such a life two centuries ago. The frontier is inward now, where it should remain.

Multi-state urbanization highlights differences in local regulation. It is the cause of conflicting adjudication, as well. In the quarter-century following the passage of FLPMA, the twelve states involved have increased in population from 39 million to 62 million people, rising 61 percent. The pressure is building exponentially, but it is as noticeable as the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

FLPMA, along with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), confronts the challenge of sustaining the nation’s natural resources.2 Under the Wilderness Act, the Bureau of Land Management claims responsibility for just 680 wilderness areas in 44 States, covering only 106 million acres. Half of this is in Alaska, and just 49 million are in the conterminous United States and Hawaii. The BLM places this in context by noting that the Department of Agriculture estimates it is responsible for regulating approximately 110 million acres of intensively developed land in the conterminous United States (nearly 6 percent).3

FLPMA has a nickname as BLM’s ‘Organic Act’ because of its mandate to support “multiple-uses based on sustained yields.”  It requires all public lands to be periodically and systematically ‘resource inventoried.’ This is good but not organic. Just as any inventory – it is changing. The relationship between the wild and us is complicated. Like a fire seed. Ultimately, the federal-local nexus connects private development and a negotiations framework that takes or gives something from or to the “inventory.” This process disrupts relationships. Ask anyone if they know about the critical relationship between an Arizona fescue and specific endophytic fungi. It is not a “Get to Yes” strategy.

Concrete definitions of phrases such as ‘sustained yield’ in federal law demand clarification defined by life form relationships. Once described as acceptable, the challenge is to balance the rise in investment interests with an exaction formula. The “fire seed” link above, takes the reader to “Ask Nature” for look at how seeds in Nature function. A chief concern regarding a national agency’s respect for local regulations, such as their relationship to wildfire recovery is the overwhelming pressure that counters a balanced response to more informed residential and commercial development. Many plant replicates in response to fire “in situ” as their is no choice, humans have the potential to act at a higher level of self-interest.

Placing concrete measures on the idea of “sustainable yield” recognizes that natural resources do not flow from some mysterious, infinite ecological frontier. They are fragile to human touch, of course, but more importantly, they can take hundreds of years to recover. It is in this context that American urbanism may be forced to experience, as well.

When the FLPMA act passed in 1976, the agency described a region of western cities with 35 million people living within a three-hour drive of 66 million acres of BLM lands. The agency had 177 species of animals and plants on a threatened and endangered list.  By 2000, more than 4,100 communities with a combined population of 22.2 million people were found within 25 miles, putting BLM land about forty minutes away. By 2000, the threatened and endangered list expanded to 522 animal species and 736 plant species. Much of this is the product of its advanced mandate to pay more attention. That land area involved expanded from 57,000 acres (e.g., Yellowstone) to 19 million acres when a doubling of land occurred with the addition of Alaskan wilderness and wilderness study areas.4

Zero Impact Fallacies

Adam Smith’s model for exploiting an endless ecological frontier remains a powerful force in development policy. It imagines a wilderness full of exploitable resources.[i] Sustain a continuous unexploited wilderness on the balance sheet is an unconsidered requirement. Nevertheless, there are hints of progress.

The central policy of the American National Park movement is preservation by allowing viewing and interpretation to limit exploitation. The impetus for absolute protection is a human instinct, not policy. It says, “Don’t touch this, and leave it alone, forever.” The questions about where and how the wilderness remains wild implies another question. “Who can do that forbidden zone thing and when?” The following describes living at the crossroads of these two paths: “the wild,” the other into “the city.”

Life in the near-wild, super low-density world yields thousands of creative individuals. Ann River discovered an interesting example for a story in the New York Times Home and Garden section. Roald Gundersen is called the “forester-architect.” He and his partner Amelia Baxter came upon the idea of building houses with whole trees by culling a set of unique selections of easily manipulated Ash. This tree covers a vast forested upland of the Mississippi River, near Stoddard, Wisconsin, in Vernon County.  The density is less than 40 people per square mile. 

The dense urban world’s regulatory framework will not be found here; architectural explorations have a low punitive damages probability beyond due diligence. Experimental work with Ash led the couple to establish a company called Whole Tree Architecture and Construction.3 The strategies of sustainable eco-green builders attract significant “small is beautiful” investments. The eco-house construction by the “garbage warrior” architect Michael Reynolds also suggests wilderness stewardship.  It does not represent millions of years of evolutionary engineering represented by a stand of Ash trees. Still, there is a connection worthy of exploration with people such as William McDonough demanding that nothing should be wasted.

To imagine the gap between a whole tree and an empty can of cat food, you must read a small 200-page thermal plastic book claiming to be infinitely recyclable, Cradle to Cradle. Here William McDonough introduces the idea of a city with the potential to waste nothing. Mike Reynolds is busy building with the debris of human product issue extraction. Roald Gundersen is trying to keep everything as it is. McDonough imagines building “Earthships.”

Many of us gives the following design problem to students of architecture to honor McDonough.

“Please make something that produces oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, makes complex sugars and food, creates microclimates, adds color to mark the seasons, and self-replicates.”

William McDonough

In going to a “larger system” such as a renewable one that produces seeds like a tree, a good design critique would say that what humans have learned to do with a tree is strip it from the earth, cut it up, write on it, and make studs and beams. It is like the impressive list of long-lasting and useful products made with oil. What we do is burn most of it. The demand from the design community is to do something far better with what is drawn from the earth’s crust.

These activities are valid but only hint at alternative modes of development that would establish a viable “Earthship.” When Gundersen and Baxter accepted the tree as a whole and built from there, they did so in low-density. Alternatively, a dense core might also make it possible to be part of and yet preserve 100,000 acres of the wildland per person. The general implication is, even with a better management system, the use of renewable resources in the single-family context still leads to an unsustainable rate of consumption of land.

The big, correctly managed, zero-impact life in the woods, grasslands, and deserts of America in low-densities present the growth and market share model’s core problem. The answer is not in the hands of wildcat architects/builders like Reynolds and Gundersen or the super-planner postulations of Bill McDonough. The only way to capture natural systems is to focus on how the urban system’s dense core can be zero-waste like the whole tree and forest it shares.

Reynolds, Gunderson, McDonough, use of the zero-waste principle envisions an architecture constrained by geo-adaptation. They attempt to integrate natural energies into the design process of a low- and renewable-energy lifestyle. Examples range from using exact measures such as tidal energy variations per second per decade to 100% rainfall capture and so on. Ultimately, two radically different kinds of densities emerge – one offers hyper-urbanism and the other a highly resticted life in the wilderness.6

All matter is made to be infinitely recyclable down to chemical compositions in parts per million. One of the essential ideas to break into human consciousness is to know when our use of enabling machines comes at too high a cost. Still, know that entering the wilderness, even at super-low densities, harm will come to it. The task of these agents of the wilderness and the dense urban world will be to

  • Aggressively reduce human impact on natural systems and develop a space for human presence in two ways. 
    1. One so thinly layered it will have a near-zero impact in the wild while conducting a vital analysis of natural system evolution.
    2. The other will be a super-urbanized human presence managed to acquire zero-impact with machines.


  1. Calthorpe, et al The Pedestrian Pocket Book, A New Suburban Design Strategy Princeton Architectural Press (1989) with permission
  2. Florida’s League of Cities” supports changes that alter growth management laws for development concurrency, while the state Community Affairs Agency strongly opposes these changes. See: Support: and Oppose
  3. A good example involves one 500 sq. ft. wilderness cabin.  Deane v. the United States, 2009 WL 1336697 (10th Cir. (Colo.) 5/14/2009). Ken Burns PBS celebration of the nation’s national parks released in 2009 as “America’s best idea” outlines many of the assumptions that presume “park” over “wild” is part of the good, and it occurs just as a land swapped acre comes up in the Supreme Court as a possible violation of the establishment clause.
  4. See Snapshot FLPMA Management 1976 & 2001 http://www.blm.gov/flpma/snapshot.htm The area of the U.S. West is made up of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming
  5. William Ophuls (1978) Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity: Prologue to a Political Theory of the Steady State. San Francisco: Freeman, p. 221. See NYT Nov. 4, 2009 “Building with Whole Trees” by Ann River.  The article refers to research by the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, WI that an unmilled tree can support 50 percent more weight in rural conditions and 14% in urban areas.
  6. Reynolds just keeps going in his “small is beautiful style” and given the opportunity to slow down and reflect would offer vital lessons wrapped up in the mantra, “If you can’t use the by-product don’t buy the product.” The whole “stop/start” eco-city hubris from McDonough, Foster, Arup et. al experience is routinely and neatly summed up by Christina Larson See April 360 article.

Useful Sources:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Atmospheric Programs, Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Potential in U.S. Forestry and Agriculture, EPA 430-R-05-006, Washington, DC, November 2005, Table 2- 1. http://www.epa.gov/sequestration/pdf/greenhousegas2005.pdf

USDA: Jan Lewandrowski, Mark Peters, and Carol Jones et al., Economics of Sequestering Carbon in the U.S. Agricultural Sector, USDA Economic Research Service, Technical Bulletin TB-1909, Washington, DC, April 2004, Table 2.2, http://www.ers.usda.gov/ Publications/TB1909/

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