The three terms or conditions of participation in environmental change are 1) Energy, 2) Water, and 3) Toxicity. They form a kind of guarantee (in 2050). It is backed by locally integrated clean water with enormous health code powers. Support from new energy production systems and a speedy transit network linked to the region’s small dense cities puts the toxicity problem in the places where it can be managed. Investment in dense urban clusters for these places brings a vastly improving set of environmental and construction technologies that promote open space conservation where it will get the most support.


The “no growth” policy in areas surrounding a dense area’s water supply reveals stories of subtle implementation (click here if you would add one). However, quick jumps all over California sums up the idea efficiently (keyword “water.”) Josh Harkinson is a Mother Jones journalist. He hoped to present an argument for dense urban development in his 2010 article on Alameda’s development proposal.  It is an island in San Francisco’s South Bay just west of Oakland with about 75,000 people. The National Resource Defense Council’s blog and others subsequently picked up his story. One reason news like this gets a bump from urban design, planning, and environmental interests is its promotion of a better understanding of dense cities.1

Alameda is attractive because, in 1973, its charter demanded “no multiple dwellings.” In 1991, it defined “no” with a definition of maximum density. It limits development to 1 housing unit per 2,000 square feet of land, roughly 22 units per acre. Ongoing development interests have therefore sought to drive this figure upward by challenging the growth cap. The first challenge comes from a developer calling for 4,000 units on the primarily vacant military base on a gross land area of 1,500 acres called Alameda Point. While the net densities may be higher than the cap allows, the overall addition of just under three units per acre does not seem excessive.

Whether this development moves forward or not, the principles of balance in urban development expose the demand for more valuable metrics than NIMBY vs. YIMBY. 

Tour List of Sites

Undoing the Central Park Strategy

The metrics sought to keep the wilderness from becoming Central Park would combine the “do our best to do no harm” measures of the LEED approach with the “make right past wrongs” using the SEED prevention strategy.

In 1999, the 8,000-acre Great Trinity Forest in the Fort Worth, Dallas, and Arlington region became the most significant consolidated open space in the Texas megaregion. Just 46 percent of the Great Trinity Forest is “wilderness.” Still, within a few minutes of the sprawling downtown, it is known to many as the epicenter of the nation’s most generic architecture – Dallas.2 The Trinity Forest presents the opportunity to study urban density’s workability on the urban wilderness interface (WUI), that edge of a central river basin and large freshwater lakes.

New York and New Jersey’s Gateway National Park System entered its 20th year in 2008. Recognizing “the wild” in metro areas will never be wild is a valuable warning to Texas. Unfortunately, the apex predators we love so much are limited to Peregrine Falcons, some hawks, and the occasional capture/kill of the fox or black bear in New York City.

The wilderness objective attempts to keep or reclaim an unfragmented natural landscape across the entire nation in this millennium. Without it, the wild becomes parkland – a single, easily corrupted metric.

This region’s urban development establishes an opportunity for a “central park” type of real estate value analysis. The questions are straightforward.

  • Will “tailpipe” development be the primary agent for sustaining the value and viability of the region’s open space?
  • Will development surround the Great Trinity Forest like New York City’s Central Park?
  • Could this space link to other large open spaces in a significant way?

Consider how this great forest might sustain its inherent ability to flourish as an equal and equivalent land use with its rights and privileges. In being so, it could connect in a meaningful way to other significant areas of the wild. The simplicity of this confronts these facts:

Trinity locks the northern part of the Texas Triangle into a mega-region, serving 24 million people, representing 6% of the nation’s population and 7% of the GDP. It has a growth rate approaching 50% annually.

Regions like this represent 80 percent of America’s people. For this reason alone, viable links to a wilderness complete with apex predators require super-sensitivity and spectacular financing. The god-like power nature holds can be recognized by a real estate development policy that takes this goal of separation into account. It leaves one element known as the wild urban interface (WUI). Central Park in NYC is a beautiful place, but its link to the wild is gone.

The idea of only taking pictures and leaving only footprints defines a tiny part of the problem but does not solve it. The goal of reducing the expansion of the human footprint in the wilderness requires measures that pay it forward. When asked, people say they would prefer to live in a walkable community that did not damage the environment or isolated people based on skin color. They would also agree to a variety of housing styles and costs. Nevertheless, most would have very little knowledge of what they are talking about outside of a resort experience or a visit to a multi-neighborhood city like New York. All of the 64 planning district neighborhoods of NYC are comparable to other cities’ populations.

Walkable retail/service destinations require capturing about 40% of total retail spending in their market area. The 40% share is reducible by a global market moving from brick to click. A digital button means a minimum of 10,000 people living in one square mile will make a retail/service market area succeed, but not locally. Hopefully, those buttons will lead to places within a pleasant five-minute walk.

A viable “world of walking” requires dense housing, commercial retail, professional offices, and a 365/24/7 mass transportation system. The transit allows a dense, walkable core of one community to connect to other situations.

The low environmental impact of a walkable core remains viable with a reliable mobility service extension. Is it a personal car? Or can other services offer comfort, privacy, and affordable choices? The car is replaceable, the comfort offered is not the problem; the issue is its energy use coupled with a lack of supervision.

Eventually, and for many, perhaps all households at 50% or below the median area income will find the cost of a car prohibitive. However, building in a variety of mobility options for use is building slowly. Dense areas will adapt readily to these pressures by offering a variety of multiple, financially viable mobility options.  Given this, the market in Sun City (median age 75) and that for New York City (median age 31) in 2010 matters less than the ability to get from one place to another.

With modest public support, a community with a minimum of 10 dwelling units per acre net can have transit for access to employment centers. Metro area residents will walk five or ten minutes or drive five to sixty minutes to a transit station and get daytime service on a 20 to 30-minute schedule. Increase the headway to 10 to 15 minutes. The community would need 30 to 40 units per acre and several hundred to acquire routine 365/24/7 reasonably seamless service. The rule is simple, the higher the density, the more rapid the transit.

New York City has round-the-clock transit. In some station-to-station conditions, a continually moving system is a possibility, one long car. It struggles with a high operating cost. It has low quality. It lacks comfort. It is an aging system with new “resiliency” pressures. Getting dense community-to-community connectivity to occur requires a reversal of policy affecting every urban area in the nation.

Increasing the value property from hundreds to thousands of stations in a region makes the “where” challenging to manage. The locations are evident in the existing set of transit right-of-ways. This process is well underway. The foundation in real estate value is, by definition, a long-term bet. Assessments of carrying capacity require connections from one densely populated center to another.

The reality in the vast, urbanized landscape of cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angles, the wild is gone. The readiness for retaining an unfragmented wild is unknown. The “urban smear” path is not inevitable and, for now, is left to long-term property ownership interests that understand commercial and rental markets. It will be necessary to find ways to buy their trust with a legacy fund with one hand and the blunt fist of the Law of the other to assure the protection of basics such as water and wildlife.

Finding Courage, Incentive, and Subsidy

A prosperous, walkable place meets three living conditions within a ten-minute walk. First, it has an extensive mix of flexible uses. Second, it has a pleasing way to acquire convenient goods and services. The third accepts a relatively new set of social contracts: a diverse mix of people, housing, incomes, family sizes, ages, sexual preferences, ethnic backgrounds, and racial constructs. One group may have a dominant influence but maintains a level playing field as the highest cultural value.

The “walkable community” is an abstraction. Places that meet all three criteria, the last being more of a goal than a reality, are few but growing in number. Nevertheless, as some communities develop a high median age, public policies that accommodate new needs can support their lifestyle choices. When defined this way, in terms of living wills within a megaregion, the idea of attracting a diverse market of investors capable of buying and preserving a vast wilderness tends to vaporize without additional criteria. Another criterion for a thriving, walkable place would be one where one could walk for hours, see no one, acquire nothing except deep breaths, and have a sense of wonder.

Hold this thought while we look at the opposite side of the coin. What if you could preserve forestland with one to a maximum of ten housing units that command the stewardship of a minimum of 100 even 100,000 acres?

Going Once, Going Twice

The ongoing sale of forestland by timber companies to housing investment firms stimulates added desire to maintain the wilderness throughout the northeast. The no-growth conservation lobby is sophisticated and robust. It is boosted by the growing demand for high-end “wilderness housing and resorts. Tourism helps to put the hand in the glove of the conservation effort. It is not enough.4

Forestland for Sale (2008) research funded by the Open Space Institute (OSI) is a case study of 600,000 acres. It suggests that the onset of private conservation efforts is caused by the turnover in forest ownership and will occur throughout New England and the East Coast. See Ownership Chart. Go to OSI learn the terms.

OSI is an organization that works to acquire land, sustain, or develop conservation easements, support regional loan programs, provide fiscal sponsorship, and conduct analytical research. Organizations such as OSI are gathering the data to prepare a defragmentation report. It will produce a “score” indicating how likely or unlikely sections of a region would be able to establish an unfragmented wilderness. Such statements will illustrate where open space, while vast, suggests a fragment like Manhattan’s Central Park. Regardless of size, the “park” real estate development process has a purpose-driven set of specific needs.

Untreated, unfiltered water is a goal that can be set and met everywhere. The New York metropolitan region represents one of the most successful and aggressive, century-old campaigns for maintaining open space in the nation. It includes, by default, a vast collection of scenic, natural, and historic landscapes. This policy provides great aesthetic enjoyment while conserving a variety of habitats that remain mysterious, and every moment of experience in these places draws on our responsibility to the wild. It is far too simple to say we keep it for the water.

New Package Old Process

Let me end this section with a bit of story. I organized a small national group – The Association for Community Design (more here) for a decade or so in my past life. Some people seem to know the truth before anyone else. One of them was Ruth Murphy. Her stories often bring them pain, but they find ways to turn that knowledge into lasting change. Ruth Murphy began as a community organizer in the late 1960s. She was trained in architecture and liked ‘community design’ ideas and turned that thought into a ‘food and fiber’ ecology and women’s empowerment program. Her presentation about this work begins with an idyllic yet accurate vision of rich Minnesota farmland, bountiful in its variety of products once sold in an extensive network of small village-like markets many times a year.

These were places where each exchange enriched the community’s social confidence and economic wealth. Murphy then concludes with a thought about a change that began in the mid-20th century. Supermarkets replaced this bounty with shelves of canned goods, with ‘instant foods’ on the inner aisles and stale produce and frozen goods on the outside. Ruth then calls out to her audience, “why do we eat this crap?” In just a few short minutes, her listeners immediately grasp the complexity of a thing once held in the palm of their hand, and if not lost, then far too easily replaced.

The elements that stimulate a service, such as a public “food and fiber” market, was Ruth Murphy’s effort. She sought to assure an opportunity to reflect the cultural changes that invent a new kind of economics. A resilient community includes food stores and restaurants and people who know how the food got there. It supports a lateral structure of community gardens (large and small) with solid relationships with regional farmers. The amount of fuel used in a year to bring food to stores and family tables exceeds all other transit energy activities. The new economics requires the visibility and celebration of local food as a social and cultural vitality source. The truth is that all the food in our hands today was drawn from the wild.

Maintaining access to raw agricultural expertise and material supports for its regional vitality is vital to public policy. Unfortunately, this type of living is unknown to most people who live a dense urban architecture. Of the 300+ million people in the United States, perhaps 15% would know what mixed-use means as a daily living experience. Mixed-use in the less dense urban areas is a mall or some tomatoes and corn in the yard.  In this sense, it matters less about how walkable or drivable a place is than the structure of destinations offered within it.

The following sections attempt to describe two places that define two successful relationships with the wild.  One is the dense, walkable urban place re-imagined in the context of a tame wilderness. The other is the exhibit of an unfragmented open space covering large mega-sized regions that understand development as one word – water.


  1. For an in-depth look at the issues, click the images or go to
  2. This is according to Rem Koolhaas, introducing his newly completed “stacked theater”. You cannot blame him, he was only looking for more work Rod Dreher, a columnist for the Dallas Morning News, reported it.
  3. The data is via and here is a quick summary of why it is a ‘mega-region’.  In 1961, the City of Houston, TX began attempts to annex all of Harris County. This led to the state’s 1963 Annexation Act that required public hearings.  The impact of relentless Houston is represented in part by subsequent amendments such as the limit on strip annexations in 1977, the use of deadlines on the delivery of municipal services in 1981, and a 1987 limit on the percentage of annexation. By 1999, the state imposed a three-year municipal annexation planning process designed to limit disruption and to provide for the negotiation and arbitration. For a century, national urbanization has been synonymous with energy expansion. The triad of energy, environment, and urbanization formed rapidly to establish the growing conurbations recognized throughout the United States and dubbed mega-regions. Perhaps the most egregious exhibit is the Texas Triangle. A comprehensive set of recent essays on this area and the impact of annexation will be found in Energy metropolis: an environmental history of Houston and the Gulf Coast by Martin V. Melosi, Joseph A. Pratt. This coupled with How American governments work: a handbook of city, county, regional, state, by Roger L. Kemp, will give the reader a thorough background.
  4. The Open Space Institute report, Forestland for Sale: Challenges and Opportunities for Conservation over the Next Ten Years, by Abigail Weinberg and Chris Larson, observe land management and conservation issues affecting forests.  Get Report  This is an uneasy alliance of the forest economy industry the general heading of Sustainable Forests and Community Forests.  Uneasy because it puts vast areas of forest in the control of small groups controlling as few as 500 acres with vague charters and missions promising conservation on the face of it, but once examined closely it can be reduced to the interest of five to ten households that hold the land in a variety of complicated land trusts.

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