Smart Growth Is Killing Us, Bring On the Smart Decline

We’ve been in ecological debt for over a century. We’re exponentially increasing the human population while per capita consumption of the Earth’s resources also rises. Biodiversity is in free-fall as habitats are destroyed and wildlife is being hunted to extinction.

The powers that be and their PR firms know all this. They’ve focused on changing a few terms around to absolve little more than our guilt. Buzzword marketing slogans like ‘Green Capitalism‘ and ‘Smart Growth‘ contain as much honesty as ‘clean coal‘, ‘sustainable seafood‘, ‘responsible forestry‘ and ‘humane slaughter‘. Our values of progress have been perverted by Wall Street analysts paid to judge success as perpetual domination of our planet.

We view images of Detroit and collectively think, ‘What went wrong? How can we restore our glory? We must retool and make more cars!

Like everything in nature, cities have cycles –  some indifferent, a few compassionate, but many cruel. We flaw in priding ourselves on a ‘growing city’ predicated on incoming residents, wealthy developers, and taller, more extravagant buildings. Jane Jacobs may have toppled Robert Moses, but subsequent generations raised on Sim City have come to believe they’re Gods the urban landscape.

2446669-larnaThe insanity of success.

As an avid fan of this computer simulation growing up, I was, like most, committed to playing the game with intentions of scoring the largest population, the most money, and the highest sky-scrapers. If the citizens were happy, this was desirable, but always secondary to the  accomplishment felt when looking down to witness a new hi-rise tower commence construction.

The easiest way to achieve these results – luring the rich to move in and spurring hi-tech industry – was to lower taxes on the wealthiest residents. Usually to make up for this you’d raise taxes on the poor who made up the majority of the population. It was callous austerity, but I’d rationalize it. Growth for the sake of growth became a deceptive cancer.

The city is dense, the zones are mixed, I’d remind myself. I was a benevolent dictator.

The problem with this model became apparent after a few years: a city dependent on perpetual growth soon becomes addicted, yet the spacial barriers of the virtual metropolis game-play are finite – much like the real life confines of our planet and its resources. You never notice this, though, until it’s too late.

Your city’s cash reserves begin to decline just about the time you run out of land to exploit. Unable to keep increasing in wealth and scale, streets grow dark, buildings deteriorate. You apply for loans to keep afloat, but this ultimately drains your cash faster once the bank comes to collect. You panic, radically rezoning for even MORE wealth, demolishing blighted neighborhoods in a frantic attempt to force progress. Ultimately, the whole thing falls apart – leaving players with several malicious options to nuke their creation into oblivion.

Whether Sim City’s programmers meant to reveal the sick joke of Capitalism is uncertain. Either way, the experience taught me much. Coming back to the game as an adult half a generation later, I tried something different.

Instead of rushing to be the biggest and most expensive, I zoned for medium density throughout and only high density in the central downtown. The results were remarkable.

By keeping taxes on the wealthy high and keeping them low for the poor -by not falling into the trap of requiring an increasing tax base to ‘grow‘, I was able to create a truly sustainable simulated city that returned an ever growing pot of cash from which new parks, libraries, and health clinics were afforded. The stability produced a high quality of life enjoyed by all – not just the wealthy I’d previously designed for as a kid. Blight not only didn’t give way to collapse, it never happened in the first place.

i4thucNPnOzMSource: “If something were to happen, we have to handle that ourselves.”

Obviously this is just a game, but the parallels to our modern world shouldn’t be ignored. Smart Growth is a hoax, a branding myth meant to fool intelligent people into continually making utterly unintelligent choices that effect how people live and work in a city.

We’re told Detroit is a ruin-porn failure. While there is blight, in so many ways Detroit is the first 21st century city – a pioneer in experimenting with Smart Decline.

While there are still tens of thousands of derelict buildings in Detroit, there’s also vast tracts of open city land returning to midwest wilderness. Foxes and pheasants are flourishing. Farms are taking over. Words like permaculture are being thrown around.

We’re seeing a radical rethinking of where our food comes from just as spaces of economic fatigue are plowed up to feed people. All this in a city that just filed for bankruptcy. If only there was a Rewild/Depave intervention option in Sim City, us Americans might’ve figured this out far sooner.

Smart Decline isn’t just replacing burnt warehouses with hipsters cultivating kale – it’s a revisioning of our relationship with nature. As much as we pretend otherwise, the city is still intertwined with the natural world. Smart Decline also requires a decolonization of cities, and a decolonization of our understanding of land as property.

Smart Decline means housing and water are protected as inarguable human rights. It is sharing tools instead of purchasing products. It is sacrificing for those less fortunate rather than trusting the market for solutions. And Smart Decline will require vastly altering our personal consumption habits as well. Taking short showers is futile if you drive to a restaurant to waste thousands of gallons of water by eating steak.

Urban populations will likely continue growing for decades, but the myth of cities as ‘growth’ machines must rapidly die.


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  1. “housing and water are protected as inarguable human rights.” housing, by what means? water? by what means? What about those humans that dont live near fresh water? If water is an inarguable right, it must be transported to said humans…. transportation by what means? Oil?

    I think you can see what im getting at. Human “housing” that is: buildings made of treated and milled wood; upon foundations of concrete; filled with appliances and plastic and metal; lit through electricity and glass windows; heated with gas, require the existence of innumerable destructive industry. If were to feel these to be inarguable, the existence of industry and the suicidal exploitation of the land also is, inarguable.

    Just some thoughts. It should be said that i do agree for the most part.

    1. All achieved through labor with minimal resource extraction. The destruction of the planet isn’t done for basic human needs, it’s done for extracting profit at the expense of the worker and consumer alike.

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