Urban planning community

  • Way Back Then

    By Perry Norton FAICP

    Today is the beginning of all future time. Yesterday is past and we can do nothing about it. The present passes by so swiftly that we can scarcely touch it. Only tomorrow is amenable to our plans and our schemes, and so it is for tomorrow that we plan.

    Obvious, right? But even for those of us who call ourselves planners this is difficult to grasp. We still tend to AWAIT tomorrow, to wait to see what will happen. As much as we would like to think of ourselves as PROactive, we are, in fact, mostly REactive. Certainly we do pay attention to population and economic forecasts, to statistics regarding the building industry, to transportation demands, to problem areas of our cities and regions. But there are many other signs of what the world is becoming, about which we appear to read only in a very casual way, much as any other interested person might. And we push the envelope of change only to the extent that the political will is not only amenable, but insistent.

    Let us begin with the human animal. With new knowledge about the nucleonic acids we may soon be able to manipulate genetic structure to produce nearly any type of human desired, both with respect to cerebral talents and physical attributes. There are even some preliminary indications that basic human cells could be preserved and stored so that, after death, a complete replica could be created. As of this moment scientists do not seem disposed to suggest that the departed "soul" re-enters the replication, but the question might be academic in the long haul, since others now think seriously that life might be extended almost indefinitely through genetic intervention of cell degeneration, through the elimination of fatal infection and through the transplant of human organs.

    With respect to the mind, while extra-sensory perception remains the active concern of a few, other experimenters, working with totally deaf subjects have discovered that through some sense, as yet not fully identified, such persons have experienced Morse code, speech and music. We know, too, through laboratory experiments with rats, that untrained rats can be taught maze routines simply by having their minds injected with certain chemicals from he brains of rats which have been taught those routines through the more familiar techniques of rote and reward.

    And, if we can somehow get past the hysteria of the present, it is possible that scientists will soon learn much more about the use of mind - expanding drugs. In any event, it does seem possible that we are entering an era which may see the direct education of brain cells. I can see it now. Instead of book stores we'll have pill shops. One pill for Economics 101, and another for Advanced Quantum Physics.

    Pragmatic practicing professional planners will, at this point, be asking: So? So what does this have to do with the use of lands, and the built environment? It is, admittedly, a stretch; but, if speculations as to the future of the minds and bodies of the human specie find their way to print, why should we not also probe the outrageous parameters of our technological imaginations.

    One example is telecommuting. The data tell us of an ever expanding range of office activities in which participants spend significant amounts of time performing their tasks on their computers at home, computers which are networked to corporation data bases. When this is coupled with the almost staggering growth of "staff services" (compared to "employees"), a picture emerges in which spatial nodes of information management activities (downtowns, edge cities, office parks) might be fading away. Yet planners speak and write earnestly about preserving downtowns.

    Closely related to this is the growth of home occupations. There is an ongoing vendorizing of commercial processes bringing new (or perhaps renewed) meaning to the words "cottage industry". Components, from miniature to small, can be fabricated at small computerized work stations, and the parts speedily transported to the next assembly station, which might be on the other side of the world. A key part of the system by which these parts are moved could be a vacuum grid. These computerized work stations easily fit into a home occupation category. A problem we have is that many jurisdictions still try to define acceptable home occupations by title rather than by performance.

    And, speaking of the "other side of the world", products such as clothing, shoes, appliances, household items are almost all internationalized with material produced and cut in one place, shaped and punched in another, painted, laced, vulcanized in other places. Thus a vendored operation in one corner of County Cornpone might have no similar function within a 500 mile radius. One "take" on this might be that the domino bugaboo will become much more a cultural atavism than a token of reality.

    An important part of the history of transportation in this county was the land grant subsidization of the railroads to facilitate the opening of the west. A century later the interstate highway system consolidated the functionally of major metropolitan regions. In the spirit of such inspirations, we should now be looking toward the subsidized establishment of 15 or 20 new regional airport facilities, including favorable land purchase initiatives. as foci for absorption of population growth, and a surcease from peripheral pressures that make sprawl so difficult to manage.

    While it is still pretty much experimental, the technologies obviously exist by which urban and suburban residential properties can function independently of fixed utility lines. I don't expect a breakthrough in 1997, but "tomorrow" goes on for a long long time, and if "free of the site" housing is a prospect, shouldn't planners be thinking about the potential impact? Add to this the development of non fossil fuels to drive the engines of private automobiles, and visualize an air cushioned automobile that eliminates the need for concrete and mcadam, and then, for good measure, throw in satellite communications.

    Sheer fantasy? Foolishness? Think of the year 2200 (four generations perhaps). Now, think backward 200 years, to 1800.

    The first commercial oil well was not drilled until 1859. The first open hearth furnace for making steel was not built in the U.S. until 1869. The first charter for a railroad was granted to John Stevens, in 1815. It was as recently as 1816 that the first U.S. manufacture of coal gas for street illumination began, in Baltimore. The first U.S. life insurance company was established in 1812. In 1802 the high-pressure steam engine was patented. In 1839, Charles Goodyear invented the process for vulcanizing rubber. And, in 1800, the population of the United States was just a little over 5 million.

    I'm not particularly sanguine that essays such as this will impact the work of city planning departments. On a time line, most department just want to get through the week safely. But individually planners ought to be thinking about the future, if only to affirm the label. We don't "plan" for yesterday, nor for today - we can only plan for tomorrow. And tomorrow will be the product decisions made, or not made, today.

    "Way Back Then" was originally published on Cyburbia on November 3, 1996.