Urban planning as we’ve known it is obsolete

By Steve Austin

Urban planning as practiced today in the USA is functionally obsolete and must end.  The laws, procedures, and values urban planners employ are not suited to either of the likely futures that we face.  The stable climate in which modern urban planning evolved in no longer exists; Holocene era planning is unable to address Anthropocene era realities. Recognizing this and calling for change is vital because 83% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas and will be harmed by ineffective – or worse – urban planning. 

The two likely futures we face are related to the climate crisis.

First, current urban planning will not have ability to cope with a business-as-usual future where average global temperatures rise by at least 5° Fahrenheit within a few decades.  Preeminent climate scientist Katharine Hayhoedescribes this future as one where “there is no adaptation that is possible.”

Read that again.  

The reason for this is that the earth, due to CO2 emissions-caused climate heating, is on the verge of entering a chaotic system, without equilibrium and no repeatable patterns.  Climate scientist Kevin Anderson says of the heating, “it’s occurring so quickly that the human systems and ecological systems cannot evolve that rapidly in any sort of stable form.”

According to new research as reported by LiveScience, a chaotic climate “would have seasons that change wildly from decade to decade or even year to year.” Orfeu Bertolami, a scientist who worked on the study, explains, “A chaotic behavior means that it will be impossible to predict the behavior of Earth System in the future.”

Urban planning is in part a forecasting profession. This forecasting is in an effort to anticipate the social, economic, and physical needs of citizens in the future.  On a 5° hotter planet, this will be impossible. Dr. Hayhoe says, “Human civilization is based on the assumption of a stable climate. But we are moving far beyond the stable range.”

Thus, any effort at preparing five-year or longer plans will be pointless because historical trends – climatic, economic, political – no longer provide validity on which to base projections: the future will not look like the past.  Climate writer Alex Steffen refers to our time now as a “discontinuity.”  The changes we face are so abrupt that Steffen says that past experience has lost its value as a guide to decision-making about the future.

What is known is that weather will become ever more increasingly extreme resulting in deaths and devastation from storms, floods, fires, and heatwaves.  This will wreak havoc on communities’ infrastructure. Dr. Hayhoe states that “Our infrastructure was built for a planet that no longer exists.”  It may also be said that our planning was created for a planet that no longer exists. 

It is likely that the vast majority of urban planners have no idea this is what we face.

And not only are urban planners not ready for this reality, but the profession is also pushing us into this future.

For an example, by enforcing segregated land uses that require immense amounts of driving, American urban planning actively demands high emissions.  Americans drive far more than any other nation on the planet – more than twice as much as any comparable developed nation.  Because of this, transportation is by far the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.  US urban planning makes the planet hotter every day.

The second likely future we face is one where greenhouse gas emissions are eliminated in an attempt to salvage a livable climate.  This is a “net-zero” scenario and it will be one with much, much less available energy.  Net-zero would change everything in our lives from transportation, to land use, to agriculture and food distribution, to building materials and economic development.  Current urban planning will be unable to adapt to this situation because the modern profession is rooted in 19th and 20th century understandings of prosperity, which was a by-product of humans gaining access to apparently limitless fossil fuels. 

It is completely implausible that a profession rooted in high energy availability of the past two centuries would seamlessly adapt to very low energy availability

However, since net-zero will so radically change our way of living, it seems unlikely to be adopted in the US.

Thus, the likeliest future scenario is “business as usual,” resulting in at least 5° of heating within the lifetimes of young people today.  To honestly face the reality of this scenario, brave urban planners should admit that long-term planning is now pointless.  It is impossible to plan for an utterly unpredictable future. 

But for as long as we can, we must try our best to adapt to the potentially unadaptable.

Therefore, planning must shift to much shorter time frames, such as year to year or even season to season. In these time frames, planning should focus on identifying climate risk, local vulnerabilities to those risks, and then defining and preparing for local resilience.

Planners must identify the greatest climate risks to their communities. These risks may be weather-related, food-related, energy-related, resource-related and even, horrifyingly, global war-related risks over migration and access to resources.

Weather related risks may include long-duration floods, excessive heat, extreme cyclonic activity, intense cloudbursts, fire and smoke, extended drought, and powerful derechos. In order to reduce vulnerabilities to many of these risks, Anthropocene urban planners should demand the best possible weather forecasting so that freak weather events might not take communities by surprise.  

Along with better forecasting, better communication throughout communities is needed to warn all citizens quickly and effectively of looming destructive weather.  Planning for evacuations, immediate disaster responses, and maintaining “lifeline services” will obviously also be vital. New building codes are also necessary for requiring new buildings and retrofitting existing ones to better cope with these events. To prevent repeated disasters occurring in the same places, retreat plans are needed for quick, permanent abandonment of many urban areas. 

Eliminating vulnerabilities to food related risks include ensuring food supply despite weather, political, or supply chain disruptions.  This must take the form of massive efforts at local agriculture on every appropriate piece of land in the community as well as providing emergency food storage from year to year.

Risks to energy availability and supply chains are similar:

  • weather-related destruction of the grid, distribution and transportation infrastructure;
  • local, state, national, and global actions restricting trade;
  • and potentially even global military actions.

Reducing these vulnerabilities include developing creative plans for:

Achieving many of these will require communities to reconnect with their bioregion and to cooperate with their neighbors to ensure sustainable management of those bioregional resources. 

(Speaking of global war, those communities near US military bases and other high-profile targets should seriously study impacts of a potential global world war on their immediate surroundings.)

There are many other risks and vulnerabilities. Once those are fully identified, it will be of paramount importance for planners to define and ensure local resilience. I’m defining resilience as an ability to quickly rebound after a shock in order to maintain a viable community through maintaining essential functions and ensuring public health, safety, and welfare. While every community will have unique resilience plans, all should be focused on ensuring enough food and clean water for everyone, suitable housing, a minimal level of electricity, empathetic public security, and health care for all citizens. 

If you’ve made it this far, you’re likely to be asking, “what about zone changes, development plans, subdivisions, conditional uses?”  I think that all of these are now irrelevant, but I do understand that most urban planners in the current paradigm ultimately work to keep the real estate development industrial complex going.  So, if planners insist on carrying 20th century practice forward, perhaps it could be with a new ethic that re-focuses conventional planning actions on only those things that reduce risks and vulnerabilities and builds resilience. 

Regardless, knowing what we know about our terrible predicament, continuing as before without these ethics or completely new practices must be considered malpractice.

The trajectory of the climate crisis reveals current planning practice as utterly insufficient for the real world. The knowledge and actions of the past are of no use to planning today. Pretending otherwise is unacceptable.  Climate Scientist Kevin Anderson clearly says what urban planners face: “There is no non-extreme future.” Urban planning must pick one extreme future to focus on and begin anew.

Steve Austin is an urban planner and designer and land use attorney.  He currently teaches landscape architecture, urban planning, and construction law at Washington State University.

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