Smart Growth and Military Planners

Those holding out hope that Smart Growth–the political effort to reduce sprawl by promoting higher density, mixed use, transit-oriented development–might be accomplished through voluntary, market mechanisms didn’t get much support in a report on the Green transformation of Oberlin, Ohio recently appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov 6, 2011). The Oberlin Project itself is quite interesting, and even inspiring, as a case of experimentation with Green technology and approaches to redevelopment. The scary part comes when the military planners come into the picture.

First, a little background. Oberlin, a small, isolated colleg town in northeast Ohio, is undergoing what appears to be a genuine Green transformation of its downtown based on a plan and design developed by Oberlin College environmental studies and politics professor David Orr. Orr is motivated by a sincere belief that American society is consuming too much and is not transitioning away from fossil-fuels fast enough. So, he’s leading an effort to transform Oberlin to a more “sustainable” economy, including the construction of Green buildings in the downtown, encouraging locally produced goods and services, and a greenbelt for agriculture to grow local food for the town. This sounds a lot like the utopian socialist ideas about cities and new towns that almost inevitably failed. Nevertheless, as long as these efforts are voluntary, few can object. Let success or failure be decided by residents and their willingness to move in (or, more often than not, move out).

Unfortunately, that’s not where the story ends. A number of military strategists are also concerned about our reliance on fossil fuels and doubt our economic and social resilience as a result. They favor moving toward locally grown food and moving most everyone off oil to make society less vulnerable to distruptions in food or fuel supplies. (We’ll leave aside the economically naive and patently false notion that dependence on locally produced or manufactured goods and services is somehow more resilient than a market economy where trading occurs across borders, nations and oceans; isolated, “self sufficient” local economies are not resilient.)

These localist military strategists are much more upfront and aggressive about their willingness to embrace top-down planning to move society and economy off fossil fuels. The military folks, it seems, are also concerned about “peak oil,” although I suspect they are more concerned about the scarcity of oil for military uses than non-military ones. Here’s the report from the Chronicle story:

Patrick C. Doherty, a national-security expert at the New America Foundation, doesn’t consider himself a “doomer,” a label applied to Mr. [Richard] Heinberg and some of his colleagues. But he does think the nation needs a new way of organizing itself—one in which colleges would have a vital role. He is working with Mr. Orr and Colonel Mykleby on a “national sustainable communities coalition” that will attempt to replicate the Oberlin Project in other parts of the country—possibly around military bases that are striving for sustainability.

“In the 20th century, says Mr. Doherty, the United States coordinated its political and economic power to meet great global challenges, in what was called “grand strategy.” We did it in World War II in orienting the nation’s industrial base to ramp up and outperform the Axis powers. And we did it again in economically and politically outperforming and outlasting the Soviets in the cold war.

“Mr. Doherty and his colleagues believe that the nation needs grand strategy once again to meet a new global challenge. “We think that the core global challenge is global unsustainability,” he says—a convergence of major problems, including a persistent middle-class recession, ecological systems in decline, a vast population of the world’s poorest people cut out of the global economy, and a core infrastructure susceptible to shock and disruption.

“Part of the nation’s grand strategy in the cold war was to build suburbia, to satisfy a major housing demand and stoke the economic engine. But those suburban communities are now both unsustainable and undesirable, Mr. Doherty says. Research shows that the majority of both retiring baby boomers and up-and-coming millennials want to live in walkable, affordable communities, rich with amenities and connected to mass transit.

“In short, it’s called “smart growth”—and it’s the way many college towns are already designed and oriented. In fact, Mr. Doherty points out, college towns (including, even recently, Oberlin) have been the sites of new retirement communities, because that older generation wants to live close to institutions of higher education and the cultures they foster.

“Top-down policy can drive this new grand strategy, he says, but given the political climate and the doubts people have about the effectiveness of government, it may have to start with small efforts like the Oberlin Project. Either way, he says, higher-education institutions would be “essential” to pulling it off.”

I have to admit, as someone who has studied, written, and taught about urban trends for more than two decades now, I was caught a bit off guard by this revisionism. Suburbia was not part of a grand strategy. It was an outcome of consumer demand for more living space, including access to rural and semirural lifestyles, rising incomes from industrialization, and various fragmented national and local public policies. But, these were not a coordinated “grand strategy,” let alone a product of a grand vision. (And we’ll leave aside the implicit notion that we “outlasted” the Soviet Union because we implemented a grand economic strategy. We didn’t.)
The real worrisome aspect of this article is in the last paragraph cited above: The overt and articulated belief that “top-down policy” can drive the strategy and be successful. Apparently, we’re intellectually back in the 1920s. Time to dig up and dust off your copy of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Central planning is alive and well, courtesy of environtmental dirigisme, Smart Growth, and the U.S. military.