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December 2, 2010

Maybe Smart Growth Isn’t

If you haven’t seen Professor Albert Bartlett’s lecture “Arithmetic, Population and Energy: Sustainability 101,” then you should. Seriously, here’s the link, go watch it. It’ll take a while, but you can come back.

OK, got the picture?

So, this is really what we are up against, ourselves. More specifically, it is our growth in terms of population numbers and resource depletion that threatens our continued existence. The planet itself will be fine. Sure, it may suffer to the point that causes our own extinction – or at least drastically reduces our population numbers – but the planet will rebound and “shake us off like a bad case of flees, a surface nuisance” to use George Carlin’s words.

We are essentially lying to ourselves and perpetuating the myth that we can grow our way, however smart, out of this problem. We simply can not. Think about it, we’re saturated with the gospel of growth. Fortunately for us, Bartlett has taken the time to skip ahead and read the ending. We also know intuitively that growth inevitably turns to decline and yet, we desperately cling to the false belief that sustained growth is not only good, but somehow possible.

Architects certainly have our own share of culpability to bare, and green architecture as a response doesn’t seem adequate to the challenge that Bartlett lays out for us. This dilemma requires broad public policies which address the core challenges that growth presents, not just a more polite strategy for growth.

We first need to reassess the language we use to describe what it is we should be doing. Instead of growth, we should be discussing matters in more of a metabolic framework in which both constructive and destructive processes are considered in the maintenance and optimization of our activities across the urban-wilderness spectrum.

The closer our artificial economy reaches the scale of the whole planet, the more essential it is that it conform to the Earth’s metabolic behavior. Only in this way will we achieve the balance necessary for our continued existence.

I certainly do not outright object to strategies like infill development, adaptive reuse, or sustainable design, but I think it’s important for us to step back and see the bigger picture at times. What do you think about how we frame the subject of growth in light of Bartlett’s research?

Tommy Manuel is an architect, planner, writer, and artist working in South Carolina and New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @TommyManuel.

Yahya E. B. Henry

About Yahya E. B. Henry

Merging his passion for cities, real estate, tech and travel, Yahya is introducing the world to a new model of real estate development that draws from best practices around the globe.

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