How to Read This Blog


To get the most out of this blog, I recommend beginning with the earliest post and proceeding in chronological order. For the most part this blog, like a planning document, builds on data and rationale in a linear manner. You may find value in individual posts taken in isolation, but I suspect your experience will be richer if you follow the intended progression.

Friday, January 27, 2017

LPS 2: Inventory of Existing Conditions

In the first post of this series, we established a general outline of our study area:  Anytown, USA.  Anytown may not be exactly like your town, but it shares characteristics with many places in America.

For the purposes of plan development, we will inventory the general conditions of the built, natural, and social/economic environment of Anytown.  This will provide the base set of conditions from which we will project future scenarios, given what we know about the unfolding macro situation from the World Planning Series.

This post will be intentionally more graphic-heavy than most posts on this blog, in order to relay a highly visual and hopefully relatable narrative that describes the kind of place under discussion.


We'll begin at the starting point of all stationary and semi-stationary civilization: shelter for habitation of human families, or, "residential" development.  In Anytown the majority of housing stock is the detached, single family home, making up about 60% of total homes.  In itself, this does not necessarily presuppose a particular pattern of development; however, these housing units are developed in a manner that is primarily supported by and is supportive of automobile transportation.  The resulting suburban development pattern looks largely like this:

Is this really so different from  apartment life?

Of course, other housing types can easily be found, including about 20% apartments and condos, 15% duplex or townhomes, and 5% mobile or manufactured homes.  However, even most of these types of housing follow a similar overall pattern of development as the single family home.  Individual or shared front and rear yards contain boxlike buildings, generally following similar architectural styles within neighborhood areas, as determined by the decade of construction and the anticipated class of the inhabitants (or cost of the units).

A large portion of the total land area is taken up by rights-of-way, containing meandering roads wide enough to accommodate two passing vehicles plus parking on-street.  In many cases (especially in newer neighborhoods) there are also sidewalks, but the street is the dominant feature of the space.

Generally the units are about 2,000 square feet, smaller in older or lower income areas.  There are several bedrooms, large communal spaces for cooking, dining, and leisure.  The units have all the necessities of modernity including electricity from the grid, potable water on tap, and sewer service to carry it all away.


Of course there are also considerable areas of commercial development, generally separated by some distance from the residential areas (especially the higher income residential areas).  These tend to be aggregated along the more major roadways that extend continuously across the city for long distances (arterial roadways).  The reason for this is that the majority of the citizens in Anytown travel by car, and they tend towards the most efficient route to their destination which results in large volumes of traffic along these key roadways.  Business operators have learned that placing their business directly on roadways with high traffic volumes provides maximum exposure to their customers and increases their chances of success.  These areas are the home to strip malls and big-box chain stores, which provide a majority of the goods and services needed and wanted on a daily basis for the average citizen.  As a result, many of the commercial areas in the city look like some version of this:

The main exception to the strip-mall pattern of commercial development is in the city's downtown, which was platted in the 1800's and reflects a development pattern based on pedestrian scale transportation rather than automobile scale transportation.  Buildings are compact and close together, with a mix of uses including retail and offices on the ground floor, and various mixes of office and even housing in stories above.  Overall, the balance in downtown is in favor of commercial development, necessitating additional housing outside of the downtown core and resulting in a daily in-migration of workers and shoppers during the day and an exodus back to suburban houses in the evening.  For the most part, however, once people arrive in downtown in their automobiles they are able to get around by foot.

While suburban commercial areas include retailers and service providers that most people need access to on a daily basis, the types of commercial development that remain in downtown tend to be of a different mix.  The older more compact buildings in downtown tend to not be conducive to major chain stores, so locally owned and operated businesses tend to have a greater presence.  Because of the large number of office workers, there is a proliferation of dining and entertainment establishments.  While some core daily services like a small grocery, drug store, hardware store, and others are all present, the majority of the retail businesses tend to be boutique in nature, fitting specific niches like antiques, coffee shops, or apothecaries.  The walkable development pattern supports a pleasant urban environment that looks something like this:
Downtown Main Street Jacksonville, OR

Supply Chains

Of course, whether talking about downtown or the suburbs, very few of the products being sold at any of the businesses actually come from the area.  Anytown is fed by a constant stream of truck and rail traffic delivering all of the goods being consumed by its citizens.  Highly perishable goods, like food, arrive and are sold or consumed within days or a few weeks of their arrival in town.  This means that at any given time, there is perhaps a week's supply of food and other products available from the last delivery.  This supply must constantly be replentished in order to keep products on the shelves of stores and food in the pantries of citizens.


By this point, we have already alluded to the various forms of transportation present in Anytown, simply due to the necessity of transportation to the normal operation of the local economy.  While the government of Anytown likes to pay lip service to being "multimodal", the reality is that one mode of transportation totally dominates all others: the car.

All day, every day, even late at night, there are automobiles cruising the streets from one place to the next.  Anytown is actually one of the more progressive cities in the US, with about 60% of its total commute trips being taken by a single person in a car.  Bicycles, for comparison, make up around 5% of commute trips, which is a very high rate for American cities.  The car is so embedded into the culture of Anytown that huge swaths of land are dedicated just to accommodating them both in travel as well as at their destination in the form of parking lots and garages.  Because it is assumed that everyone is travelling by car, the design of land uses is such that it is difficult to get between places by any other mode.  Even for short trips, it is easier to drive from one parking lot to another than undertake a potentially dangerous voyage by foot or pedal.

Of course, some people do travel by other modes.  One of these is public transportation, in the form of buses.  Long ago, streetcars traveled across Anytown, but as the use of cars expanded even public transportation came to consist of giant gas-powered cars.  The majority of the people using public transportation fall into two categories:  people who cannot drive for some reason (poverty, illness or disability, inability to obtain a driver's license), and students at the local university who use it as a shuttle service to campus.

Civic Infrastructure

In addition to the privately held assets of individuals (such as houses and commercial businesses), there are a number of assets held by public and nonprofit entities in the name of the entire public.  These pieces of civic infrastructure serve key functions such as putting out fires, maintaining law and order, dispensing justice, or providing medical care.  They include the public buildings where government workers toil such as City Hall and various office buildings.  They also include firehouses, vehicle and machine shops, and storage yards and warehouses for the development of public sector projects.  These facilities are generally kept operational by support from tax dollars, both locally as well as passed-down from state and federal government sources.

One piece of civic infrastructure worth mentioning explicitly is medical facilities.  This includes hospitals of course, but also a vast network of private and nonprofit facilities as well from private practice clinics to urgent care facilities to pharmacies.  All of these facilities are dependent upon easy access to energy, technology, and national supply chains.  They are also extensively used, as a very significant proportion of the population is reliant upon regular medical care and products.

Utility Infrastructure

Behind and often underneath all of these public and private facilities, there is a vast network of utility infrastructure feeding the buildings and streets so that they can function as we have come to expect.  Most people do not understand or recognize the importance of these facilities because they operate silently in the background.  However, if they ever stop functioning, people would notice very quickly.

Each building in Anytown has it's own internal system of plumbing for clean water and waste.  Outside of the building envelope, the local municipality owns and maintains a vast network of pipes which must be regularly inspected and cared for, and occasionally patched in the event of a break or leak.  The potable water is carried from large water purification plants, which draw water out of above-ground reservoirs and use a complex process of filters and chemicals to produce clean drinking water.  These facilities must be manned and supplied every day to keep the water safe and flowing.  At the other end are large wastewater treatment facilities.  Once again, these facilities use complex processes of chemicals, filters, and bacteria to break down contaminants enough to release the waste into the environment.  They must also be continually manned in order to ensure proper function.

In Anytown, the local municipality owns the electric distribution system via its own electric utility.  It does not generate its own electricity, except for a few small community solar gardens.  All of the electricity feeding the system is purchased from a local Power Authority, which owns generation plants for the entire region and then allocates the electricity to the member jurisdictions.  The vast majority of the electricity is provided by the burning of coal, although a small and growing percentage comes from utility scale solar and wind facilities.  For the most part, however, Anytown is involved in keeping up its distribution grid.  This requires regular ongoing maintenance on a daily basis, as well as the ability to respond quickly to outages and broken lines.

Human Resources

Lest we forget, all of these buildings and infrastructure exist for the purpose of housing, employing, and serving the human beings who occupy Anytown.  What are the characteristics of these people?  Clearly, they are not a homogeneous mass- but rather a wide spectrum.  While we won't go into details here, there is an active civic life in Anytown, including an abundance of arts and cultural activities.  The people of Anytown have a wide variety of past times and diversions to choose from, including local sports, recreational activities, theaters and museums.

By race, Anytown is about 70% white, 10% black, 15% Hispanic, and 5% other races.  Most people are in their productive adult years, with about 20% of the population under the age of 15 and about 15% over the age of 65.  The majority of the population falls squarely in the "middle class", with one or two wage earners allowing a typically American middle class lifestyle.  About 15% of the population is living at or below the poverty line, most of them chronically.  While the official unemployment rate is extremely low, a large but unspecified number of people are underemployed or have dropped out of the workforce and are reliant upon public assistance.  There is a noticeable homeless presence in the town, numbering over a thousand over the course of a year, or about a half a percent of the total population.

About a third of people are obese (physically limited in what they can do because of body weight), and more than 2/3 are at least "overweight".  15% of the population is dependent upon multiple maintenance medications, which they must take on a daily basis.  20% of people have some type of physical or mental handicap.

Natural Resources

Of course, before Anytown was even constructed there was the natural environment that defines Anytown's unique set of circumstances.  One of the major industries in the surrounding area is oil and gas.  Outside of City limits, it is possible to find rigs operating and new wells being dug.  These resources are far under the ground and require sophisticated techniques and technology to locate and extract; however, there are a number of wells already in operation that automatically and continuously pump oil and natural gas out of the ground and into pipelines.

Not too far from the population of Anytown, it is possible to see a much more natural environment with relatively little disturbance by humans.  Within an hour's drive, there are federally protected lands held by the forest service.  These lands are open to only limited development (for example, for oil and gas by permit only), and other uses by citizens such as hunting and other recreational activities.  Compared to the valley floor where Anytown lies, these forests seem fairly pristine and remote; however, there is an extensive network of forest roads and regular presence of humans in the area for various purposes

File:Gallatin National Forest.jpg


Where humans on the outside edges of Anytown have attempted to tame and exploit the land under their feet, the result is agriculture.  It used to be that the agricultural area surrounding Anytown provided all of the food needed by the citizens.  Now the food distribution system is consolidated and globalized, so locally grown produce and animal products are consolidated at regional facilities and then distributed across the country.

Agricultural practices follow the general procedures described in the World Planning Series Inventory of Existing Conditions, so we won't expand too much upon them here.  Because of the prevalence of cattle around Anytown, there are more independent and semi-independent land owners than in many other places, who simply sell their product to corporations but still own the ranch property.  For a large part of the cattle's lives, they roam across the prairie as they have for hundreds of years.  It isn't until they are finished at feedlots and shipped to commercial butchering facilities that the process becomes distinctly industrial.  Most vegetable production follows a strictly industrial process, with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, airplane sprayers, and massive diesel-powered equipment.

And then there are some small-scale agriculturalists, generally on smaller acreages from 5-20 acres, who fill a specific niche for boutique agricultural products.  These are often organic or near-organic, and include both family farms as well as Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and community gardens.  These are a very small part of the total agricultural community, however.


While there are certainly other details we could delve into, the above categories should provide the reader with a fairly understandable mental map of Anytown.  Many of these characteristics should seem familiar, because they are deeply embedded in the dominant culture.

Overall, Anytown is a fine place to live.  It offers many amenities, diverse activities, a beautiful natural landscape, and a wide assortment of people to find things in common with.  While it may be somewhat average among other similar American cities, the reality is that  Anytown boasts a quality of life higher than just about anywhere, at any time past or present.  It truly is the beneficiary of a global empire, built upon the energy produced by fossil fuels.

In the next post, we will take what we know about events unfolding at the global level, and use this information to project future conditions for Anytown.