Challenge and Opportunity

Development Patterns are how people live.

Designing sustainable patterns improves quality of life. 


New Zealand can be the world-changer...

prototyping and exporting sustainable patterns


Development patterns as an important answer to the challenges facing the planet and its people

When you fly over America, coast to coast, you see a massive development pattern that did not exist in 1950. Patch after patch of suburban sprawl connected by roads and by the most extensive, expensive infrastructure project in history - the interstate highway system. In the Baby Boomers' lifetime over half of the nation shifted from rural, town and city living to the suburbs. It was the most successful, rapidly-replicating development pattern in history. Unfortunately, it is also the most destructive. However, ignoring that for a moment, let's look at what made it successful, and then determine if a non-destructive, economically, socially & culturally enriched development pattern can be introduced that spreads as rapidly and successfully as suburban sprawl.

The answer is in the concept of development pattern. Once the suburban model was proven, local governments saw it provided economic stimulus, so they zoned for it. The legal and planning documents were replicable, and developers saw that huge profits could be made turning farmland into quarter-acre paradise. All that needs to be done is to use a development pattern that is done for the right reasons, but ensures the same replicability for politicians and developers. Neither needs to bring a high level of consciousness to their work, but merely to follow the rules.

Why is this important?

Since about 1950, humanity has engaged in a war on Nature and on Human Nature. Or to be more precise, since we are a part of Nature and humanity - both the perpetrators and victims, we have been conducting a slow form of collective suicide... let's call it ecocide, cuturecide and civicide (the destruction of civilization as we know it). We did not declare such a war, indeed it is mere collateral damage, but the damage is so great as to potentially threaten life as we know it. Of course, even as the scientists, experts and scholars make such observations and dire predictions, we really don't believe it. If we did, we would change our business-as-usual as fast as America did after Pearl Harbor in 1941. It's unfortunate Al Gore was a politician, and more unfortunate that he chose the title An Inconvenient Truth, because those who believe his message really don't believe it will be more than inconvenient. Sure, it might be warmer, but in some places that will be welcome. Floods and drought will be inconvenient, but we will get through it. So we have global conferences where national leaders make vague pledges to keep the increases to some theoretical number, and little New Zealand decides its contribution will be to buy carbon credits - spending either $100 or $1,350 per household - rather than actually cut back on its emissions.

Global solutions have to happen somewhere. That somewhere is either where people live, or where the raw materials and manufacturing of the things people buy occurs. Consumption is ultimately local. It happens locally, even if supported by a supply line located somewhere else. How we consume locally determines how we will live and how the planet and its people will fare in the future.

When we drive a car, we drive locally - although sometimes local can mean a hundred mile commute every day. Zoologists call this territory our home range, the same loops we drive every day. When billions of people rely on transport every day, the cost and damage to humanity and nature is huge. Over time, it is potentially life threatening... all because the prevailing development pattern is based on transport.

So what happens if we change the development pattern by moving destinations so all day-to-day destinations are within walking distance? A whole host of problems disappear. Not mitigated or offset; the problems are eliminated. You save money, reconnect people, create a safer place to live, the air smells sweeter, the outdoors are quieter, life improves.

Creating walking home ranges is not new idea, it is how almost all human beings lived before technology. Go to Old Europe and you find these timeless development patterns still operating. Not only that, but walking home range territory is growing as cities like Hamburg commit to going car-free. However, retrofitting a transport-based design is difficult. It's the future growth where sustainable development patterns can be most effective.

In 1950, the earth had half a billion middle class people. Today it is 2 billion. In 15 years, it is projected at 5 billion. But the middle-class development pattern is based on transport - mostly cars. It's killing us already, if we are to find room for 3 billion more middle class people, we need a different approach. So far, we have just talked about transport. But there is a lot more than just how we get around. Let's look at some of society's challenges.

The Problem Statement

As of late, Climate Change has captured centre stage as the challenge facing humanity. Certainly it is big, and could be catastrophic, but if tomorrow we invented a way to clear the skies of greenhouse gasses and lower the global mean temperature to pre-industrial levels, all would not be well. It's a challenge even listing all the big challenges, because different people and groups focus on different ones in what has been called silo thinking.

Consider the list below, and then reflect on how many of these challenges can be addressed by changing how we live. For example, if we eliminate the need to drive on a day-to-day basis by moving destinations so all are within walking distance, the positive effects are far greater than just eliminating tailpipe emissions. Children can play in the streets, which reduces the pressure on families and gets the kids active, outdoors. Old people need not move away to segregated retirement homes when they stop driving. Cafe culture - sitting outside at a cafe table on the village plaza is a gentle pleasure... no noise or noxious smells from passing cars & trucks. Eliminating driving cuts the cost of living by about 25%. The land given over to parked and driven cars & trucks is claimed back to the community. the streets become human scaled with no off-street parking for businesses and no 2-car garage as part of the home mortgage. Before ultra-high speed broadband, this may not have been possible, but with the 21st century shifts in technology, telepresence and e-commerce take the place of commuting and shopping.

What are some of the challenges faced by humanity today, and as you read them, think about how a new approach to development patterns could overcome those challenges?


ECOCIDE: The War on Nature CIVICIDE: The War on Civilization CULTURECIDE: The War on Culture
Species extinction Wealth based on peak oil Structural interpersonal disconnection
Collapse of marine ecosystems Cataclysm migration Fragmenting families
Ice shelf melt and sea level rise Economic polarization No provision for aging population
Fukushima-type nuclear leaks Toxic profits based on cost-externalizing Lack of opportunity for youth

Rise in global air temperature

Periodic regional/global economic collapse Habitat homogenization
Topsoil depletion (60 years left) Structurally high unemployment Loneliness and social isolation
Chemical farming toxicity Unaffordable housing Risk-averse childrearing
Ocean acidification/ocean hypoxia Crime tolerance Youth segregation, role-model isolation
Dead-zone seas Neo-diseases (cancer/diabetes, Elder segregation & isolation
Fish food stocks dwindling Urban transport congestion Atrophied citizenship
Future food shortages Lack of start-up capital Substance abuse
Water shortages and pollution Local government debt-blowouts Failing, isolated schools
Farm-fouled waterways Nature deficit syndrome Youth alienation & suicide
Bee colony collapse disorder Night-light pollution Arts commoditization
Exotic species colonization Noise pollution Internet addiction
Localized air pollution Weakening immune systems Social disconnection


Ecocide is an active word. Civicide and Culturecide are made up, but follow the same theme. Some challenges are massive like species extinction and being told that if we don't change our farming methods, we have sixty harvests left before the topsoil is gone. Others are personal, like boredom, loneliness and addiction to mask the emptiness. Money is a big problem even though technically money is just a medium. In tribal cultures everyone worked, everyone created wealth or perished. Today, we work for money and too often fail to understand the importance of creating wealth rather than cost externalising.

We propose that when one examines all of the challenges listed above, they are fundamentally local in consumption, but institutional in production. In ecology, it is the growth of the consuming class - from 1/2 billion in 1950 to 2 billion today, projected to 5 billion by 2030 that creates the market for the stuff that is wrecking the natural ecology. In our civilization, we have built a society based on energy servants making the average person more powerful in some ways than the monarchs of yore, but we use that energy to drive in circles; to burn in years what took Nature epochs to create. We have created a  society of institutions that no longer can fulfil their purposes. To quote Dee Hock who put it so succinctly: schools that can’t teach, universities far from universal, corporations that neither cooperate nor compete, only consolidate, unhealthy health-care systems, welfare systems in which no one fairs well, farming systems that destroy the soil and poison food, families far from familial, police that can’t enforce the law, judicial systems without justice, governments that can’t govern, economies that can’t economise.

The Solution Statement

People are, by nature, social beings. They live in communities and left to their own devices, they tend to cooperate out of necessity and compete when given the opportunity. They are individualistic but not isolated. As children, they naturally learn by observing and interacting with older people. Socially, these communities tend to work best when about 250 to 750 people, what we call villages, but economically one rises above a subsistence level when the larger community is about 5,000 to 10,000 people - what we call towns. Beyond that size, communities tend to become bureaucratic as empire-building institutions remove local checks and balances.

None of these are new observations. They are how humans have worked for ten thousand years since they stopped being nomads and settled down. When they settled down, development patterns began to emerge.

For the first 10,000 years, these development patterns were based on the individual. Then in the 20th century a new experiment was introduced - base development patterns on transport. Move day-to-day destinations so people must use mechanised transport to accomplish the mundane chores of daily life. As the challenge list shows, this experiment is a failure. We need a new set of development patterns.

Rather than look to unproven, utopian ideas, prudence would suggest we examine what worked for 10,000 years to see if it can be adapted to a 21st century, ultra-technological world.



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