Can We Balance Ecology and Economy?

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
– Buckminster Fuller

What good is it to gain control of the economic rudder and have lots of locally controlled capital generated by accountable, sociocratcially operated, employee-owned companies, if we continue to devastate the environment and build more of the same awful subdivisions and sprawl? Surely someone has devised a better plan than hacking land up into small pieces, surrounding it with concrete, building houses and selling them for as much money as possible. In my own town, I’ve seen thousands of acres of good farmland bought, bulldozed, and covered with subdivisions in a single decade. It’s happening everywhere, and it’s only getting worse.

All the democratically controlled, equitable economic development in the world is pointless if we continue to build more of the same ugly, inefficient, unsustainable, sprawling cities and suburbs. One-third of all land in a typical community is covered in concrete in the form of sidewalks, streets and parking lots. We build our cities and towns for and around automobiles instead of people. It’s an incredibly wasteful way to design communities. The long-term sustainability of the land and the community is seldom (if ever) considered. The only concern seems to be the shortsighted, “money-is-all-that-matters” goal of building and selling.

It is apparent that the economic component is only half of the equation. We must account for both economy and ecology.

Fortunately, there are better ways to build communities. Hundreds of new ideas are being generated, tried, and tested by visionary designers, builders, and thinkers around the world.

One possibility is a design developed by Dan Thornton and Shane Olsen called Agrarian Cities. Instead of using a grid system, their plan calls for a community constructed using four rings. Each ring has homes facing each other across a double wide, pedestrian friendly street with a wide, lush green way in the middle. Trees, gardens, flowers, parks, and open spaces abound.

A great alternative to the grid system, their model represents one square mile or 640 acres. (All statistics given are based on the research and data of Dan Thornton.) It has the same population density as the average urban development of similar size. It is estimated that the population could reach about eight thousand, a good size for a small town. There are two thousand homes in this model, the same as in a square mile of most towns. What’s more, the whole thing is designed for mixed use, meaning each home could also be a business. Less than 5% of the land is under concrete for streets, compared to 29% in the average urban area. 28% of the land is available for parks, nature and recreation, compared to less than 3% in most cities. 43% of the land is left open for agriculture (compared to 0% in most cities and towns). (See comparison chart below.)

Each home is three stories, one below ground level and two above. The earth dug to make the hole for the subterranean level can be turned into brick to be used in construction. Depending on the local soil, each hole can produce enough brick for two and a half homes. The average floor plan calls for three stories of twelve hundred square feet each, making a 3600 square foot home – well above the national average. For those that didn’t need or want that much living space, all manner of alternatives are available, from duplexes and apartments to co-housing where several residents share a kitchen, laundry and common area.

All the buildings employ sustainable green design concepts. Every roof is covered in solar panels. All gutters lead to cisterns or to drainage ditches connected to various ponds. Trees provide a buffer against strong north winds and large southern facing windows allow maximum warmth from passive solar design. It’s an entire village of intelligently built homes. Homes that take the environment into account and work in harmony with it to create a healthier place to live and work.

The mixed-use concept allows residents to live and work in the same place, which reduces the need for cars and the need to leave the community. That means more free time saved in commuting and allows more time for neighbors to interact with each other. The whole layout and concept is designed to promote and develop a sense of community.

The subterranean level opens out to a tunnel with an underground transportation system much like a subway. It would be possible to be anywhere in the village in minutes. One could walk, bicycle, take a subway, or a monorail that runs above ground and connects all four rings – a perfect solution to traffic congestion. Large parking garages are located in each corner of the village. These connect to feeder roads and highways. The monorail and subway make stops at the garages, making it easy to get from your car to your home. Moreover, the garages don’t take up any land because they are designed using a terraced structure. The terraces and the roof are planted with vegetation. Thus, there is actually more land available for growing than there would have been if the garage not been there.

As for the rings, the average distance from one side to the other is about four football fields. The interiors of the rings are a patchwork of parks, creeks, ponds, small forests, and agricultural production. However, the space is also utilized for public buildings such as schools, theaters, and an arts center.

Thornton & Olsen’s plan looks and sounds incredible, but it’s just one of many proposed alternatives to the destructive cookie cutter subdivisions sprawling all across the United States. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible for such large-scale green developments to get financing. Banks think it’s too unconventional, and most traditional developers won’t even consider such ideas because they fear the profit margin is too low. All that open land means fewer homes to sell, which means too much untapped profit potential.


One example of integrating agricultural space within a community is the Agrarian Cities concept/design by Dan Thornton and Shane Olsen.

These photos provide views of an Agrarian City prototype designed by Dan Thornton and Shane Olsen. This is by no means the only type of design. Each site is designed specific to its ecology and requires its own unique solutions. Circles are used as an archetype, but other alternatives may prove more appropriate for a given location. Agrarian Cities are designed to maximize the use of land and sustain healthy, fully functional, natural ecosystems. Note that over 70% of the land remains available for use as parks, recreation, nature, or agriculture.

The Agrarian Cities concept/design by Dan Thornton and Shane Olsen is reminiscent of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities work.

“In 1974 a federally sponsored industry study called The Costs of Sprawl found that on a given land area, a high-density planned development could leave over half its land area as open space, and significantly reduce road and utility investments, compared with traditional suburban layout.”
– Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins
Natural Capitalism

We’ve known for years that the traditional grid system is a dumb idea. Yet, its use continues simply because it’s easy and the long-term viability of the land is never considered. The chart below clearly illustrates the advantages of the Agrarian Cities design over the conventional grid design. Provo, Utah was used as a representative model for comparison because it was named America’s Most Livable City in 1991 by Money magazine (when Thornton & Olsen were developing their design).


The open land within the design is a simple matter of sustainability. The food production system in this country is insane. Food is grown by machines, laden with fertilizers, pesticides, and all manner of other chemicals, picked raw, shipped all over the place, stored in giant warehouses, and eventually winds up at the grocery store where you buy it. When it’s all said and done, the food on your plate has traveled thousands of miles. That’s why the cost of food goes up when prices rise at the gas pump. It takes a lot of gasoline to fuel the tractors that plow the fields, the combines that harvest the crop, the trucks that haul it to the warehouse and the ones that take it from there to the grocer. The system is totally dependent on machines and transportation, and therefore oil. The whole system is completely artificial, sustained only by huge subsidies from all levels of government. There are millions of people going hungry, yet our government often pays farmers not to grow crops – what few farmers there are nowadays. Too many farming operations are now owned by giant corporations whose only goal is making money. So long as the sole reason for producing food is profit, there is no incentive to feed everyone, since greater demand means higher prices. The only reason the system continues to function at all is because millions of tax dollars are poured into it to keep it viable. Take away all that help, all that corporate welfare, and the whole thing would collapse.

It all comes down to sustainability. By growing food locally, we ensure that the ripest, healthiest food is available for consumption by residents. Since it’s growing in their back yards, it’s doubtful they’d allow tons of chemicals to be dumped on it, which means healthier organically grown produce. And, doing it locally provides jobs for many of the residents within the community. Thus, having agricultural space within the development provides food and jobs that contribute to the sustainability of the community. A community that can’t feed itself won’t be around long. That’s the problem with the way we design cities. They’re completely unsustainable. They’re all built to be totally dependent upon the transportation system and nonrenewable fossil fuels. If the oil runs out or becomes outrageously expensive, people can’t get to and from work, commerce can’t be conducted, food can’t be delivered. The whole thing is designed with only one possible long-term result – complete system failure. It’s a house of cards that will eventually collapse.

Sustainable, large-scale, green developments can change the paradigm. They are desperately needed, especially now. But the obstacles are formidable. Such developments will require lots of venture capital and those with the money aren’t likely to go for a plan that mainly appeals to the middle and working class. Even if it can get off the ground, selling the homes will prove difficult, as those who might want to live in such a place may be the least likely to be able to afford a home. Then there is the difficulty inherent in getting people to try an unknown. People have a tendency to choose a bad known over a great unknown. Thus, without some sort of incentive – economic or otherwise – finding people to move to such a place could be difficult at best. It might be possible to build such a place but then not sell a single home.

Every community has two environments that should work in harmony with the other – the physical environment and the working environment. It’s a bit like the yin and the yang of eastern philosophy. The two environments are supposed to compliment each other but almost never do – mainly because most developers get the physical environment totally wrong. How can you possibly create community if you spend all your time in your car? You will never get to know your neighbors, never feel connected to the town. We can’t all work at home, and starting a small business is difficult. Yet, I don’t want a beautiful, sustainable, green development littered with national chains, fast food joints, large signs and billboards. Placing conventional businesses who use conventional business models into such a place would ruin it. It would soon become just like every other place, except with rings instead of a grid, and that’s not much improvement.

The working environment and physical environment have to be brought together harmoniously, so that they compliment, support, nurture and sustain each other.

But how? The government won’t do it. Within the marketplace there is neither substantial supply nor demand. The average American has no control over the economic rudder (either individually or as a group) to enact such a development. What makes such a thing possible? How will we ever be able to have true green communities (not just a few homes or buildings here and there)? What’s to prevent the buying and selling of land for short-term profit and the creation of more sprawling grid-based systems?

Just as we can’t fully control the economic rudder until we alter the paradigm of the monetary system, we can’t create large-scale, sustainable communities until we alter the paradigm of land use.

To be continued…


Tim Wardell is a deep thinker, gardener, husband, father, would-be science fiction sex comedy novelist, and margarita aficionado. When not doing any of those things, he reads, studies, practices, and blogs about sustainability.

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