Online Land Planning

Sustainability Allows Us to Manufacture Time

Go ahead, define sustainability.  Everyone knows countless, tangled and unconvincing definitions for this word which is quickly losing steam.  The problem is that we’re not sure about how sustainability relates to us except in planetary ways. We’re bombarded with many concepts that if we reduce this by 20%  then we’ll get that in 30 years which helps the earth survive. All’s well, except we’re almost numb because we won’t feel the aggregate effects for quite some time. Obviously, we’re an impatient lot. 

When it shakes out, sustainability is more about reducing the inefficiencies and lowering the cost of daily life in order to “manufacture time” which allows people to enjoy themselves better than they can today.  But in those terms, this seems like an immediate goal we can relate too.  It crosses all societal boundaries and puts an emphasis on helping ourselves right away, which in turn will allow us to help others. Remember the flight attendant saying, “Put the mask over your nose first, and then help others.”  Same idea.

Most people strive to lead very simple lives.  Most importantly, they care about energy costs, health care, children’s education and commute time. Everyday pragmatism.  So sustainability is more about finding meaningful solutions to everyday life. Many good strategies based on Complexity Theory can show proven results, if we decide to learn and try.  Yes, home energy savings can help fund individual health savings accounts. They’re related. This will eventually be done by either evolution or revolution. 

Realistically, most people are only vaguely interested in how sustainability works. We’re willing to pitch in because it’s usually the right thing to do and we may even be willing to pay more if we’re assured dependability and fairness.

So if the result is a few extra hours at home with the family to do as we please - have dinner together, play soccer with the kids, build a new porch, hold a garage sale, lead a Boy Scout troop, learn ballroom dancing, read, paint, travel, exercise, volunteer for anything, then we have achieved the goal of why sustainability matters.  Even more importantly, how we’ve created the most cherished byproduct - Time.

Rick Abelson
Online Land Planning

Bringing New Value to Wastewater



Much of the inefficiency surrounding our use and misuse of water derive from entrenched habits formed during previous eras of presumed inexhaustibility of water supplies.  Our wastewater treatment approach has traditionally relied on an infrastructure of centralized municipal water plants where tertiary effluent is recycled.  These plants consume considerable energy and cost to restore all of the water they process.

This habitual approach to managing water warrants more thoughtful strategies.  These could include selectively treating wastewater to different levels of purity based on the varying levels of water purity for specific purposes rather than defaulting to the established approach of one-size-fits-all centralized wastewater treatment.

One emerging strategy of leveraging the efficiency of wastewater treatment is the application of the value park concept. Borrowing from the symbiotic relationship between petrochemical operations and the need for high volume, low cost manufacturing, value parks have become the norm by clustering around the edges of refineries and tank farms in a unified manner to use tertiary chemicals and byproducts to produce everyday household consumer products such as plastics and cosmetics. This consolidation of activity and energy reduces carbon impact of the manufacturing process and uses byproducts that normally would go to waste.

Expanding on the concept, a ‘wastewater value park’ envisions a micro-economy of water-dependent business clustered in many urban environments, including local nurseries, small industrial parts manufacturers (aviation, auto) and select processing plants that require less pure water for a variety of purposes from cooling to plating.

By integrating our wastewater treatments plants as a catalyst for urban redevelopment, economic opportunity, job creation and environmental stewardship can emerge. Instead of viewing wastewater treatment plants as isolated facilities, we should look forward to the day when more communities will proudly regard such places as integrators of advanced water technology that helps fulfill the as many goals as possible to change the way cities are built the future.

Rick Abelson
www.OnlineLandPlanning.com

The Beauty of India



China no longer needs our help. It took 20 years took to get to that point, but my last two trips there have left the impression that US architects and planners have given the Chinese the most relevant information that they need to build their own country with enough technical and sustainable criteria to know right from wrong. For now, China has caught up with (and in some cases surpassed) the rest of the developed world, allowing them to pull the throttle back a bit on what gets built and where.

Signature projects continue to happen, like the second half of the 2010 World’s Fair (Better City, Better Life) and Shanghai Tower, soon to be the tallest building China. Meanwhile, the Chinese people have realized their own transformation and appreciate the marvels that they have created as they adapt to their new lifestyles in working, living, shopping, eating and entertainment. There is a bit of a sense of arrogance now in the big cities, but also a general understanding of what makes China work and a confidence that they have reached a platitude of their own. In hindsight, the agricultural countryside and rural areas still have not been addressed in a meaningful way and the masses will continue to migrate towards the large metropolis which will eventually feel the strain and force further redevelopment.

International planners and architects are now setting their sights on India with more intent. For some, this territory is not new. Many of the world’s largest EAC firms have multidisciplinary offices in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. What is new is the reception that these businesses are getting - and it’s welcoming.

Even today, India remains at least ten years behind China in terms of utilities, infrastructure, building design and technology. This gap will not close anytime soon as the freewheeling politics in New Delhi are structured completely different from the edicts in Beijing. What is clear is that like China, land planning has taken the forefront in helping decide how the country will develop and where. Unlike China, land parcels are fragmented and difficult to assemble and therefore, large scale private development is slow. Special Economic Zones (SEZ) that help foster tax free enterprises that help import and export all kinds of products and services from power to computer chips to wind turbines are creating jobs and propelling the basic need for economic growth that will eventually be the catalyst for national change. This manufacturing base for both domestic and international growth is essential now.

Like the Chinese culture that many architects and planners admire, India offers a completely different aesthetic for design. The country’s vibrant colors, spices and religions invigorate all five human senses at once and the people are extremely positive about what lies ahead. English language and units of measure make communication easier and being centrally located makes global solutions possible supported by India’s unmatched technological capabilities.

Indian people love both discourse and debate. Their decision making process is engaging and entertaining; as democratic as one can image and almost to a fault. It can become tiresome, but we must embrace it. For just as the Chinese are receptive to outsiders “in a polite way”, Indians want the same access to our intellect and global experiences, but expect to participate wholeheartedly.

Finally and most important, we need to show our willingness and commitment to search out and align with local strategic partners that share similar values and ethics. After all, it’s their country and by taking the time to nurture these relationships in a coordinated effort shows that we have patience, allegiance, stability, confidence and consistency, which ultimately leads to credibility and trust. And in our business, there is not more important than that.

Rick Abelson
www.OnlineLandPlanning.com

Value-Based Land Planning – A Lesson Learned


In 2004, I had the opportunity to help a land owner plan a 30 acre parcel of land in Las Vegas just off the Strip and behind the MGM Grand Hotel.  The parcel was zoned for casino uses and also had potential for hotel, residential towers and other retail uses.  The land owner paid about $9 Million for the underutilized property land and received minor residual income for lower intensity uses that were currently operating on the site.  Initially, the land owner tried to flip the land using a prestigious national real estate brokerage that marketed the property with a glossy aerial photograph with a large red line outlining the parcel for sale, a few ground level photographs, zoning information, potential uses, allowable square footage and the new price - $35 Million.  After several months and no interest from investors, the real estate brokerage contacted us to develop a few simple plans and sketches of what the property might look like to support the marketing effort. Our budget was not to exceed $7,000.  In about two weeks, we were completed.  Our effort consisted of visiting the site, meeting with the City Planning Department, creating hand-drawn site layouts for the land owner to review and select a direction, some relevant precedent images showing what the site might look like when completed and an illustrative computer model showing the overall project from above.  Everything was put into an 11x 17 booklet inelandplanning.com/delivers.php with a front and back cover totaling 8 pages. Now, here’s where the story gets interesting.

Upon review of the work, the real estate brokers in charge of marketing the property decided to option it themselves from the original land owner and using the booklet that we created, quickly sold the land for just under $90 Million to an investment group.  The land owner was compensated with a profit and the brokers left their brokerage firm and retired.  Our cut of the deal was .00007% of the total land transaction.  A few weeks later, we protested to the brokers and were able to negotiate $350,000 by imploring them about respect for our profession, their sheer greed and just common decency to do the right thing by compensating the people that helped them.

I never forgot this project because after nearly twenty-five years of master planning throughout the world, here was a prime example of how a strong vision, coupled with storytelling and simple clear graphics can create substantial value.  It also taught me that a ‘professional fee for service’ approach is not always the best method for master planning firms to be compensated.

A Chance to Change the Rules.

Stimulus money or not, it appears that architectural projects will be set aside for the foreseeable future as the economy recovers and work force transformation takes place. If building design and architectural fees do commence again, a more efficient fee structure will be created that leaves only the concept design through the initial stages of the design development phases to be reserved for specialized architects. Typically, architects negotiate fees in a range of between 4-7% of the total construction cost of the future building, depending on its use. Therefore at most, this will now only be calculated at no more than 40%. The remainder of the design work and potentially 60% of the fee that architects usually count on to keep people employed and offices profitable will be shipped overseas for the construction drawing phase, saving the developer even more money. A small fee percentage may be reserved towards the end of the project for the architect to participate during the bidding and construction phases of the project to ensure design intent and quality.

Therefore, master planning is becoming a more important revenue source for engineering and architectural firms. This discipline can no longer be considered a business development function or a ‘lost leader’ that can be amortized later into future building design fees. With building design becoming harder to guarantee and client loyalty at an all time low, master planning is a value based opportunity that should be used to generate substantial fees using a new business model. One predicated on a percentage of the future price of the land once the client decides to develop or sell.

Rick Abelson
Principal - Online Land Planning

24th European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference & Exhibition




The world’s largest solar PV conference was held September 21-25, 2009 in Hamburg, Germany. I had a chance to attend and used the event as an opportunity to understand the key players, learn about new technology, latest trends and assess the current state of the industry. Here are a few impressions of what I heard and saw:

 

 

1. The solar PV industry appears quite mature and poised to launch in dramatic fashion once global capital markets rebound and cash becomes available. Japan, Germany and the US remain the technology leaders. But now, there is overcapacity. So the goal is to maintain margins as prices get cut based on competition.

2. Solar PV manufacturers are being cautious about expansion and instead are focused on building market share. They are strategically looking for new opportunities in the 50-100 MW range.

3. The United States is considered a huge potential market for solar PV, but government policies are inconsistent and do not appear to support rapid growth. European manufacturers are quite interested in the DOE loan guarantee programs.

4. India will announce its National Solar Plan in November – 20 GW domestic need by Y2020. This should cause ripples through the solar PV Industry. To achieve this, 5MW would need to be produced every day until the deadline. Although, the perception is that conducting business in India is still confusing and difficult.

5. To offset this concern and meet the pressing demand, a special ‘solar economic zone’ where a public – private partnership offers a business park setting, shared resources, tax and trade credits, green jobs, training and no government interference throughout the entire value chain - was proposed by India.

6. China appears to be successful in getting established as solar PV manufacturing force and has been gaining market share. They don’t appear to be adding any new, meaningful technology. Instead, they are concentrating on completing the value chain, improving quality, building sales channels through mass production and lowering costs by selling modules at a discount to throughout the US, Europe and Japan.

7. Governments trying to lure solar PV business into their regions have plenty to choose from as new competition enters the industry. As a result, third-party industry experts are now being asked to make independent evaluations on business plans to determine which companies will get government incentives.

8. Japanese solar PV manufacturers are starting to set up capabilities in the United States in order to preserve their intellectual property rights. They preferred the US patent system.

9. Oregon established the first statewide feed-in tariff in the US for solar PV. This state is also preferred because it has large, natural deposits of silicon ingots - the raw material used to produce solar cells, along with an educated, green collar workforce.

10. Grid parity is still considered a nearly a decade away. But when it occurs, the solar PV industry is considered boundless in terms of financial potential, thus the continued investments to reach this milestone.

11. Spain, once the envy of the world because of their commitment to solar PV applications of all types, has been hampered since the government no longer provides wide ranging subsidies.

12. Solar PV farms, consisting of different applications including condensers, modules and reflective mirrors are the most ubiquitous large-scale applications. In populated areas and small countries, they take up a large amount of land, require constant maintenance and have poor visual quality.

13. Still, solar PV makes the most sense to alleviate ‘brown outs’ in many parts of the world where the demand for electricity is highest during the day and correlates to when the sun is shining.

14. Solar PV manufacturers are beginning to include vertical integration into their business models such as developing utility size power plants to capitalize on their output as they predict the future of the energy market and how power will be distributed.

15. The biggest technology drawback to solar PV is that the power produced must be used right away. It cannot be stored efficiently and affordably.

16. No significant new solar PV innovations at the exhibition were highlighted that have been field-tested and proven. Rather a maturation of existing technologies was the norm.

17. Low cost, thin film flexible solar cells (CIGS) caught my attention. They are durable, lightweight and require no glass. Cell strips can be glued onto existing house roof tiles and boat decks. When accompanied by a portable solar charger they can be applied to camping tents, backpacks and clothing.

18. Uncertainty of the market has made leading solar PV companies unwilling to share lessons learned and competitive data with the industry.

 

Rick Abelson
Director - Online Land Planning
www.onlinelandplanning.com
www.onlineurbanplanning.com

Portland: A Rose By Any Other Name



Every real estate developer and urban planner knows that Portland, Oregon rocks. It is probably our best civic example in the United States of defining a comprehensive growth strategy for its citizens and staying true to the vision. The result is an authentic, creative, smart, home grown, artsy, sustainable, eco-friendly, colorful, self sufficient, vibrant, athletic, outdoorsy, walking, biking, multi-generational and experimental lifestyle downtown community where buildings, transit, waterfront festivals, park blocks, fountains, theaters, bookstores, galleries, music, crafts, food, wine, beer, coffee and people all blend together perfectly. It really works here. But one thing was never done properly and needs to be changed to capture this spirit – the name of the city.

 

Portland. How dull.

 

Decided by a coin toss in 1845, the city’s founding fathers, Lovejoy and Pettygrove, agreed to name this new city after the winner’s respective home town. Their surroundings didn’t seem to influence them. Not the aromatic rhododendrons, crystal water, majestic snow capped mountains, abundant Willamette River salmon and ever presents rain. On the final flip, Pettygrove gave his distinctive Maine smile. Portland won over Boston.

 

Through the generations, colloquial taglines have been added - the City of Roses, Bridgetown, P-Town, PDX, Rip City and Stump Town. Yet, none seem to pick up the essence of what makes this city so special and why the world has embraced it.

 

But surely, Portlanders understand that the brand is often the name itself. This is the home of Nike. So why doesn’t Portland step up and solve its identity crisis like other well known cities. Mumbai (Bombay), Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Beijing (Peking), Jakarta (Batavia) all decided to rewrite their history.

 

Renaming Portland would be an event. A very Oregonian approach.
The new name should ensure consensus comes easily. Something forward looking - and timeless. A name for not only the 21st century, but the 22nd century as well.

 

When author Ernest Callenbach wrote his 1975 cult novel, Ecotopia about a northwest sustainable society, it seems strange how relevant certain passages have become. Today, Portland continues to inspire the world. What it still needs is a name that captures this reality, encourages people to visit and inspires them to learn, grow and thrive.

 

Please send comments or new names for Portland to help this great city explore its true brand essence.

 

Rick Abelson
Director of Online Land Planning
www.onlinelandplanning.com
www.onlineurbanplanning.com

Potential Energy & Renewable Resource Mapping - PERRM™



One important planning approach for sustainable living is how to locate and integrate the natural and man-made attributes of the land to configure a low-carbon site for large scale development. Steven Kellenberg’s, Urban Land Green article, "Ten Keys to a Low-Carbon Community", http://www.uli.org/ResearchAndPublications/Magazines/UrbanLandGreen.aspx offers an excellent primer on the symbiotic relationship between a variety of planning and design principles that provide measurable solutions for sustainable growth.

Online Land Planning http://www.onlinelandplanning.com has deepened the analytical process of qualifying low-carbon sites through an integrated strategy for sustainable site development called Potential Energy & Renewable Resource Mapping, or PERRM™.

PERRM™ assists property owners identify and document the inherent surface and subsurface resources available on their land to create synergy and an energy efficient infrastructure between the natural and man-made environment to provide an affordable strategy for low carbon development. Our goal is to save energy costs for the property owner, the inhabitants and the planet by lowering greenhouse gas emissions and promoting a carbon neutral environment. The objectives are to leverage financial incentives, create steady, ancillary revenue sources and foster entrepreneurial cooperation based on a framework of low carbon development and energy efficiency.

In the past developers often ignored potential energy & renewable resources or left them independent. The data collected by civil and geotechnical engineers was primarily used to identify build /no build areas or close gaps in the traditional infrastructure owned by public utilities. Today, property owners have found PERRM™ to be valuable for establishing energy usage and efficiency criteria required to for new community development, renewable energy tax credits, revenue negotiations, formation of municipal utility districts, lease strategies, partnering with emerging technology companies, energy legislation and jurisdictional approvals and new federal and state incentive programs,. Also, PERRM™ is useful to communicate the ‘uniqueness of the land’ as a branding opportunity, since the process and results are inherently interesting to the public.

PERRM™ identifies and explores the potential for integrated strategies between crude oil, natural gas, landfill, wastewater treatment, hydro, solar, wind, geothermal, water wells, rain harvesting, conventional power grids CH&P, desalinization, biomass agriculture, bioremediation and potential for loop optimization to fulfill a variety of outcomes.

For instance, a slope analysis study, often used only to identify buildable areas are being reexamined using PERRM™ as locations for thermal radiation collection based on solar and surface geothermal (GHPs) potential.

PERRM™ may not make sense everywhere. Scale is important and large properties benefit. Some of the overlapping tasks that need to be performed in a PERRM™ study include:

1. Preparation of a 1:1000 base map and aerial photo by civil & geotechnical experts.

2. Agree on the purpose and goals for the PERRM™.

3. Complete the PERRM™ Energy Questionnaire

4. Compile a first-level PERRM™ based on local knowledge of existing conditions.

5. Locate available public and private data such as specific plan documents and internal technical reports. Plot all relevant information on the first-level map (wastewater and soils, etc).

6. Overlay initial PERRM™ results to determine opportunity and constraints.

7. Evaluate overall energy requirements for the property.

8. Develop second and third-level PERRM™ criteria for collecting data on solar, thermal heat, wind studies, etc.

9. Begin informational meetings with companies that have products and services that rely on renewable resources. Build consensus on overall community energy infrastructure planning, micro grids, SMART Home technology, timing and costs.

10. Begin jurisdictional meetings with state and federal agencies regarding tax credit, application requirements, expediting, costs and public relations.

11. Prepare a cost benefit analysis and infrastructure savings report for negotiations during land sales.

 PERRM™ has resulted in a several low carbon development criteria that the property owners once thought were unattainable. First, striving for 80% of peak energy demand with renewable resources is realistic. Second, developers should keep the carbon reduction credits in anticipation of a future cap and trade strategy being initiated by the US government. Finally, while mineral rights are important - so are air rights. Developers should keep the air gap rights above the roof lines on all new structures for future renewable potential which they can use or sell.

PERRM™ studies ultimately leads to a myriad of new questions and scenarios that need to be solved on a case by case basis. The methodology also involves engaging new disciplines and energy experts to cooperate on this breakthrough process. PERRM™ creates a new value proposition from how land planning and development has been approached before in order to create a low carbon environment to help us all.

 Rick Abelson, RLA CLARB
Director
Online Land Planning

The Future of the Highway Trust Fund

HTF money should not be used for implementation of non-highway transportation projects at this time.

Instead, we should allocate a portion of the Fund to identify and purchase right-of-way corridors for future transit projects that can be developed over the next twenty years. This thinking was employed during the planning of the Century Freeway (I-105), an important part of the 1960’s master plan prepared by Caltrans for the Southern California freeway system, which didn’t open until 1993. Today, the median serves at the main rail corridor for the Metro Green Line that links the airport and downtown Los Angeles. It took time, but it was done once and it was done right.

Therefore, until we know what non-highway transportation projects have the most impact, make the most fiscal sense and can be replicated nationally, we should be prepared for the following:

1. Diminished fuel tax revenues due to decreased driving that continue to hamper the HTF budget in the short term.

2. The HTF allocations should be used to maintain existing highways and bridges while mandating results on efficient roadway construction methods and materials that reduce the effects of vehicle weight and weather.

3. Alternative fuels eventually become readily available that reduce emissions by at least 30% and give the public confidence that driving is affordable and environmentally ‘under control’.

4. All fuels become taxed at the same rate to stabilize the HTF budget.

5. By 2025, the majority of the Boomer Generation is too old to drive and demand alternative non-highway transportation projects to be implemented.

6. Right-of-way corridors that were purchased twenty years earlier using the HTF finally become ‘necessary’ and reduce the impact on the traditional highway system.

7. Younger generations, who made the shift away from driving years before, already live within relative walking distances to fit their lifestyles as telecommuting increases throughout the nation.

Rick Abelson, Director
www.onlinelandplanning.com
www.onlineurbanplanning.com

The Hornery Institute & Inner-Urban Suburbs

On a recent business trip to Australia, I had the opportunity to visit with an interesting group of social planners called The Hornery Institute. Specifically, their charter is "to assist communities in becoming better places to live, learn, work and play." The Hornery Institute http://www.horneryinstitute.com/hornery/home/Default.aspx was established in November 2000, in recognition of Lend Lease’s Chairman, Stuart Hornery and his commitment to community and people. To mark his retirement, the shareholders and employees of this great company formed a not-for-profit organization that allowed Hornery and his dedicated, hand-picked staff to continue working on independent projects to make communities more fulfilling. http://www.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/money/story/0,26860,24379922-5015795,00.htm

The Hornery Institute’s (THI) office is located in a wonderful success story they helped create called the Kelvin Grove Urban Village. Situated within short walking distance of Brisbane’s CBD, the Village is a 16 hectare (40 acre) public/private master planned community anchored by the campus of Queensland University of Technology, the adaptive reuse of the Gona Army Barracks and Parade Grounds and supported by the Government of Queensland Department of Housing. The project brings together residential, educational, retail, health, recreational, business and creative industry uses, while respecting the site and its history. The Parade Grounds serve as urban plazas and the Turrbal people, who were the traditional owners of the land had input into landscaping and public art features throughout. For both visitors and residents, the planning and design of the Village feels both fluid and inviting from almost every direction. http://www.kgurbanvillage.com.au/

THI characterizes the Kelvin Grove Urban Village as being different from other ‘inner-urban suburbs’. This unique term is not part of the planning vocabulary used in the United States and appears to be authentically Australian. Also, this community type appears to blur divergent lifestyles and land uses in a new way. According to Delfin, Lend Lease’s community development division, inner-urban suburbs fulfill a niche based on research that shows "people looking for an inner urban lifestyle, but are deterred by limited housing choice, lack of privacy and the hassles which come with city living."

 

The formal written goals for the Kelvin Grove Urban Village go beyond Delfin’s definition by creating a broader appeal to the inner-urban suburb model by:

 

• engendering a strong sense of community and a safe environment;

• being a visually interesting and attractive place, with its own distinct character, different from other inner-urban suburbs;

• integrating a range of uses together into one exciting environment, rather than separating them out into different land use precincts;

• blending with the existing and evolving Kelvin Grove neighborhood, and allow growth and change over time;

• redefining relationships between the university and the community, including businesses; and

• demonstrating greater physical, social and economic sustainability.

 

Besides the planning efforts that created the Kelvin Grove Urban Village, I was very impressed by the some of the wonderful people that keep it on track. Stuart Hornery, Kate Meyrick and Jennifer Michelmore are just a few of THI’s social planners that do much more than conduct research and write reports. They roll up their sleeves and are passionate and confident stewards who participate in its real daily life by getting coffee and cake each morning, strolling through QUT classrooms, talking with seniors at the new indoor community pool, engaging students about their day, creating evening seminars programs, shopping at the neighborhood butcher shop and making sure the entire precinct continues to thrive.

 

I suspect that they do this for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s clear that they love what they helped create and want to see it succeed. Second, by living this social experiment each day, they can recognize what works and respond quickly to what needs adjustment. Third, the Village is about healthy experiences and relationships - where seniors and preschoolers, college students and researchers, merchants and patrons rely on each other. By nurturing the community, THI can reinforce and learn that this prudent way of life truly works by enriching each generation and social class. Finally, it’s a platform for urban success that can be replicated from scratch or merely fine-tuned in areas which may be lacking only a few key ingredients.

 

The Hornery Institute has proven that planners and architects need to go beyond admiring their finished work from a distance and actually participate in its daily life by becoming part of the communities that they help create.

Rick Abelson
Director of Online Land Planning
www.onlinelandplanning.com
www.onlineurbanplanning.com

How Slumdogs Can Influence Millionaires

About ten year ago, while in Mumbai for a large urban planning assignment, my client’s car was about to round the bend on an elevated road along the outskirts of the city. It was getting near sunset. He told me to prepare myself to see "the largest shanty town in the world." I didn’t have enough time. As we turned, I was transfixed by the brilliant sunlight glistening off an endless sea of corrugated metal and tarp roofs almost to the horizon line. The sight was breathtaking. I felt exhilaration in the sheer magnitude and at the same time an overwhelming helplessness that trying to rid the world of poverty was futile. There was no way that something this vast could be mitigated.

Then a strange feeling came over me. I wanted to go down there and walk inside. My interest was from an urban planning perspective. How do so many people live together in such an informal manner? What sort of social and physical order exists? Is there a main street? Can you ‘buy’ rice from a corner store? Is cooking done communally? How is this place lit at night? Why is the roof form maintained at such a consistent height? Was the flooring just mud? How is solid waste handled? Are there districts and neighborhoods? Can families move and ‘sell’ their space to others?

I imagine the dusty tarps being lifted off and daylight streaming in for the first time. Looking down at an organic maze, I think about the lessons urban designers can gather from this stripped down, but complex environment that barely supports the necessities of life.

I asked my client if the Indian government or nearby universities had ever documented shanty town ethnocentric patterns and what research were available. Having been told studies do exist, I have never been able to find anything comprehensive.

Obviously, places like this are very dangerous. A cavalier journey with digital camera and notepad would most certainly invite serious health problems and bodily harm. Yet, I always remember this slum with fascination rather than disdain or sympathy. They need to be eradicated, but they have also have a sustainable purpose. By studying the physical manifestation of squalor, we might actually help improve the way we all live.

http://www.onlinelandplanning.com