The Value of Scarcity

Urbanization is caused, at least in part, by scarcity. Certain resources are limited, and thus more efficiently used in a communal setting. Through urbanization, more people have access to these resources than would if settlements were less densely populated. This is true of everything from intangibles like creativity to more solid things like water and electricity, which are more cheaply and easily distributed to dense urban areas than rural places. Cities are often trumpeted these days as "the solution" to the challenge posed by global climate change because of this very phenomenon; as energy sources become more scarce, the efficiency of densely populated cities becomes the most viable way for developed nations to maintain a high standard of living while simultaneously reducing energy usage.

A recent article by Thomas Friedman gave me pause because of its implications for the scarcity of energy. Two weeks ago, Friedman wrote about a laboratory in the Bay Area that is optimistic about its ability to make cold fusion power a reality within the next decade. This claim has, of course, been made before, and as Friedman quips, such revolutionary technologies tend to be "20 years away and always will be." The successful commercialization of cold fusion would, at least in theory, solve the problem of the scarcity of energy once and for all; assuming that it were actually only ten years away, what would this mean for cities? How would patterns of urbanization change if energy were not an issue?

On the one hand, an endless supply of cheap, safe, clean energy would make currently-cost-prohibitive technologies like mag-lev trains and supertall skystrapers (we're talking about the kind of buildings that would make the Emirates blush) much more feasible. Mag-lev trains, in particular, would present an interesting challenge to cities by opening up an even more vast range of the exurban hinterlands to development. With the density-related benefits of energy rendered moot, how would urbanists need to re-think their arguments in favor of high-density urban cores?

On the other hand, it could be argued that the end of energy scarcity would make developed world-conditions in currently-developing countries much, much easier to achieve. This would be a massive economic boon to lower-income and impoverished people around the world, freeing up people previously locked into cycles with few or no opportunities for advancement, greatly accelerating the growth of the Creative Class across the globe. Innovation-intensive fields tend to encourage clustering, as Richard Florida has argued so thoroughly in his books, meaning that a massive shift like the advent of cold fusion power might actually be a boon to urbanism.

Whether or not cold fusion is possible within the foreseeable future, the idea that it is challenges some of the most basic tenets of urbanist thought. What might we learn about how contemporary cities work if we were to give such a seismic technological shift some serious thought? What value does the scarcity of energy -- or any resource -- have for cities?

(Photos from Where@FFFFOUND!. The originals can be viewed by clicking the photos.)


M. Simon said...

Cities and other areas grow the way they do these days because through planning cities and other ares no longer grow organically. Work is separated from living and shopping. An idea that was thought to be very progressive in its time. Now progressive thought is moving back towards natural growth. Except there are all these zoning boards in the way.

In any case here is a fusion reactor that might just be proved out in the next 5 years.

Bussard's IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained

Why hasn't Polywell Fusion been fully funded by the Obama administration?

Mario Ballesteros said...

I don't know about high-speed transportation necessarily promoting sprawl. Probably high-speed networks would link large, dense, urban nuclei. This is happening in Spain, for example, where an enormous amount of public resources have gone to building a high-speed rail network. It is the major, far-apart urban centers that are linked to one another, not their peripheries (most of the trips are non-stop). You now get from the heart of Madrid to the heart of Barcelona (literally, from downtown to downtown) in two hours, without all the hustle of flying. It's amazing.

Brendan Crain said...

But that network is contemporary. Mag-Lev trains aren't just high-speed....they can go pretty ridiculously fast, and could feasibly double the sprawl zone for a given city. So the question is, if energy (think: fuel for private transpo) is not an issue, doesn't sprawl shed one of its chief drawbacks?

petersigrist said...

Loss of ecosystem services is another major drawback related to sprawl. I don't know enough about cold-fusion technology to speculate, but I don't think it would lead to a mass redistribution of people away from urban centers. There are so many other reasons why cities form and grow.

Drew said...

Brendan, I think you're right about this. Your post made me think of the Jevons Paradox:

"The Jevons Paradox (sometimes called the Jevons effect) is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource." (Wikipedia)

In other words, as transportation becomes more energy efficient, we'll almost certainly want to keep using more of it. I think a solution to sprawl would be more cultural than technological.

Unknown said...


Mario is right. Sprawl in the sense of one-family homes and Wal-Marts is discouraged by high-speed rail and large underground rail networks. You get "civilized sprawl", sustainable urban growth with multi-storey residential buildings, lots of public transportation, parks and public services (schools, hospitals, etc.).

Right now, you have people in Ciudad Real, 200km away from Madrid, commuting by high-speed to central Madrid every day (which takes 1 hour). If you live on "uncivilized" sprawl in Madrid and you need a car to get to central Madrid, it will take you much longer.

On the other hand, I can't understand all that hype on Maglev trains. They aren't any faster than conventional trains, as air drag, not rail friction, is the main brake at high speeds.