Pragmatic Utopias: Planning With Nature

Bioregional design and planning can bring an ancient tradition
forward into a viable and beautiful future

One of the articles in Living Together (IC#29)
Originally published in Summer 1991 on page 44
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

Utopian thinking – visions of humanity living in peace and harmony with itself and the natural world – is fast becoming the stuff of development plans and zoning ordinances, according to architect and bioregional planner Davidya Kasperzyk. And necessarily so, for while the longer-term vision of a world of eco-villages might be an ideal toward which to strive, our current urban reality is pushing nature (and ourselves) to the brink. If cities are ever to become sustainable, they must be designed and planned that way. Kasperzyk can be reached at 1543 NW 62nd St., Seattle, WA 98107.

Across the continent there is a critical public debate occurring fueled by growth and the perceived loss of "character and livability" in urban and rural areas. The search for ideas and ways to challenge the chaotic and consuming patterns of growth may provide us with a great opportunity to establish new public standards – standards based on a civic design process that conserves resource lands while creating a new civic infrastructure to guide future development.

A culture’s architectural forms, and the settlement patterns it chooses to place upon the natural landscape, are a reflection of the values of the people making those decisions. In the US and Canada, these decisions are typically made through zoning ordinances, bank lending profiles, and the collective choices of the buying public. Implicit in these processes are the mythology of the individualist pioneer, the guiding imagery of commercial media, and the brokerage of financial institutions. Unfortunately, what usually is not included are guidelines about desirable human social relations, sustainable economic systems, and clear choices about what, as a culture, we aspire to be.

There are some cities whose plans exhibit a coherent reading of the land form and an urban design based on a clear idea of transportation corridors and civic structures. For example, San Francisco, California and Portland, Oregon are two differently scaled cities whose original civic plans have withstood tremendous change. But the challenge faced by many growth locations is to create a civic plan where there is none, and to link new population centers to old in a way that provides each with an identity, yet coordinates their expanded infrastructures.

Planning for the future is an exercise in "pragmatic utopianism." Yet there are signs that the status quo, in terms of planning, is not meeting public expectations. People are fatigued by urban sprawl, degradation of environmental quality, and decaying safety and sociability in their neighborhoods. The planning formula summarized here has three converging themes summed up in the collective label Bioregional Design and Planning.


Humans have always sought protection from and by nature. Traditional cultures throughout the world found in their specific habitat the means for economic survival and, in the process, belief systems that recognized nature as both creator and destroyer.

Industrialism and the rise of the nation state, which brought pressures for expansion, have damaged society’s relationship to the natural world. But the finite quantity of resources, species, and frontiers, together with the pressures of population growth, have recently renewed our interest in understanding the symbiotic relationship of our species to the planet’s health. There is unprecedented and ever increasing world communication on this topic, as well as support for coordinated conservation of global resources. In short, it’s sustainability or bust!

But achieving sustainability is a monumental planning task. Such planning requires us to incorporate a profound understanding of the world’s ecosystems. Governing units, however, are shaped by politics, and often have little direct relationship to the shape of nature.

The planning unit that makes the most sense is the bioregion, defined by actual watersheds, climatic zones, and biological species distribution. Ian McHarg’s seminal book Design with Nature, together with other pioneering work, first brought systems analysis and the world of science into the design world. McHarg created an overlay mapping system which, when paired with a criteria base, could provide a guide to appropriate planning for development. The layers of mapping would typically include land features like wetlands, slope, resource lands, and wildlands. Cultural values such as historical preserves, scenic views, recreational suitability, and urban conditions can also be easily included in these planning analyses.

These early models have evolved into dynamic planning tools incorporating detailed ecosystem models – the foundation for an integrated bioregional design and planning process.


There remain few pristine ecosystems or locations that have not been settled by humans. We have inhabited the wilderness garden, transforming the earth and ourselves in the process. Our task is to identify and preserve those areas of wilderness that do remain. They are our biogenetic and cultural living history. We also, however, face requirements to accommodate tremendous changes in economics, growth, and migration patterns. The "visioning" of a future that can dynamically balance these imperatives is the key to winning the public’s support for the new public policy that will be required.

There are precedents for such visioning. The City Beautiful Movement of the early twentieth century utilized Renaissance civic architecture in tandem with naturalistic park and roadway design; examples can be found in the park and boulevard systems of Boston and Seattle. Their beauty and organizational character provide us with a concept that must be expanded to anticipate changing technologies, and to provide the framework for a truly livable city form.

Greenway corridors are a key element of this new design vision, since they combine parks and transportation corridors linking city to town to village. They reach from urban cores through industrial, residential, rural agricultural, and forest lands to protected wilderness areas. Within urban centers, civic buildings, transit, parks, and boulevards provide a sense of order, with commercial and residential areas infilling to make the whole.

Such seemingly utopian images are emerging from many different sources in today’s urban design and regional planning projects. Rural clustered hamlets, preserving scenic and valuable agricultural lands and forest, have been wonderfully illustrated in Massachusetts. Public planning efforts in the Pacific Northwest are full of images of greenbelts between cities and the incorporation of vast protected resource areas. Private developers are meeting people’s appetite for a small town feeling with "traditional neighborhood" developments. Regenerative urban design schemes, such as San Francisco’s South of Market project, capture the scale and flavor of past classical designs, combining urban density with pedestrian comfort.

Elected officials have the right and responsibility to make land use decisions for the common good. The extent of their powers has yet to be determined, but their most common tools include the use of zoning ordinance, historical districts, public development authorities, and environmental protection agencies. Citizens contribute to land use, public architecture and resource decisions by participating in standing review boards, ad hoc panels, the development of prescriptive design guidelines, and public comment periods.

More and more the trend has been towards large governmental units, such as the state, forming land use guidelines to ensure similar and compatible planning efforts. This big-picture approach is essential for analyzing the seamless natural systems – such as mountain-to-sea watersheds – in which human settlements are sited. Local planning decisions are then made at the municipal level and coordinated at the county level. Such decisions need to involve representative public process and incentives to all parties to participate. This need has created a new stage in the planning process called "Community Visioning." This is a guided interactive process that brings forth value-based ideas about what a community wants to be. People search for common values and negotiate a list of community goals. A visual representation of these goals – in recognizable built forms – is necessary so that the citizens can see the reality of their choices. Housing density is a particularly good example: citizens may prefer clustered housing as a concept, but actually choose the detached home, on as much land as possible, for themselves.

A similar and complementary public process gaining support involves creating "City and Neighborhood Design Guidelines." These invite neighborhood input into new development. Such guidelines tend to reinforce the existing "feel" and "style" of an area. In some instances, such as historical districts, the guidelines are very prescriptive. Others establish performance standards by which developers, architects, and neighborhood interests can negotiate design issues from a common set of criteria.

The goal of all this work is the achievement of general agreement about the values and goals of a particular society. But to be effective, the words and ideas have to be translated into visual images and design concepts that incorporate those ideas, and then into public policy and capital improvement budgets that can actualize them.


The Puget Sound Bioregion (Western Washington and Western British Columbia) is in the process of providing an interesting case study in planning for future development. The area has been experiencing rapid growth for the last 50 years. Public perceptions of a "growth management crisis" came only recently, as the landscape – rich with forests, salmon, rural valleys, and islands – became noticeably and increasingly impacted by growth.

Existing forest resource policy had led to a patchwork pattern of extraction which, unchecked, would have simply erased all ancient forests not protected by state or national law. Salmon populations were plummeting, victims of deteriorating river habitats and water quality, extensive damming, and overfishing. The land between existing urban centers was rapidly disappearing under sprawling commercial development, as were rural areas under a residential development pattern that threatened to fill in all "undeveloped" zones. Skyrocketing land costs disrupted island economies, resulting in the loss of their cherished rural character.

A political groundswell led to passage of landmark legislation by the Washington State Legislature known as the 1990 Growth Management Act (GMA). The GMA required the fastest growing counties to inventory their agricultural, forest, and "critical" lands, and to develop consistent comprehensive plans and zoning plans. Cities and counties were required to designate "urban growth areas" (setting boundaries to preserve the environment), coordinate their plans with adjacent jurisdictions, and include public participation in the development of these new plans.

The GMA authorized a Growth Strategies Commission (GSC) to further define broad goals, identify the programs and policies needed to achieve them, and ensure compliance. Some of the recommendations put forward by the GSC captured some very essential public policy goals for a sustainable and just society, including:

  • Protecting the Environment
  • Conserving Agricultural and Forest Land
  • Sharing Economic Growth (using state resources to build a network of strong regional economies across the state)
  • Making Our Cities More Livable (by seeking to concentrate employment centers and housing, using urban design to preserve community character and open space)
  • Providing Affordable Housing (requiring each community to accept its fair share of low-income housing)
  • Resolving "Not in My Backyard" (NIMBY) Problems (so that all communities fairly share the burden of public facilities).

Washington’s Legislature is currently straining with the political issues inherent in any state planning role in land use issues. There are fears about consequences to existing economic resources and effects on land costs. But there is also excitement at the opportunity to begin a systematic public planning process for a preferred future.

The "palette of ideas" exists. Synthesizing them into a whole, and putting them forward as a new public standard, may mean the difference between a viable culture preparing for its future, and Paradise Lost.

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