Looking to the Past for the Future

Lately when friends or relatives ask me what I’m up to at work, I usually tell them about The Tomorrow Plan.  The conversation usually goes like this:

Them:  “What’s The Tomorrow Plan?”

Me:  “It’s a regional sustainability plan for the year 2050 for the Greater Des Moines area.”

Them:  “Wow!  So what will 2050 look like?  Are you planning for flying cars and robots?”

Me:  “Not exactly.  It’s more along the lines of increasing residential density in certain areas, providing more commuting options, and growing more local foods.”

Them [with slightly disappointed look at lack of flying cars]: “So it will be easier to take the bus?  That doesn’t seem too difficult.”

Me:  “Exactly.”

It is often difficult to convey exactly what a more sustainable place could be to people.  Once you describe what sustainability could be to people, however, many respond with something like, “That’s sustainability?  Seems like common sense to me.”  And depending on the age of the person you may be talking to, you might get an answer like, “Well we did that when I was a kid.”

Which brings me to my main point:  Living and growing sustainably is not a new concept, it just has a new name.  Many of the concepts of sustainability embody the way most people lived, and the way most communities functioned, up until a few generations ago.  Cities were more compact, trolley cars zipped up and down the streets in many cities the size of the Des Moines area, and gardening was commonplace.  As David Fields pointed out in his blog post last month, we shouldn’t focus on how to be sustainable, but should instead think about how to be more sustainable.  One way may be to reverse some current trends to get back to where we were a half-century ago.

Consider these statistics:

  • In 1960, according to the US Census, 10% of workers in Polk County rode the bus or a streetcar to work, 7% walked, and 73% drove.  In 2010, 2% of workers rode the bus to work, 2% walked, and 92% drove.  Despite the fact that the population of Polk County today is over twice what is was in 1960, over twice as many people used public transportation in 1960 as they do today (10,600 in 1960 vs. 4,000 in 2010).
  • In 1950, the Des Moines urbanized area had a population density of 4.6 people per acre according to the US Census.  By 1990 this density had dropped to 2.8 people per acre.  (In case you’re curious, the density in 2000 was 4.1 people per acre.  However, the Census Bureau changed the way it calculated urbanized areas after the 1990 Census which reduced the number of urbanized acres in the 2000 Census by 15,000 from 1990’s figure.) 
  • A 2008 poll by the National Gardening Association found that 31% of all US households participated in food gardening.  This was a 9% decline from a similar poll the organization conducted in 1986.  Similar statistics from earlier in US history are not as readily available.  However, home gardening was likely at its peak during World War 2 with the planting of Victory Gardens.  The US Department of Agriculture notes that in 1943, 20 million victory gardens produced more than 40% of the nation’s vegetables.

To be fair, not everything was more sustainable a few generations ago.  But as we look for best practice examples when developing The Tomorrow Plan, we may just need to look to our own past.

Dylan MullenixDylan Mullenix is Principal Transportation Planner at the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), where he has worked for the last six years. In his role at the MPO, he oversees the long-range planning process, as well as management of other planning activities. Dylan has a Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Iowa, and is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.
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