Steve Austin on Redeveloping the Bluegrass

Steve Austin on Redeveloping the Bluegrass


Planning a New Lexington
A comprehensive plan for the new realityBy Steve Austin

Already there is talk about the next round of updating the comprehensive plan, the inane planning process for guiding the “growth” of Lexington. Much energy will no doubt be focused on debating the expansion of the urban service boundary, the state of downtown, and preserving horse farms. This is all easy to forecast, because it’s been this way since the beginning of formalized planning in Lexington. And it’s all wrong now.
Our planning has been based on three fundamental conditions that we understood and were very comfortable with: cheap energy, a stable environment, and a growing, debt-based economy. Those conditions have now been irretrievably altered.
Energy is going to get ever scarcer, meaning expensive. Even leaving the debate about peak oil aside for a moment, the scramble for oil resources is getting more intense by the day. Most of that scrambling is being done by China, which has well over one billion people who desire to have a more energy intensive lifestyle. Lots of demand + finite resource = scarcity ($$$). This will have impacts across our lives, from the food that we eat, to where we educate our children, to how we work, and where we live. We desperately need to break out of our auto-centric, distance is irrelevant mindset. Unless we do, we are ensuring that we will feel a lot more pain than we would like.
Our environment has already been sent past the climate change tipping point, meaning that we are in a new period of life on earth. What we do locally will either help limit, or worsen, the change that has occurred. Further, we need to respond and adapt to the changed climate now to ensure a smooth functioning of our infrastructure and energy grid, as well as retrofitting our buildings to make them safe and more efficient. We also need to understand the impacts on populations that climate change is having, and how that may impact us here.

Finally, growth in our country, and our city, has been built on the assumption that credit (debt) will always be cheap and basically limitless. Those days are over. No one is lending right now, even with interest rates at essentially zero. Lending is likely to be curtailed even further as widespread commercial defaults sweep over the county in 2010 and 2011. Thus the condition that fueled our past growth — easy credit — is over. Planning for new shopping centers, large-scale housing developments, office parks, and the like — all built on easy credit — is for the foreseeable future a waste of time.
So, will our city’s leaders acknowledge the new reality? My guess is: nope. Instead, everyone I talk to speaks of recovery, of getting back to where we were. I feat that the people who will put together the comprehensive plan are all hostages to this mindset. Sure, we’ll hear more about “sustainability” and living “greener,” nonsense words designed to lessen our guilt and to help us turn away from facing the new reality. Many people in our city appear to be absolutely scared shitless about the possibility that getting back is no longer possible, or desirable.
But what if? What if we had a city-wide discussion on the possibilities of the reinterpretation of Lexington — adaptive reuse on a massive scale; the reclaiming of unused and underutilized places for agriculture and parks; of retrofitting the ruins of the unsustainable (suburbia); of encouraging the new skill sets needed for reality; of relocalizing our lives and economy so that we are resilient to energy and climate shocks; and a makeover of our understanding of what constitutes “development” and a willingness to change to laws and procedures to get us there?
What a great discussion this would be! A mature response to the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. I’ll do my part. n

Steve Austin’s blog is at