Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

“Leveling up” as a societal design pattern

Americans are not used to living in a well-ordered nation. Stemming from the federal system, the history of the wild west, and the longstanding tension between individual and community needs, we tend to complicate things and then believe that they must be complicated. In France by contrast the country is divided into 18 regions, which are neatly subdivided into departments, which are further subdivided into communes. Each level delegates down to the next, and there’s not a lot of overlap in powers or in geography. For example you wouldn’t find a department that spans multiple regions, and all the schools and other organizational systems are more aligned with the departments and communes. But in the US it is typical to have overlapping jurisdictions, such as a school district or a water authority spanning parts of multiple municipalities. The districting of congress, the state legislature, the post office, schools, churches, and businesses rarely fall on the same lines.

The situation results in a feeling of being unitless, by which I mean not having a known basic unit of organization. If we want to solve a neighborhood problem, who are “we”? – what are the boundaries that define the people who can solve the problem, and what authority do we have to solve it? There’s often no clear answer because of widespread unitlessness.

I’ve argued before for jurisdictional alignment (19 years ago!) so in this paper I’ll take up the related but more elusive concept of “leveling up.” Leveling up is defining the relationship between a function of society at one level and its subordinate level, particularly defining the escalation of problem resolution upwards and delegation of authority downwards.

Here are 6 areas of organization with a discussion of leveling up for each one.

1. Justice vs legislation

Under democratic rule of law, an established pattern is that legislation deals in universals and justice deals in individuals. The leveling-up concept related to this is that individual cases need to be judged by a larger body (at a higher level) than that which made the law in question. For example if a town council decides to let students out of school for a religious holiday, but a particular family who doesn’t observe the holiday contests the decision, the trial should be held at the county or state level, not by peers at the same level as the town council. This is because human nature prevents us from being impartial regarding decisions about people immediately around us.

Laws made at extremely small local levels tend to be prejudicial concerning individual people even if names are omitted. For example “the village will permit tractors to use route 509” might really mean that Sam Jones can drive their particular tractor; alternately a law banning tractors might really be a way for people to get back at the nasty things Sam has done. A local judgment of whether the law is just turns into a contest of who is on Sam’s side; this is a basic failure of rule of law when done all at the same level. But a judgment at the state level would look at tractors in general, not just at Sam. Likewise, cities and states are more likely to enact racist laws even if they omit names of groups as a way to divert attention from the racist aspect. It’s more difficult to do that nationally. Human nature allows us to be impartial with strangers. The larger the unit is, the more people rulings apply to, and the more impartial the rulings tend to be.

2. Wild and human habitat

North America has a range of human density running from extremely sparse such as remote Alaska where people are incidental to the natural habitat, all the way up to big cities where nature is incidental to, and more completely under the control of people. In the latter extreme, land is first completely denuded of nearly all life, then a nature-substitute is designed and installed by professionals. There’s a continuous range of expression of that relationship between the extremes, including towns, suburbs, and vast areas of “managed” land, in which there’s a balance, and often a gradual increase in human control over time.

I’m not arguing against the extremes; despite being a nature lover, I concede that in big cities it can make sense to install a nature look-alike atop and between the areas of pavement.

In my mind the problems are more with the middle range. The first problem is the presumption that all land by default is “ours” with the exception of defined regions of “protected” land. So in the American mental model of land, there are dots (foreground) of “nature” on a background of human-managed land. In some cases the dots are connected by wildlife corridors, but many are not. We need to reverse that concept so that the “dots” are human settlements on a background of all other habitat. This is not by itself an argument for less overall developed land, but rather for a pattern of organization that condenses our development into the “dots” and leaves the rest of it in an interconnected continuous mesh of habitat for all other species.

The diagram below shows an abstract representation of green dots on a developed background (left) versus development dots on a green background (right).


The second problem with the middle density range is how much of it there is. Some people say the suburbs are the best of both worlds – country and city – but in other ways they are the worst of both: they lack the efficiency we get from the compactness of cities and also lack any true escape into nature. By sharpening the edges of the dots and making them more compact, then it’s possible to get the best of both worlds and use less land for human settlements overall. Furthermore if the edges of the settlements are highly reticulated, not simple squares or circles, then a great majority of people can be close to real nature, not stuck in vast suburbs.

Agriculture as the largest land use would do the same thing, only the dots are bigger. Fences would have to be discrete shapes enclosing pasture or human activity, not connected continuously to other fences as is the pattern now. Fences could no longer be used to “fence out”; they would only “fence in”.

(Of course I get this is just an ideal of the distant future, but it’s worth thinking about.)

There’s a couple ways this “dots on background” idea is a kind of leveling-up proposal. First, it sets the earth as the higher authority and puts all of our levels below that. Second, it creates place (dispels unitlessness) and consequently creates natural jurisdictions, which then lend themselves to orderly subdivision.

3. Transportation land

The land devoted to transportation is vast – more than half of all urban land. That includes roads, airports, parking, and rail-yards. The roads we use are classified by level – a state road, a county road, and so on, although often it doesn’t matter or it is not always apparent why the classification is made. There’s a lot of complexity and absurdity in the system. For example a road with lots of houses and businesses on it could be a state route and be slow and mainly serve local residents, while some other municipal road might be faster and mostly serve long distance travel; the jurisdictions that make decisions might not represent the main users. Roads can be reclassified, and organization can be rigidly imposed over a history that doesn’t fit.

One of the knottiest problems that ensues with all this is when an individual resident, say a family with children, seeks protection from their previously peaceful road becoming a dangerously fast highway with noisy trucks. It’s impossible to serve both needs well – the legitimate needs of residents, and the legitimate needs for travel in the broader region. It might be counterproductive to everyone to balance the needs through compromise. For example, trucks limited to 40 mph instead of 60 doesn’t really address the family’s concerns, and it slows travel for everyone.

Leveling up to the rescue! We define a continent-wide lattice of superhighway corridors, airports, train lines, etc, and move that land ownership and all its decision-making to the national level. This is a tiny fraction of all land, but it is nationally significant. This land is built above or below the ground level where it crosses between human settlements, so that the background of natural habitat is not dissected. Then, we can decide as a country how to manage that land and its systems to work across the country, without primary regard to local needs. (There’s plenty of other land for local needs.) I get how this is expensive and certain people lose out, and that we have to seize property to make this happen, but ultimately I think it makes more sense because the level of government that is designated to solve a problem has the authority and resources to solve it.

The same concept applies then to the remaining state land: states make a more fine grained lattice of state owned corridors and leave the reminder to the lower levels.

Funding does not need to be collected at higher levels and re-granted to lower levels; each level can manage its own fees and taxation itself by whatever method makes sense to that jurisdiction.

4. Transportation systems

Following from the leveling of transportation land and funding, we can then imagine how transport systems can evolve more rationally without jurisdictional gridlock.

Here’s a technology picture that makes more sense than what we are doing now:

  • At the national level we acquire very straight corridors, and create supersonic evacuated-tube transport to supplement highway and air travel and freight. The federal level rids itself of regionally significant infrastructure, focusing only on long-distance travel. The cost savings and added focus allows us to shift towards renewable-powered high efficiency tube transport and away from the more dangerous and polluting modes. Because of the high speed, all of the systems are isolated from people – none of them would permit bicycles or pedestrian crossings.
  • States acquire a lattice of corridors of statewide significance, including much of the crumbling infrastructure that is deemed not nationally significant. States seize and release land over time as needed to create straighter routes between major population centers, and as with the national system, they focus on regional-speed travel such as maglev and other automated networks to supplement highways. Over time travel shifts greatly towards the safer, efficient modes.
  • Major cities do the same thing at a city scale. For example they acquire and release land such that the city owns a grid of arterials over time, so it can plan and execute efficient city wide travel on bus and surface transit, automated networks, and suitably restricted roads. (By restricted I mean they wouldn’t allow arbitrary number of left turns or connections with local roads, and may not permit pedestrians, or would have signalized pedestrian crossings.)
  • Neighborhoods, towns and boroughs then control the remainder or the developed land, and can focus on slow transport that serves all destinations. This is a very different problem than transport at the higher levels, and deserves creative solutions that fit just that level. For example, the entire local circulation system could consist of 5-foot wide one-way paths limited to 20 mph, so that neighborhood vehicles, electric taxis, bikes and pedestrians can safely share the surface.

The proposal is to think and design for distinct levels rather than a mix or balance; we don’t invest in widening a certain local road just because more people are using it for commuting; instead we route traffic through the corridors that have been designed for regional travel.

There have been many concepts for cities of the future, that generally depict the ground level to be greened up and free of congestion, pollution, utility poles and so on. The main problem with them is that we have already invested trillions in infrastructure, and many of those concepts rely on rebuilding everything from scratch. In reality, creating safe and sustainable transport systems is more urgent than the 100-year lifetime of buildings, so we need approaches that gradually improve what we have towards those greened-up visions. The leveling-up concept provides that mechanism: neighborhoods won’t have to consider speed and distance in their decisions, and the higher levels won’t have to consider access and pedestrians in their decisions. Eliminating the impossible task of balancing unbalancable needs opens up creativity to solve those levels separately and better.

There is also the market aspect to thinking about these transport systems. If the jurisdiction owning the corridors can set up a market for private providers to compete in the traditionally-public modes, then we can take advantage of innovation in those modes like we’ve been able to do with cars. For example, a neighborhood electric robo-taxi can consist of a fleet from multiple competing providers.

5. Utilities and infrastructure

Physical distribution of pipes and wires to millions of endpoints and the connecting grid is a system that parallels the transport network, and would also benefit from some leveling-up concepts.

The reason we have the utility model for some businesses (which is a regulated public-private hybrid business type) is because of the root problem that market competition cannot be effective when it comes to endpoint-oriented infrastructure. It is not reasonable for a variety of gas companies to run a separate network of pipes to every house in order to have consumer choice. Without consumer choice there can be no market, hence the problem.

Leveling-up solves the market problem like this: there are large scale providers of gas, electricity, and data, providing distribution from the global level down to a neighborhood interface. The neighborhood interface is where the private and public sides of the system connect. Neighborhoods provide local connectivity from each endpoint to the interface. While there is just one public network inside the neighborhood, there are one or more privately controlled grids at the higher levels.

This model preserves both market advantage and democratic control in two ways:

  • The regional and national utilities compete for consumer business, and they can reach all consumers without having to build duplicate endpoint networks.
  • Builders of local networks compete for the business of setting up and managing the local networks. Because there are thousands or millions of neighborhoods, they form a consumer pool which allows for market competition.

This radically simple system also applies to shipping: different long distance carriers don’t need to drive separate trucks into each neighborhood; packages transfer at the neighborhood interface, and the neighborhood manages the local distribution. Trash collection is a parallel problem that can be handled the same way as shipping.

6. Everything else

I have a tendency to want to engineer everything according to my extremely egalitarian views, but at the same time I find most renderings of future green cities to be eerie, and have an overly sterile regularity. Here’s an example rendering of a city concept that may have lots of great points, but it doesn’t feel like real people could live there.


I think some people approach the problem of improving human settlements with an assumption that it will be centrally planned like Soviet apartment towers, and that is what gives it the eerily unreal flavor. I’m more interested in freedom, diversity, and small democratic units, which would yield a future that can’t be rendered in a picture like this because the places would be all different from each other.

Everything else besides the way we use and connect space is important too – that is, policing, education, health, taxation, and so on. But if feels like if the physical organization and transportation aspects were first, other forms of organization could follow more easily. All those things could be run on the level at which they make the most sense – so things like education would not need to be absurdly centralized. Those things would become easier to improve because the units would be clearer and the power to accomplish things would rest cleanly within the unit.

As a final topic, why should we care about any of this when there may be more pressing concerns? I feel like it is important to care about all of these:

  • The concrete topics on a progressive agenda like deforestation, climate change, poverty, crime, and equality (to name a few), and..
  • ..The power structures and power holders that block or promote those agenda topics, and..
  • ..The principles of organization that give rise to the power structures.

Leveling up is one of the principles that, if in practice, would power different power structures than we have today. The structures we have today partly block the human-centered political agenda in America, which is why we have so much worse performance than other countries in things like literacy, health, crime and energy use, despite being wealthy and partially democratic. I don’t think the bad performance is because we’re different than other people culturally; it’s because we organize in a way that twists democracy, and the fragmented federal system of overlapping jurisdictions gets leveraged by minority power holders to overpower majority values.

So that’s why we need to care about it.

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