Vision Palo Alto 2020

A Eutopian Vision of One Hundred Friends of Palo Alto Who Participated in Magic's Liveable City Project 1993 - 1994

Complied and Edited by Robin Bayer


We are people who live and work in Palo Alto and its immediate environs. Our purpose in this writing is to convey a realistic and positive vision for Palo Alto, which can serve as a basis for discussion in the Comprehensive Plan revision process now underway. The essence of this vision is that Palo Altans develop an accurate understanding of our place in nature, and act cooperatively to secure our own and others' satisfaction.

We perceive the task of generating a vision at once possible and attractive to be difficult, because many people appear to be hoping to avoid radical change, yet we understand global trends to demand just that. As we have collaborated to put our aspirations for our community into words, we have repeatedly felt that we faced a choice between: (1) describing as accurately as we are able what we expect will occur, and what we think will be necessary to adapt successfully — and risking that others will dismiss us, and (2) softening the picture we paint in order to engage others — and possibily contributing to the maintenance of illusions for which we all will pay.

We have chosen the former course, risking unpopularity in the name of honesty, less because we want to feel virtuous than because we see such integrity to be essential to successful adaptation. Perhaps you will be open to the view that fundamental restructuring, however demanding, can be preferable to superficial reform where that is destined to fail. We will be grateful if you respond to this writing by reconsidering your own ideas about how Palo Altans can meet the challenges of the next quarter century.

Global Context

To envision Palo Alto twenty-five years hence, we look first to the larger natural, artificial, and social environments of which we and our community are but a tiny part. What follows is a list of what many find disheartening facts and predictions. We view these as powerful motivation for personal and community action.

Natural Environment

The accelerating exhaustion of natural resource is well-documented. By 2020, many non-renewable resources (e.g. petroleum) will have been depleted to far below current levels, and renewables (e.g. quality timber) will probably be generated at rates far lower than current as a result of erosion of the natural capital (e.g. old-growth forests) from which they spring. In simple terms, nature will be less bountiful.

The burden of toxic and hazardous substances may well have peaked early in the 21st century, but despite clean-up activities will likely be far greater than it is today. Humankind will face monumental ongoing repair tasks. The risks of illness or injury from exposure to poison will be greater than they are today.

Our cumulative impacts will have made climate more volatile, and the environment less stable in myriad ways. Activities from farming to construction, from travel to manufacturing will be in many aspects more difficult than they are today.

We will have extinguished a substantial portion of the species on which the stability of the ecosystem depends. Mainstream scientists estimate that we will destroy ten to twenty percent of all life-forms by 2020, and be well on the way to eliminating an equal number, though most qualified researchers are quick to add that once the biosphere is sufficiently destabilized, even greater losses are possible. We will also have lost hundreds of human languages, and the wisdom of hundreds of cultures whose practitioners are being coerced to abandon them.

Though conservation and restoration activities will be growing, the momentum of past trends and the lag time between cause and effect will leave us still in an era of environmental decline.

Material Goods

Our artificial environment will continue to decay; that is, we will fail to maintain our buildings, roads, bridges, equipment, vehicles, etc. in good repair. The reason for this can be understood by a simple thought experiment. Suppose that you live on forested land. You cut timber and build a house. You cut firewood and heat it. As you continue to build, you need more lumber for repair and renovation of what is already standing, and more fuel for heating. If you continue to build, the remaining forest at some point is growing too slowly to enable you to harvest sufficient material to repair and operate your home.

Our diminished resource base is already incapable of sustained yield sufficient to service our installed artifact. By 2020 humans may be moving towards accord to reduce the total stock of artifact, by retiring more than we add in any year. Thus may we devote our labor to maintaining and renewing a smaller amount with matterenergy flows of a quality and a quantity sustainable for at least a generation or so. We will likely experience difficulty in deciding what to keep.


Most demographers predict that by 2020 humans will number more than seven billion. However many we are, the cumulative burdens of environmental disruption and disparities in social welfare likely will be sufficient to sustain current mortality trends, resulting in death at an early age for one-half billion people between now and then (e.g. 15-20 million children under 5 currently die of starvation related causes each year).

In the face of worldwide difficulties, people everywhere will have incentive to move towards a common agreement to reproductive restraint (e.g. one child per woman) by which we can transition smoothly to a much diminished human population, perhaps a tenth or even a smaller fraction, of our current one.


Over the next quarter-century we may expect social disruption to become more widespread and violent. People are quite stubborn about tempering expectations. So far, the most effective tool for persuading us to do so has been personal tragedy. Those who manage to escape deep and unequivocal loss, will likely attempt to maintain a society of 'business as usual', taking credit for success which is largely accidental, and blaming others for similarly fortuitous failure and suffering.

As the tension between mounting mass misery and determined application of privilege to sustain illusion grows, random and organized violence will almost certainly increase. Those engaged in reconciliation and recovery will be competing for support with those who imagine finding comfort in iron-fisted control and those who oppose them with lawlessness. By 2020, we may well have emerged from this sad period with a social contract acceptable to sufficient numbers to be the basis for a society of cooperation, or we may be still savaging each other and the Earth, preferring dominance in a desert to consensuality in a garden.

On Belief and Prediction

We will be disappointed if our readers accept what we have written so far without question. These are sweeping statements with far-reaching implications, made at a time when volatility in human affairs and in nature appears ubiquitous. Please study the underlying issues for yourself. Pay a visit to one of Palo Alto's extraordinary bookstores or libraries and compare the views and supporting evidence of others who have considered these issues.

We are dealing with uncertainty. In our own lives each of us has accommodated uncertainty by establishing and maintaining margins for error (e.g. savings, insurance). Most of us seek a wider margin as we perceive the reliability of predictions to decline. How wide a margin do you think is warranted by the range of predictions about the global future? How might you propose to incorporate that margin into a vision for our community twenty years hence?

Palo Altans' Challenge

Palo Altans face the challenge of simultaneously: (1) protecting our ability to survive a difficult and confusing global transition, and (2) replacing privilege and illusion with caring and integrity in order to lead in making that transition as satisfying and constructive as possible. To do this we will be exemplary both in our willingness to embrace each other and those beyond our borders as partners, and in our unequivocal insistence that our partnerships be rooted in accurate understanding and in mutual responsibility.

Succeeding Together

Virtually all of us want to meet our own basic needs and to see our community develop in a positive way. The trends in place guarantee that this will become more difficult. More people competing for less resource on an increasingly polluted planet is a prescription for hard times. Though Palo Alto has flourished during its first century, and has been largely insulated from the poverty and suffering which have filled many lives during that period, the ability of any community to stand aloof is being steadily undermined by the global nature of the phenomena which are affecting us more with each passing day.

Some may imagine that we can continue to live at a material standard orders of magnitude greater than most people, or that we may continue to convert nature to artifact as we have in the past. We perceive both of these courses to be paths to frustration. People around the world are clamoring for a greater share of the wealth of humankind, and a growing number are willing to kill and die for it. In such a situation, privilege quickly becomes its own prison. The vast majority of biologists agree that to continue increasing the human impact on the Earth will bring cataclysm. If you doubt the validity of such predictions, please at least take the life to review them and examine their basis in fact.

Many people are recognizing that in our material obsession we have forfeited our spirit. In response we are reintegrating within, with each other, and with nature. We are finding in caring a fulfillment greater than any we knew in controlling. We are also recognizing that the surrender of illusion for accurate understanding is a path to recovery from a life less satisfying than that we seek. Whether by eating differently, altering our intake of alcohol and other drug habits, exercising regularly, or practicing some other discipline aimed at increasing our awareness and well-being, we are discovering that reality is OK. In community service, consumer behavior, and workplace advocacy we are evidencing our respect and concern for the environment and each other.

Even as some recoil from the many diverse people who clamor for more of what we have and want, others are cultivating an attitude of 'we' and determinedly searching for common benefit. But good intentions alone are inadequate. Just as an open-water rescue requires a strong swimmer or a boat, so does cooperative action for mutual gain require an accurate understanding of external constraints. If our collaborations are to be successful, our agreements with each other will also be in harmony with the laws of nature.

Service, Learning, and Accommodation

How do you think Palo Altans might live to make our community something which others can and will emulate to mutual advantage, rather than something to which they aspire, but are doomed to frustration in pursuing?

We propose that Palo Altans reflect more carefully upon what we and others want, and upon the limits inherent to the human condition. We suggest de-emphasizing additions to the built environment and direct greater attention to preservation of the natural environment. Most importantly, we recommend that we devote attention to the contents of our own heads and hearts, out of which we generate our impacts on each other and on the rest of our surroundings. Can you imagine us less monied and propertied, but feeling wealthier? Commanding less medical care but enjoying greater health? Working to provide satisfaction of life's necessities for others before we seek luxuries for ourselves?

As people enjoy greater access to information about each other's lives, we gain the ability to communicate by how we live. Increasingly the symbolic value of our acts may be their most critical quality. Hardly anyone will pretend that the newspaper she recycles in a year represents a substantial matterenergy savings, but all who recycle contribute to the decision of each person who decides to do so. Thus we are able by shaping our community to reflect certain values and principles to exert far-reaching impact of potentially much greater import than the immediate matterenergy consequences of our acts.

Thus we may lead towards a future of smaller human population and more benign environmental impact by reducing the Palo Alto population and the rate of reproduction of those who live here, by reducing the quantity of our artifact and the rate at which we replace it, by dramatically lessening the flows of matterenergy through our community, by completely halting many of the flows known to be hazardous or toxic, and by devoting increasing resource to learning together how to find greater satisfaction by accommodating more and manipulating less.


To guide this transition we suggest three values: health, cooperation, and stewardship.

The first of these entails our ability to live and die with satisfaction — to fill each moment, and to know when to say 'good-bye'. To learn health we shift our attention from remedy to prevention, and from prolongation of life at whatever cost to self-assessment in terms of what we ask and what we offer.

To learn cooperation, we recognize that the road through a time of social and environmental disruption is uneven, and that each of us will be more willing and better able to travel if convinced that others are both moving carefully and ready to assist us. We find ways to minimize the burdens of transition, and to share them, even in instances where we might individually escape them.

Finally, we learn stewardship by strengthening the bonds between generations, by recognizing that the young have the greatest stake in the future, by weighing their concerns more heavily, and by devoting greater attention to empowering and enabling them.

Scenes from the Future


One of the first things visitors notice is how considerate we are. Though people carry an air of purpose, relaxation is evident. The sense of familiarity and community is unmistakable. People laugh and smile a lot. We carry an easy expectation that interaction will be pleasant. Our appearance is one of wholesomeness, like something one might expect in a more rural setting. Our dress and grooming reflect a lack of pretense born of comfort with ourselves and each other. All of this is more remarkable because of the diversity of race and ethnicity, and the wide range of ages evident in almost any street scene or public place.

Asked about our hopes and aspirations, most of us express contentment. We are concerned that humans move towards more sustainable ways of living, ways that leave those who follow with expectations for material well-being at least comparable to our own. We are familiar with the ideas of ecology, and make reference to them in describing why we live as we do. Our concern is less with getting ahead of each other than with fulfilling our own potential to be contributing members of the community.

Our social relations are as diverse as we, with most of us enjoying a breadth and depth of friendships beyond what those who lived here a generation before were able to imagine. Cooperative and worker-owned and managed enterprises are common. Households vary in size from a handful to dozens of people, and are much more central to our lives than they were in an era of seventy-hour weeks at remote workplaces. Mediation is widespread and conflict is viewed more as an opportunity to learn than as a threat to individual well-being. Children and older people are thoroughly integrated into daily life.


Palo Alto is a city in the countryside. It is clean, and well-maintained. Fingers of green extend into even the most densely built places, and the pattern of building and greenery is much less homogeneous than it once was. Buildings are clustered, covering less land than they did only a few decades earlier. Pavement is continuing to dwindle as relocation of land uses and a gentler pace of life render much of it superfluous. Openspace and agricultural parcels of several acres are situated near enough to every school, home, and business establishment for people to feel integrated with the natural world and acutely aware of the processes and labor by which we bend it to meet our basic needs.

There are abundant trees, and diverse wildlife ventures near the heart of the city. Cars are few, and bicycles many. Creeks run freely from the foothills to the bay, with openspace corridors along them affording recreational opportunities for people of all ages. Quiet buses and trolleys provide convenient transport from one node of the community to the next, and between Palo Alto and nearby towns. Rapid rail service connects the city to others around the bay.


People are engaged in teaching and research, in manufacturing, in agriculture, in retailing, and in providing a variety of professional services. Many of the goods and services used here are provided by activities taking place here. We are known for doing things innovatively, and well. Life has a quality of freedom and spontaneity.

Many functions previously performed by government are now performed by the private and non-profit sectors. Schooling has largely moved into the community, with people of all ages learning by doing in apprenticeships to others. Neighborhoods are centers of activity.

Flows of material and energy through the community have plummeted, but information is readily accessible to, and generously accessed by all. New construction is extremely limited, with deconstruction and reconstruction proceeding at a measured pace.

Sleep has become more common, with people typically sleeping nine of every twenty-four hours. Almost everyone engages in a mixture of activities which include sedentary, mobile, and physically demanding components. Physical, mental, and emotional fitness are more outgrowths of a way of life than they are the products of specialized training or therapy.

Objectives and Standards


Unless we address the future in the context of global trends and with emphasis upon personal values, whatever we do at other levels will likely prove wanting. Ultimately, however, consciousness and values are realized in action. Listed below are examples of specific objectives, as well as measurable standards by which to mark our progress towards some of them. Many of these are based upon 'back of envelope' calculations, and are intended to illustrate a concept and provoke inquiry, rather than to proclaim a certain quantity correct or good. The list is far from complete. If you have ideas about how to improve upon or augment what is here, we will welcome them.

Palo Alto's Population

Physical Environment — stocks

Physical Environment — flows

(v. 1.9 — 21 October 1994)