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

  • Num­bers
    • = or < current
    • births = deaths annually
  • Attrib­ut­es
    • eco­log­i­cal literacy
    • shared val­ues: health, coop­er­a­tion, stewardship
    • age-adjust­ed acute and chron­ic dis­ease < half current
    • uni­ver­sal on-line access to accu­rate infor­ma­tion with ‘life­line’ ser­vice free
  • Social rela­tions — internal 
    • range of per capi­ta mat­teren­er­gy con­ver­sion < fac­tor of 10
    • law­suits < half current
    • coop­er­a­tive house­holds and busi­ness­es > half of total
    • zero domes­tic violence
    • zero vio­lent crime
    • zero crime against property
  • Social rela­tions — external 
    • per capi­ta mat­teren­er­gy con­ver­sion with­in 3x adjust­ed glob­al average
    • wide­spread respect and appre­ci­a­tion for Palo Altans’ ser­vice to others

Physical Environment — stocks

  • Nat­ur­al
    • depth to ground­wa­ter < or = cur­rent depth
    • creeks and streams returned to surface
    • sur­face waters sup­port diverse and abun­dant healthy wildlife
    • stream banks per­me­able and vegetated
    • known soil and ground­wa­ter con­t­a­m­i­na­tion eliminated
    • > 25% of cur­rent­ly paved land exposed and revegetated
    • > 10% of cur­rent­ly built land exposed and vegetated
    • > 1000 acres of veg­etable and orchard crops
    • tree bio­mass > 2x cur­rent; age dis­tri­b­u­tion approx­i­mate­ly flat
    • bird cen­sus > 2x current
  • Arti­fi­cial
    • con­cen­tra­tion of all arti­fi­cial pol­lu­tants < 50% current
    • paved area < 50% current
    • > 50% of paving out­side pub­lic trav­eled ways water permeable
    • all elec­tric, gas, com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and potable water util­i­ties underground
    • build­ing vol­ume and floor area = or < current
    • com­mer­cial and indus­tri­al vol­ume and floor area < 75% of current
    • between 200 and 800 square feet of hous­ing per person
    • few­er than 25,000 cars owned by residents
    • < 50% cur­rent vol­umes of tox­ic sub­stances stored here

Physical Environment — flows

  • Nat­ur­al
    • car­bon fix­ing = car­bon release (may require con­tract grow­ing out­side city or annex­a­tion of land)
    • increase per­co­la­tion by > 25% of 1993 run-off
    • upland sur­face water fea­tures (sea­son­al pools, etc.) for storm water control
    • soil for­ma­tion = or > erosion
    • fruit and veg­etable pro­duc­tion > 25% of use
    • all yard and kitchen organ­ic waste com­post­ed < one-half mile from gen­er­a­tion site
  • Arti­fi­cial
    • Hetch-Hetchy water use < current
    • elec­tric­i­ty use < 50% current
    • > 25% of elec­tric­i­ty local­ly gen­er­at­ed by renewables
    • nat­ur­al gas use < 50% current
    • > 50% cur­rent arti­fi­cial HVAC by pas­sive design
    • > 90% domes­tic water heat­ing by solar
    • sewage treat­ment plant out­fall < legal levels
    • reduce flows of tox­ic sub­stances by > 50%
    • zero land-fill­ing
    • < 1000 auto miles per capi­ta annu­al­ly in city
    • noise lev­els < 50% current

(v. 1.9 — 21 Octo­ber 1994)