Thursday, October 9

Growth boundaries and the game of Go

The game of Go is probably the most elegant and sophisticated game ever conjured up. Unlike Chess, its only rival from the West, Go is a battle for territory carried out on a spatial plane. It consists of a multitude of small skirmishes all interconnected into a larger whole, hence the common dictum, "each move changes everything." Players are rewarded for long-range strategy over quick rewards, for big picture thinking over narrow goals, and for careful moderation over reckless excitement. As I'm learning about various strategies employed under the banner of smart growth, it occurs to me that planners can learn from this ancient game.

On it's most basic level, the game is about surrounding groups of your opponents stones. Yet this task is hardly as simple as creating a black ring around a group of white. The arrangement of pieces on the board is never a static position, but is always morphing and evolving into new forms. It doesn't take long for any novice to figure out that placing stones directly adjacent to your opponent is a losing game. The white stones will easily overpower your flimsy attempt to captured them. The idea is to back off a little and delicately dance around the group, slowly weaving a net and moving closer in as opportunity allows. This all requires assessing the target group's "influence" - its size and positioning of stones. The greater the influence the more room you must give it grow before having enough of your own power to surround it. Of course, this is only one drama that happens within the wider context of other similar face-offs.

A few decades of trial and error have taught cities some of these lessons. Early attempts of creating urban growth boundaries, or "greenbelts," around city limits had some adverse effects. Often they simply encouraged leap-frog development, pushing the new suburbs that much further from the urban core and putting that much more traffic on the roads. The problem, from a Go player's perspective, is that planners failed to match the power of pent-up demand for growth with an appropriate level of resolve for the boundary. You simply can't surround a group of white stones with a thin layer of directly adjacent black stones.

This doesn't mean that the practice of giving form to the urban area is futile, inevitably prone to be swarmed by the urge to sprawl. It means that an effective strategy involves a delicate choice of where to play stones. If a county or non-profit decides to purchase an easement, do they place the stone directly on the boundary or do they back off a bit and build a shape of influence for conservation? Just like a 9-dan ranked Go player, a patient community can slowly move in and shape their city according to their wishes.

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