All of a sudden I find myself as actively engaged as I ever have been in some activities which promise to make positive change in the city. I was participating with a relatively small group of stakeholders in a conversation about place making at the Apremont Triangle and I realized I was enmeshed in a grand loop of circular urbanism where the people leading the meeting were from the same organization which indoctrinated me in the first place; Project for Public Spaces.
As the dialog continued I could tell that I was expressing ideas that the PPS people were hoping we might arrive at as conclusions and, rather than feign being an idiot savant I explained that I had been reading and studying the ideas of their founders since, I think, before those founders formally created the organization. The PPS website now boasts that they have worked with over 3,000 communities in 40 years. At a time when they had only worked on a few dozen projects in perhaps two dozen cities they had already worked in Springfield 3 times.
As I have written before, many ideas that urbanists, new urbanists, bloggers, and Strong Towns aficionados express as though they were revelations freshly carved into tablets on Mt Sinai have been contemplated and expressed for decades and too often, those of us who have been actively engaged in trying to revitalize a community have learned, cause and effect are reversed and these concepts are much less powerful than they are imagined to be: Meds Beds, and Eds, innovative downtown residential spaces, beautifying the pedestrian experience, the list goes on. Sometimes success or failure aren’t deserved, forces beyond anyone’s control determine winners and losers.
Ann B Davis was never going to be a supermodel, and Kate Upton could do almost everything wrong and still end up on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Looking through the online information and the Springfield Central literature I have in my urbanist library it confirmed that William H Whyte was my first mentor in all things downtown. All of his diagrams and explanations of human behavior were the things which prepared me for understanding The Geography of Nowhere more than a decade later, and from there I’ve taken to studying the New Urbanism among other things, and I’ve also found myself taking interesting detours down pathways involving the environment, economics, education, public safety, and many other things.
Of all the rabbit holes I’ve fallen down perhaps the most persistently recurring involves economic discontinuity. I was working at a news radio station in Salt Lake City on Black Monday in 1987. As a 23 year old who was studying economics at BYU at the time I found the conversations of the following days and weeks supremely interesting and was intrigued by the contradictory analyses coming from everyone everywhere depending on their politics and, in Utah, their perspective on the End Times. I’ve been a sucker for collapse theory ever since.
Jim Kunstler’s work in particular has focused a whole lot more on economic collapse than on urbanism in the last decade or so, I’m sure he would say for good reason. In public and in private a lot of the idea mongers I’ve gotten to know through his work are very much on board with the idea of another Wall Street collapse coming soon which, to a man, they conclude will be at the very least a match for the big one in 1929:
“Get out now.”
“Better two months early than two days late!”
“Once it starts, it’ll be too late to get out.”
“The exit door will get smaller and smaller.”
I have no idea. I was uncomfortable enough with what seemed an over-valued stock market 4 years ago when the Dow went above 18,000 and I “liquidated our exposure”; I got out half a decade early! Perhaps everyone is better off that I became a Spanish teacher and not an economist.
With that as a caveat: These ideas surrounding limited opportunities for exit and entry got me to thinking about what I see in the manmade environment which surrounds me. That market is mostly “long” suburban sprawl auto-oriented development, and “short” walkable urbanism, particularly of the Rust Belt variety. At the same time, and for that reason, the supply of the former is enormous and highly elastic, whereas the latter is not only small but also very inelastic.
Next time you venture out, notice how few places are adapted to human use without an automobile. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say how little land area is designed that way. Even in the most walkable place we are dependent on fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine it’s true, but notice how much of the territory we’ve developed, ostensibly for human use, is inaccessible, purposeless, or dysfunctional without an automobile. I see a dozen houses on my short commute to work which have more than 5 cars in the driveway at all times. One or two have over 10. It’s so important that every person have constant access to an automobile that they need well over $100,000 of investment sitting in the driveway and they must spend nearly that every year in insurance, maintenance, and fuel.
Peak Oil voices are surfacing again, as well as people who see them as a collective Chicken Little. The argument rests on whether the shale oil miracle has been an indication that human ingenuity, engineering, and technology will overcome what only appear to be obstacles to progress, or whether the whole thing is more accurately viewed as a sleight of hand made possible by super low interest rates and investors desperate for profit. I fall into the latter category, I must admit, but I know that could be more the result of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning than any deep understanding; I am not a petroleum geologist.
I am curious to see if these concepts will run together; so few places which have any functionality beyond the automobile, a squeeze in petroleum, and a crash on Wall Street. People will persist across most of the territory we’ve developed (Yes, Johnny), but the less automobile access needed to produce each widget, or facilitate each transaction the better. It would be interesting to witness a transition of places which have only managed to persist because (despite being out of fashion) they have allowed the most resource poor to survive within them, becoming a lifeboat for the more prosperous because even they find themselves in need of being less profligate with the resources they control.
It’s not inevitable. It may never happen. But one can easily imagine realistic scenarios in which it could happen. I would say this: the door to investment in such a future is wide open, but even a small shift would make clear just how limited this resource happens to be. The door could close very quickly. I’m staying put, I know that, but I am curious to see what future awaits.