My apologies for delivering a less than fully conceptualized essay this week as I find myself much more in the mode of hypothesizing than pontificating. If any of you wish to squeeze into a Rational Urbanism rabbit hole I recommend this post at The Sun. It gives some of my ideas prominence. The author was kind enough to reach out to me with a link to the piece. As he currently resides in the area of the Quad cities it reminded me of the kind Mormon family which took me in for a handful of days when my Corolla wagon broke down on the way from Springfield, Massachusetts to Provo.
Despite my best efforts I find myself following into a Kunstlerian interest in economics above and beyond my normal studies related to “urbanism”. Economics was my first private intellectual interest. Dow Jones actually used to publish the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s in Chicopee, Massachusetts and it was from the USPS Tapley Street annex that those publications were distributed throughout the northeast; including Wall Street itself. My dad was the overnight supervisor at Tapley Street, if asked he said his job was, in essence, “getting out the Wall Street Journal”. He would grab an extra paper from time to time, and I always got a copy of Barron’s.
In any case, economics went from a private interest to my major at BYU. Those three years focused on macroeconomics and being introduced to the ideas of everyone from Malthus and Ricardo to Adam Smith (it was BYU!) and John Maynard Keynes always informed my reading of the news, especially as it related to the changes that were taking place in Springfield from the loss of every single one of our local and regional banks’ headquarters to the closing of factory after factory after factory.
A recent conversation on the “Quoth the Raven” podcast between the host and economist George Gammon not only brought together two voices I’ve recently come to see as both informative and insightful, but also veered into a combining of my dual interests; urbanism and economics. Starting around minute 41 Mr. Gammon begins to discuss where he sees the impact of what he sees, as do I, as a major economic downturn even after the direct impacts of the coronavirus begin to dissipate.
As you will hear, what he foresees is a generalized flight from center cities to more rural areas. He reasons that many city dwellers will have experienced what he is now experiencing in Medellin, Colombia: a long term quarantine in a downtown apartment with no access to nature and no ability to grow food or even exercise outdoors in a private space. George and the QTR host Chris Irons briefly opine with respect to exurban living on “acres” of land and a “linked in” lifestyle which allows for both connection to the modern world and great independence regarding things like food production and home repairs.
I wouldn’t doubt for a minute that many, many people who in general terms enjoy an urbane city way of life are contemplating wistfully what sheltering in place might be like on an idyllic homestead upstate and in the aftermath of the current crisis the United States my well continue to see the flight of all who can to places with wide open spaces. On the other hand there are quite a few caveats that ought to be taken into account before moving forward.
First and foremost is the fact the we are still in the early stages of this catastrophe. I’m not going to engage in special pleading relative to density and lifestyle and cities and pretend that in the way of viral transmission people living closer to one another might not be at increased risk, but there are other significant characteristics endemic to urbanity and rural life respectively which might alter our understanding once the dust or the viral particulates have cleared.
As I wrote years ago, I am not at all antagonistic to rural life, but a cursory Strong Towns analysis of the way most Americans actually inhabit exurbia, with their actual lifestyles and infrastructural expectations are the furthest thing from resilient. Leaving aside the recognized advantages of actual face to face contact in the world of innovation, actually turning a rural homestead into a particularly different lifeboat from the one I have always maintained in a fairly urban neighborhood during a crisis like the one we face at present would require much more focus and dedication to the project than either of these erudite prognosticators have imagined.
(I wish to soften my critique by saying; this was one riff during a very long conversation and was presented as nothing more than a working hypothesis.)
Take coronavirus expert and recently oft mentioned resiliency expert Chris Martenson for example. He recently moved to a 180 acre property 20 miles or so west of downtown Springfield. More than a decade ago he purchased a different property 30 miles north of my current location. There he and his now ex wife created an incredible rural homestead far beyond anything I’ve ever put together: solar photovoltaics, solar hot water, vegetable gardens, orchards, berries and who knows what else. But having moved to this new place, in winter, in New England, I’m sure he has years to go before he could even dream of “living off the land”.
He was perhaps among the very first to realize just how serious Covid-19 might be, and as a very wealthy man who prioritizes preparation I’m sure he has months of food and supplies. Tough timing though. This sort of discontinuity can pop up at any time. If stock traders on Wall Street also wish to be gentlemen farmers they just might have to grow years and years and years of crops before having Whole Foods just deliver the stuff would cease to be easier and even more affordable; and that’s assuming that the skills and knowledge one needs to homestead can be acquired quickly and easily.
Along with that here are some interesting details from the crisis in my area: the Springfield Public Schools are providing 6,000 meals a day at no charge to city families; Meals on Wheels is delivering 50,000 meals in the region. PeaPod and Instacart are still delivering; I saw a neighbor walking back from the Pride store today with bread and milk (but without a mask!). As with all of this, no doubt, it’s early days, but I’d bet on the public school and the Big Y food distribution networks holding out longer than the root cellars of 99.999% of hill town residents.
The podcast conversation went on to discuss “herd immunity”. They guessed that perhaps 190 million Americans would need to get Covid-19 before that was established. Hard to imagine that wouldn’t include a fair number of rural folk, who live much further from hospitals, and whose hospitals are known to have even fewer resources and a very limited number of healthcare professionals and which will most likely not be the focus of National Guard and Reserve attention. Understandably we’ve seen quite a lot about Wuhan, Milan, Madrid, and Queens, but I think that might not be because people in the hinterlands have been completely spared.
If you have the time, I recommend listening to Jim Kunstler’s Big Slide; it addresses, in very Kunsteresque fashion, how city folk might fare in a crisis when they look to their rural vacation homes as areas of refuge in a crisis.
My working hypothesis is that after a brief burst of joy, optimism, and even apparent economic prosperity in the immediate aftermath of Covid-19, the always inevitable evaporation of the mirage that was the Shale Miracle and today’s “everything must go” oil and gas contango will usher in a period of Stagflation that will change lifestyles and corporations forever.