Awhile back, I read a book entitled The Overload Syndrome by a medical doctor named Richard Swenson. The focus of the book was on the fact that many of us feel overloaded in our personal lives and that it has many negative impacts on our physical and mental well-being that we may or may not realize. I would highly recommend the book.

My wife recently has been reading the book too. As a stay-at-home mother of two young children, she has been feeling the strain of "overload" lately. Too many activities. Too many things to prepare for. Too many places to be. Too little time to accomplish everything. We've all been here.

The solution offered by Dr. Swenson in the book and in his follow up book Margin, is to create "margin" in our lives. Margin is essentially space. Breathing room. Flex time. Down time. The idea is that when all of your time isn't taken up with things you have to do, you are free to choose what you want to do. And if a true need arises unexpectedly, you have the flexibility to respond.

My wife told me last night about a great example of this. We have recently been working to cut out some of the regular activities in our schedule so that we weren't so overloaded. It isn't easy. We're cutting out things that we view as beneficial to our lives and are being forced to choose those things that are most beneficial to us.

The other night, we stayed home rather than going to one of our scheduled events. For my wife, it allowed her to get her run in (which usally falls by the wayside), which helped her not feel so rushed the following morning, which in turn allowed her to choose to take the kids to a fun story hour at a local bookstore, where she ran into a friend who invited her and the kids to go strawberry picking afterwards. Since there was some space in her day, she did go strawberry picking and everyone had a great time (and we now have lots of fresh strawberries to eat).

She remarked how much better she felt when she was able to choose things that she wanted to do. The irony is that some of the things she chose to do were things that she previously felt like she had to do. She may not have ended up any less "busy" than she was previously, but the ability to choose how we fill our time makes a big difference in how we feel about our lives.

So what does this have to do with small towns and land use?

Everything.

In Chuck's recent post about the proposed expansion of College Drive in Brainerd, and in his conversation on KAXE last Thursday, he discussed the expensive cycle we've gotten ourselves into when attempting to increase speeds and reduce congestion on roads. We experience congestion, so we widen roads, which induces more people to use the road, which creates congestion again, which creates the "need" to widen the road again - or to build or widen some other road. The result is a loss of margin for the community. When your primary goal with your roads is to get people from Point A to Point B more quickly, you now have no choice but to widen roads as they clog up with traffic. But what benefit do we really get from this? And at what cost to the other things that we'd like to be doing in our small towns? It is a good thing to be able to get across town quickly, but is it worth it if it prevents us from doing things that are better at improving our quality of life?

The problem is that the more we choose to build our way out of problems (whether it is traffic congestion or avoiding the headaches of redeveloping existing buildings or adding capacity to our water treatment facilities instead of conserving water), the more we lose our margin. The tradeoff is hidden by state and federal subsidies for some of our decisions, but the problem remains. Rather than being able work on a project that will really help to improve our community - say by helping downtown business owners spruce up their facades and making sure the sidewalks are well maintained so that they attract people and businesses - we are "forced" into spending that money on a project whose only impact is to help us get across town 2 minutes faster. Rather than being able to respond to a broken city well with funds set aside for such purposes, we are forced to find some other good project that we now need to cut or delay. Our ability to choose what we want to do and respond to unforeseen, real needs are decreased.

The implications of the Margin Principle are powerful, but not very sexy. It implies incremental progress. Small steps. Making your community stronger by maintaining and strengthening what you have before expanding outward. By choosing which projects are most beneficial and which will serve to increase your choices in the future rather than decrease them. By focusing on serving the true needs and desires of your community rather than taking those state and federal subsidies which look nice all wrapped up in ribbons and bows until you open them and realize they are actuallly just a Poison Gift.