Steven Shultis is a member of Strong Towns and a long time supporter living in Springfield, Massachusetts. You might remember him from an earlier podcast or from our more recent conversation about Springfield. He blogs at Rational Urbanism and this article, which first appeared there, is reprinted with his permission.
Mine is an idea whose time has not come. To a certain degree I take pride in that, it is what makes writing about it relevant. Fully two of this week’s posts at the Strongtowns website addressed what I have been doing at RationalUrbanism for a few years now, but I believe that most people could read in one case, or listen to in another, the ideas which were expressed in those pieces and not understand somehow that it all folds back in on the message of RationalUrbanism.
Joe Cortright on the Strongtowns Podcast says that the only two options for dealing with concentrated poverty are that the poor find a place in wealthy suburbia, or that people of means move into traditionally poorer neighborhoods. While the former is “difficult”, the impediments to the latter are that people of means fear exposure to increased danger in the way of crime and worry about the negative impact on their children of poor quality schools. In the first case he cites studies in which poor students are educated outside of the isolated circumstances of concentrated poverty have better outcomes. While the data can be read quite differently, the point he either neglects to mention or (more likely) of which he is unaware, is that students who are not impoverished, but come from the middle or upper classes which are educated in schools where there is concentrated poverty tend to perform at the level of their demographic, not at the level of their institution. What does that mean? It means that one of the primary impediments to the transformation he advocates is an illusion!
Even more so the issue of “danger“. The tiny marginal impact of higher crime which urban living has on safety is outweighed by the diminution of danger relative to the automobile. Not only is that even more true for young people, when you add the negative correlation of suicide to density, what screams out from the data is that urban areas are the safest places to raise your children. So while the “bad schools” barrier is an illusion, concerns regarding safety should be a driving force in the gentrification of traditional neighborhoods.
Gracen Johnson wants to recruit people to her place. I get that. The introduction to my website reads:
But there is a slight difference in our perspectives. Springfield is at the center of a metropolitan area of 700,000 people. In spite of that apparently healthy number I realize that very few people live here because they are particularly drawn to this part of the northeast. They have roots here, their spouses are from here, or professional opportunity has brought them here. Polls have shown that, all things being equal, many would leave. But the struggle isn’t to get people to move to the region, it is for those who have decided to live here to see that Springfield, and more particularly its core urban neighborhoods, are a real, legitimate, reasonable, rational option for living if what they seek is an urban lifestyle.
These are people who would want to live in Cambridge not Lexington in greater Boston, Brooklyn not Westchester in New York, Arlington not Tysons Corner in DC. What’s different is right now, if they live in the Pioneer Valley…”they ain’t movin’ to Springfield”! Their families, their realtors, their friends, and their “common sense” will tell them that the idea is insane. These people are already around here, they might even listen to Chuck’s interview with Joe and think…”Yeah, yeah. Too bad there are no real opportunities for us to do that around here.”
The idea behind this particular post predates by almost a year the publication of the two pieces which have made up its content, a fact which only underscores my confidence in historical materialism. Ideas will not have an impact on the ground until material reality forces them upon people. Peak oil was a fact long before M. King Hubbert explained the concept, big box stores were ugly long before Jim Kunstler wrote “The Geography of Nowhere”, sprawl development was unsustainable long before Chuck Marohn wrote “The Growth Ponzi Scheme”, but these ideas only started to take hold once their material reality was visible.
Whether as a response to energy scarcity, fiscal crisis, or existential angst at the vapidity of car oriented development, reality will slap America in the face at some point, and recolonizing the relatively few places which were designed to be efficient, sustainable, and beautiful will be seen as obviously preferable to reconfiguring the thousands of square miles of mis-arrayed, sprawling, plastic sheathed crap that makes up most of North America’s inhabited landscape. Until then, I’ll enjoy its benefits in relative solitude.