Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Commonwealth of Critique

"Contrary to a world driven increasingly by specialization and mechanization the innovator, the promoter, the intuitive, and the methodical are drawn together in an atmosphere of community to which they all are entitled to inhabit"

I’m staring at a blank screen. A few letters of crisp black type stand in stark contrast to the infinite sea of electronic white canvas. Fueled by a weeks worth of thought and a light dose of caffeine, I’m attempting to coalesce a few moments of fleeting clarity into 1200 words or less. As you may assume from this intro, I’m grasping at straws and the feeling is nothing new. While the challenge before me is a story of struggle, it parallels the very landscape which I intended to explore.

At this time of year the landscape we traverse is often bleak, absent of all color but for a brownish hue of decaying matter set against a muted gray sky. Abandoned homes, a dilapidated barn, and entire towns blend seamlessly into the landscape. Every so often however, something warrants further attention or more appropriately contemplation. 

I’ve passed by my fair share of communities which seem to have accepted a fate which was well beyond their control but I’ve also arrived at several intriguing destinations with some semblance of life left coursing through freshly paved arteries. Having sought out these destinations I’ve found a comforting albeit temporary reprieve from the mundane in “college” towns across the Midwest. The likes of Madison, Bloomington, and Iowa City pull me from over the horizon to these nodes of liberal, progressive or whatever word now describes the process of critical thought. 

That being said, I admit that I’ve been a tourist. I’ve taken my picture standing in front of buildings, posted a picture of my meal, and entered countless boutique shopping establishments (milling about and touching what signs warn me not to).  All of this in the name of tourism, which apparently is the word for an activity that is nearly synonymous with convenient shopping. If I am lucky, once I tire of making the comparison between these destinations and the community I currently reside, I find myself assimilating into the white noise that is the social fabric of every community. The amateur anthropologist in me wants to walk with purpose down the streets and be greeted like a local at the coffee shop. After finding a comfortable spot, I’m at last able to begin my observation, finding similarities between myself and those whom are here not to shop but to work, to meet, to go, and amongst other things to learn. 

When immersed in these localities, it’s not difficult to spot the visitor. They are defined not by appearance, but by statements which are uttered all too frequently, “They should build one of these (insert boutique/artisanal culinary destination) in our town”. Standing there, in a urban environment complete with coffee shops and plethora of merchants which go unseen in many rural areas, it’s easy to refine everything back to the “build it and they will come” mentality, but underneath the layer of economic activity there is a variety of factors at play. Although some aspects of the equation like walkability and density are often regarded as conflicting with the status quo (because we all know someone who can tell us why it won’t work here), they are fundamentally simple concepts that just happen to run counter to the prevailing models of growth, asymmetrical accounting practices, and a tendency to reject what is interpreted as loss. If we think we’re losing something, especially when it concern the inalienable right to unimpeded travel, our powers of critical thought are conveniently absent. A simple change to on street parking, addition of a bike lane, or pedestrians can be misconstrued to herald the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd signs of the apocalypse. Rather than focus on the fundamental aspects which beget authentic connections amongst people, the conversation is reduced to a debate over the parking privileges that were enshrined by founding fathers in the constitution and how any change would be an unwelcomed intrusion to the very fabric of the democratic ideals this republic was founded. 

“They” however is a term which is relegated to the status of a mere afterthought. Is “they” the neighbor who will purchase the property, obtain a franchise agreement, hire a contractor, and operate a business? Is “they” the city or town with it’s overflowing pockets of lush green government funding? Is “they” a distant corporate entity, who only needs to experience small town charm and second to none neighborhoods to know that this community is beyond all doubt the ideal location for their retail outlet?

In a few short paragraphs I’ve begun to peel back the layers of the proverbial onion to reveal that it’s far too easy to be mired in semantics and circular debates which lead even the best intentioned ideas to a death spiral of inaction. The places that made it all seem simple, State Street in Madison or Kirkwood Avenue in Bloomington, appear to be a product of sheer luck rather than a concerted effort to create a place befitting for humans. Is it the presence of bike lanes? Cross walks that function properly? Boutique shopping? Proximity to coffee shops? Or are these aspects merely indicators of something fundamental? What is apparent is that even the most intricate regression analysis might leave us with more questions than answers. 

On the surface, compared to the auto dependent retail outlets, it’s easy to spot the differences. Unlike the shopping center, there is not an excess of parking spots. This demonstrates a lack of ingenuity when it comes to the provision of public goods. For instance in the case of emergency services we expect well funded emergency responders to be prepared for the worst case scenario, thus communities have a SWAT Team and more than one Fire Truck. This prepare for doomsday approach is paralleled in a prepare for Black Friday approach to parking requirements. While only a quarter to a third of the bargain retailers parking lot is occupied 364 days a year, the other spots must be built and maintained to protect the inalienable rights of shoppers to park their cars in the aftermath of a caloric orgy one day per year. The standard auto dependent model must be reconsidered, for it has it’s limits. Bigger parkings lots don’t always equate to more or better anything (the Texas rule doesn’t apply outside of Texas). 

Another identifiable aspect is density. The buildings here are close together and more than one story tall. Looking up at the second story, we see that many of these structures serve more than one purpose (it’s a dirty word but we’ve arrived at it...mixed use). One of the most noticeable externalities of this mixed use, is a diverse array of pedestrians wandering about the streets below. Professionals in suits share the same space as college students wearing hoodies and flip flops. All the sudden the people occupying this public space have more than one motivation for their presence, something beyond needing to enter and exit a store as quickly as possible. 

It’s hard to look past another critical aspect. The university environment is populated with an abundance of educated, ambitious, and young entrepreneurs with nothing to lose (because most of them don’t yet realize they are in debt up to their eyeballs). There is no denying that this must play a role in fostering a sense of vitality to the streetscape. Perhaps, it’s worth considering that it’s not the presence of a university but rather one of it’s functions which facilitate the presence of this diverse population. The university is a community and a community is a place which tells a story of being drawn together. In the university community a multitude of motivations and aspirations converge. The Pre-Med student visits the same library as the undergraduate majoring in Psychology or English Literature, the professor waits in line for the same substandard coffee as his or her students, and the nostalgic alumnus wanders the streets contemplating the size of their annual contribution to the endowment. Contrary to a world driven increasingly by specialization and mechanization the innovator, the promoter, the intuitive, and the methodical are drawn together in an atmosphere of community to which they all are entitled to inhabit.

The next logical step is to compare these destinations to the places that the rest of us call home. It’s daunting to look at a struggling community and think it has a chance against the more concentrated urban homes of state funded research institutions. Mustering up the gumption to embark on implementing a change in policy can quickly lead to second thoughts. It doesn’t take long for nay sayers to provide a litany of reasons why a departure from the norm will only lead to ruin. After all, how is the lonely community located on a sleepy state route going to attract the same level of investment to barren cornfields? 

It’s time for communities to find a solution, not just mask the symptoms of what ails them. This is easier said than done, because this requires a vision with the support of local government, policy makers, and the private sector. Simply agreeing with the idea doesn’t necessitate action. Finding a solution however is contrary to the world we inhabit, it will take more than a Google search and three day conference to turn around decades of disinvestment. Building the environment from which authentic community will take root will involve adapting proven concepts to new communities. The successful approach will involve making a great place for residents as opposed to phantom hoards of tourists. The task at hand is to build upon the intrinsic wealth derived from calling a community home, the aspects that are intangible and can’t be easily pre-packaged and trucked away. 

It’s not up to others to create great places to live, it’s up to us. We (because we’re all in it together right?) have to change policies, innovate, and challenge the traditional. Despite the apparent ease with which collegiate environments connect people, the presence of a higher ed institution is not a prerequisite for bringing people together, to build better spaces for human beings, or to foster entrepreneurialism and innovation. Focus on building the foundation, not it’s derivatives.  Good outcomes will come from smart investments. Finding answers won’t be easy, it will involve grasping at straws until we find something to hold on to.