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The Death – and Life – of Small Downtown America

Kaid Benfield, Atlantic
Today I offer another post by my friend and frequent collaborator, Lee Epstein. Among other good things, it gives me an opportunity to post some small-town and small-city photos I have taken, some as recently as last week. Lee is an attorney and land use planner working for sustainability in the mid-Atlantic region.

A few years ago, I co-authored a post here that featured the small town in which I grew up in Pennsylvania. I tried not to be nostalgic, but the town did have many of the design features that help define sustainable, smart growth: a walkable street plan with short blocks and lots of alleyways, some moderate mix of uses and densities, easily accessed daily destinations like schools and libraries, parks and playgrounds, a grocery store and small restaurants, and a lot of greenery. All of these features could have been strengthened, but all in all, not a bad small town model.

A tale told too often

What I didn’t write about was local business disinvestment and downtown decline. I think it’s a cautionary tale, and unfortunately not a unique one across America.

For seventy years, my family ran a small business in the town just across the river, where most of the local commercial activities were located along the half mile-long Main Street. These included men’s and women’s clothing stores, shoe stores, jewelry stores, hardware stores, Woolworth’s and J.C. Penney’s department stores, optometrists, a movie theater, drug stores, and the like. Often, professional offices or apartments were located on the second or third floors. There were strip shopping centers a few miles away, but for the most part, the town thrived. Several things happened by the late-1960s that changed all that and quite deeply (and, as it turned out, fatally) challenged that model, spinning small downtowns everywhere into decline….

…But the good news is that in pockets of small town America, either a bit of manufacturing has returned, or in other places, some re-purposing of older buildings is occurring – I think of some of the mill towns in New England that have turned some of their wonderful old buildings into apartments and new shops, and are trying to capitalize on those previous investments. Other communities may be undertaking some planning work that starts with determining what the community’s vision for itself is, and then focuses on figuring out what the challenges and opportunities are (or what the barriers are and incentives might be) to realizing that vision.

After all, by mid-century, there will be another 100 million Americans. While there are fewer of the big industrial giants than there were before, there may be medium or small ones looking around for a place to land. The U.S. still has a $15 trillion economy, and more than one fifth of it is in manufacturing. There are some 30 million small businesses in the U.S. Then, of course, there is the rise of the service and “knowledge” businesses, which can locate pretty much anywhere.

Using existing assets to leverage renewal

What can small towns do to increase their economic competitiveness, to attract industry and new businesses to town, or to recreate themselves? Should or can they do things differently this time, so as to protect themselves against another round of disinvestment in the future as lifestyles or business forms and profiles change, or the next big (commercial) thing lands with a thud?…
(7 September 2012)

Germany’s ‘post-growth’ movement

Sherelle Jacobs, the guardian
A volunteer lights one of 5,000 blue and green candles in front of the Brandenburg Gate during Earth Hour 2012 in Berlin. Many Germans now value protection of the environment over material prosperity. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images
Growth is a complicated business. Over the centuries, economists have not only been divided over how to make it come about, but over whether it is really a good thing in the first place. On the one hand, we want to live comfortable existences free of struggle, but then again many of us would prioritise greater social equality or preserving the environment over endless economic enrichment. As we shudder through the collective hangover, growth for growth’s sake now finds itself under fresh scrutiny.

Ironically it is in affluent Germany, the only place in Europe that currently seems to have any hope of economic growth, where the consensus on the intrinsic value of growth is most sceptical. A recent survey commissioned by Bertelsmann Stiftung found that eight out of ten Germans crave a new economic order. The number of Germans who see growth as very important was down 14% compared with two years ago. The proportion of Germans who highly value money and possessions also dropped. Nearly two-thirds disagreed with the idea that a higher income could increase their quality of life. Many Germans now value protection of the environment over material prosperity, according to the findings.

Academic research seems very much in line with the popular mood: German thinkers are increasingly publishing work, which denounces growth and touts drastic alternative economic policies. One of the more high-profile members of this movement is Niko Paech from the University of Oldenburg, who recently published a controversial new book called Liberation from Affluence, in which he lambasts growth , argues that societies need to shrink their economies, and calls for an embrace of self-sufficiency models and regional exchange. His policies for the ideal society include a 20-hour week, the introduction of regional currencies, and decommissioning large development projects such as motorways and airports.

Reinhard Loske is another member of the so-called “post-growth” movement. In Where Now With the Growth Question? he advocates the formation of innovative transition towns featuring social banking, taxation according to environmental consumption rather than labour, and an enforced basic income. Meanwhile, conservationist Angelika Zahrnt, in her co-edited book on a post-growth economy, rallies for less paid work and more free time for the workforce…
(19 September 2012)

Growth Is the Problem

Chris Hedges, Truthdig
The ceaseless expansion of economic exploitation, the engine of global capitalism, has come to an end. The futile and myopic effort to resurrect this expansion—a fallacy embraced by most economists—means that we respond to illusion rather than reality. We invest our efforts into bringing back what is gone forever. This strange twilight moment, in which our experts and systems managers squander resources in attempting to re-create an expanding economic system that is moribund, will inevitably lead to systems collapse. The steady depletion of natural resources, especially fossil fuels, along with the accelerated pace of climate change, will combine with crippling levels of personal and national debt to thrust us into a global depression that will dwarf any in the history of capitalism. And very few of us are prepared.

“Our solution is our problem,” Richard Heinberg, the author of “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality,” told me when I reached him by phone in California. “Its name is growth. But growth has become uneconomic. We are worse off because of growth. To achieve growth now means mounting debt, more pollution, an accelerated loss of biodiversity and the continued destabilization of the climate. But we are addicted to growth. If there is no growth there are insufficient tax revenues and jobs. If there is no growth existing debt levels become unsustainable. The elites see the current economic crisis as a temporary impediment. They are desperately trying to fix it. But this crisis signals an irreversible change for civilization itself. We cannot prevent it. We can only decide whether we will adapt to it or not.”

Heinberg, a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, argues that we cannot grasp the real state of the global economy by the usual metrics—GDP, unemployment, housing, durable goods, national deficits, personal income and consumer spending—although even these measures point to severe and chronic problems. Rather, he says, we have to examine the structural flaws that sit like time bombs embedded within the economic edifice. U.S. household debt enabled the expansion of consumer spending during the boom years, he says, but consumer debt cannot continue to grow as house prices decline to realistic levels. Toxic assets litter the portfolios of the major banks, presaging another global financial meltdown. The Earth’s natural resources are being exhausted. And climate change, with its extreme weather conditions, is beginning to exact a heavy economic toll on countries, including the United States, through the destruction brought about by droughts, floods, wildfires and loss of crop yields.

Heinberg also highlights what he calls “the highly dysfunctional U.S. political system,” which is paralyzed and hostage to corporate power. It is unable to respond rationally to the crisis or solve “even the most trivial of problems.”

“The government at this point exacerbates nearly every crisis the nation faces,” he said. “Policy decisions do not emerge from deliberations between the public and elected leaders. They arise from unaccountable government agencies and private interest groups. The Republican Party has taken leave of reality. It exists in a hermetically sealed ideasphere where climate change is a hoax and economic problems can be solved by cutting spending and taxes. The Democrats, meanwhile, offer no realistic strategy for coping with the economic unraveling or climate change.”

The collision course is set. It is now only a matter of time and our personal response…
(10 September 2012)