Friday, May 22, 2020

Mid-Sized Meditations #21: Thinking about the Post-Pandemic (and, Maybe, the Post-Suburban) Neighborhood

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

I recently participated in a Eutopia Workshop discussion with Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns fame, with the nominal focus on "The Next City." It was organized by the good folks at Solidarity Hall, and the conversation was delightful (if sometime depressing), as we considered, from multiple different angles, the threats--and maybe, just maybe, a few opportunities--which the covid-19 pandemic is bringing to the ways in which we organize our lives. Elias Crim, the guiding light behind SH, has shared some thoughts inspired by our conversation; let me add some more here.

Chuck had suggested, as a way to start the discussion, this fine post of his from a month ago, which considered the possibility that, post-pandemic, the American suburban experiment might finally, truly, come to an end. This has been predicted before, obviously, and been proven wrong, but Chuck laid out two new reasons for hope. First, it may come to an end because, in the wake of the economic wreckage of covid-19, city, state, and the federal governments will just be too broke to handle the fiscal liabilities and infrastructure costs of suburbia--and when those costs are more immediately felt by residents, as they'll have to be in conditions of municipal bankruptcy, they'll leave. "The North American development pattern is built with an assumption of permanent affluence," he wrote; lose that, and "the devastated middle-class is going to be seeking a lifestyle with a lower financial burn rate." Which, to Chuck's mind, means living more densely, with stronger connections to one's neighbors, providing the kind of mutual support for one another which allows for organic (and thus "antifragile," to use one of his favorite terms) commercial development--the corner store, the farmers market, small-scale manufacturing, the community garden. In times of massive economic restructuring and cut-backs, the idea that the American people will "have the confidence, let alone the capital, to start a new round of suburban investment," concluded Chuck, "is just silly."

But second, if the suburban experiment does not end because of its costs, it may end because its limitations are being made manifest as never (or at least not anytime within the past 70 years) before. With so many suburban professionals obliged to work at home, meeting via Zoom, with nowhere to go, with businesses and parks and theaters closed for our own safety, people have turned to walking and bicycling, and that forced change in their daily routines is enabling them to recognize the flaws in the patterns they've assumed were inevitable. "Now, all of a sudden, everything has changed," Chuck wrote. "Those of us living in cities can hear the birds instead of car horns. In lieu of the revving of engines, we hear children playing....The air seems cleaner. The city, more human." The upshot, Chuck argued hopefully, is a critical mass of people who will push-back against cities sacrificing their urban neighborhoods for the sake of enabling suburban commuter ease. "Urban neighborhoods will be financially way better off once they shift from a strategy of prioritizing and accommodating commuters to one focused on improving the quality of life for existing residents," Chuck concluded. The social, environmental, and aesthetic case against the car-dependent suburb has always been strong; now "in the age of coronavirus, it has become self-evident."

Our conversation didn't wholly or directly revolve around these two new possibilities, but they haunted the discussion nonetheless. Of course, both of these sets of speculations can be countered. In the first case, will the economic devastation of covid-19 really be, well, sufficiently devastating? And does anyone actually want it to be? The suburban growth pattern is not a stand-alone phenomenon; even setting aside the appeal (however easily soured) of having one's own (heavily subsidized and helpfully mortgaged) castle on a cul-de-sac, there is school district competition, socio-economic sorting, and what David Imbroscio has called the logic of "liberal expansionism," the linkage of suburban development with the push for ever-greater (and, apparently, always desperately needed) regional investment in a city, whether corporate or governmental. With all that in place, is it really silly to assume that the means to keep suburban costs steady will somehow be found, absent a truly total economic collapse? (Note the Republican support in Congress for a second round of pandemic-related stimulus, this one focused, predictably, on infrastructure projects which historically have primarily served suburban commuters.)

And as for the second case, will the experience of being stranded in empty suburbs, or conversely of experiencing a healthier and more humane urban environment with fewer cars, really lead people to decide against them? That's a change that should be much longed for by anyone who worries about either the environmental health or the cultural strength of where they live, I think. But when you place it against the delight of record low gasoline prices, and rates of infection which make urban density quite reasonably seem as something to fear, I'm not sure how much I would count on it.

As with so many things, Chuck's envisioning of the eclipse of suburbia might be best articulated by way of conceiving of a middling compromise as regards both these possibilities. That is, putting forward the possibility of more people coming to choose, in the years to come, to orient themselves around smaller or mid-sized or "minimally dense" urban sweet spots, gradually pulling back from the expensive obligations of extensive suburban development, opting instead for greater density and financial stability, but also not agglomerating together to such an extent that the benefits of suburban life--most particularly, a proximity to accessible, rural, food-producing land--disappear. This is James Howard Kunstler's prediction, and I hope he's right (though Joel Kotkin sees the same data, and suspects that a more flexible form of suburbia will emerge instead). But however that hypothetical focus on a middle point is realized--assuming it even ever is--there is also an unfortunate fact to consider. Cities in the middle often struggle to defend the civic resources which can help prevent people from retreating to their homes and abandoning cultural benefits of the urban project entirely. The most important of those resources? Clearly, the neighborhood.

Some definitional clarity is necessary at this point. When we refer to "neighborhoods"--as Chuck did in his arguments above--we may have a variety of references in mind. An overarching explanation might be this: a neighborhood is a particular collection of people who live in proximity to each other, and who therefore, due to their proximity, create public spaces in specific locations that can be mutually shared by those nearby, and who form (both with and sometimes against one another) routines around and in the midst of those public spaces which give some predictability and richness to ordinary patterns of life. "Community" might seem to invoke the same thing, but it doesn't necessarily. One thing that almost all employments of "community" have in common is their "imagined" quality, in the sense which Benedict Anderson laid out long ago in his book on nationalism: we come to recognize a socially constructed--that is, an "imagined"--commonality with another set of persons, whether it be religion, race, history, location, or a shared fondness for arguing about urban fiscal sustainability, however far or near those persons may be. That commonality, that sense of community, can characterize a neighborhood--but obviously it doesn't have to. What matters for the neighborhood is proximity, which cannot be imagined. A community may be characterized by proximity, but a neighborhood always is. (True, some will refer to their "closest" online associates as "virtually" proximate and thus part of their Facebook "neighborhood," or whatever, but let's just set that nonsense aside.)


What does the centrality of proximity to the concept have to do with making the distinctions which this whole arguments involves. Well, Nancy Rosenblum's superb book, Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America, can help us flesh that out. Rosenblum gives the topic of "neighborliness" a deep theoretical and ethical examination, and much of what she concludes is profound. But for purposes of this essay, one point stands out: that the category of "neighbor" lacks the constructed and willed intimacy of "community member" or even "friend"; rather, to be a neighbor is to dwell in the absence of--but perhaps with the promise of, or alternately a warning as regards the threat of--real attachment, friendship, and community. Neighbors instead regard each other as "decent folk" (or at least aspire to, and take solace in commiserating with other decent folk in the neighborhood about those bad neighbors who choose to not so aspire). They show reciprocity, speak out when necessary, but also abide by the rule "live and let live." Hence, the neighborhood is a place conceived in light of at least a degree of pluralism, mobility, and anonymity, with proximity, not friendship, being the essential bond:

For as long as they live nearby, neighbors have the prospect of ongoing interactions, exposure to one another's ordinary vices, beneficiaries of one another's benign give and take, incentives for good turns, and cautions against giving and taking offense. Until they move away (or we do), we have a glimmer of shared fate--not in some larger metaphysical or political sense but in our mutual vulnerability and the possibility of enhancing or degrading the quality of life at home....To moral philosophers committed to more demanding expressions of mutual respect or principled toleration, live and let live falls short. To disparage it is a mistake, however...."Weak ties" based on infrequent interactions are...[themselves a] critical resource....[O]rganizations where neighbors develop the capacity for collective action are key...a close cousin to the...rudimentary cooperation in countering people who flaunt reasonable expectations for "for what anyone would do, here" (pp. 48, 113, 139-140).

While Rosenblum does invoke a "settler" narrative as part of her exploration, the logic of her argument points away from the country or the small rural town, where the permanency and homogeneity of the residents tends to be greater, and instead towards urban environments as the primary site of neighborly virtues. Such virtues are by no means of the highest order; Rosenblum recognizes that. But they are real, and understanding their central role in distinguishing between different cities, and especially between different city approaches to dealing with the pandemic crisis, is crucial.

In our conversation, Chuck suggested that, whatever our speculations of a post-suburban future, we will broadly see all of America's cities and towns fall into one of two camps. Cities that take what he labeled "option 1" would be those who dare not contemplate the results of real economic collapse, and thus will instead insist that residents be provided with (and be given strong encouragement to accept) every economic opportunity for continuing suburban and auto-centric ways of life, or at least the illusion of such, building a whole industry out of inventing ever-more outlandish funding schemes, debt-leveraging, corporate give-aways, and grant petitions, all for the sake of fiscally papering over the ugly reality for as long as possible. As for "option 2," that would be the cities which do what is necessary to adapt to the reality of suburban costs in the face of the economic recession we are almost certainly facing--including doing the work to build up those civic strengths which will enable their residents to follow through on what the restrictions we have been operating under have hopefully allowed most of us to recognize.

In a small community of friends, of people committed to a shared (but more often than not also quite exclusive) faith or ethos or way of life, encouraging such recognition, and supporting one another economically in making such adaptations, would presumably go much more smoothly than it likely will in the pluralistic cities which 80% of Americans live in. For some, this is exactly the reason to prioritize the construction of, or the conversion of people to, such communities. That's an aim which deserves respect--but the Strong Towns aim, which focuses on nudging the urban environments we do have to greater sustainability, and thus greater local empowerment, within which a whole host of particular communities can play their organic role, is a respectable one as well, to say nothing of being a more properly civic one. To the extent that we can, through political as well as local effort, build up the "weak ties" of our neighborhoods, build up their shared spaces and the trust they inculcate, build up the opportunities they provide for people to see the costs and opportunities of collective life directly, as opposed to going through life amidst a flury of elite promises and grandiose projects, the more likely option 2 will be for all our towns and cities.

A central part of that building involves the "social infrastructure" that Elias wrote about in his response to Chuck's and my conversation. That's a term that's been productively explored by Eric Klinenberg and others, but for them it is mostly about the product of said infrastructure, while Elias is thinking more about the method of it. Elias talks about the "traditional economy of cooperation," which has parallels in various distributist, socialist, and communalist institutional forms--but what they all have in common is that they aren't particularly efficient, at least not from a market perspective. They allow for overlapping and conflicting responsibilities, tradition-bound forms of interaction and service, complicated collective decision-making practices, pricing mechanisms and welfare policies that reflect localized information, and more--all of which will make for economic forms which are more resilient when disasters occur, but in the meantime do not maximize efficient results.

What does this have to do with neighborhoods? In a sense, everything--because in many ways, the weak ties of neighborhood associational life and routines are the very definition of "inefficient." Marc Dunkelman, in his book The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community, makes this his central thesis: that thanks to the globalization of capitalism, the pervasiveness of technology, and the sociological sorting which has followed from both, we have all been part of a decades-long process of cutting out the inefficient middle-man, of by-passing the public and the shared for the personal and the private. With social media enabling intimate connections to transact the globe, and transactional connections (whether it be buying in bulk from China or spamming millions with yet another online petition) made ideologically immediate and intimate, the inefficient yet resilient "middle ring"--the ties of the neighborhood, or, as Dunkelman prefers, the "township"--suffers.

Dunkelman's recommendations for adapting to the loss of the middle are, unfortunately, for the most part rather depressingly technocratic and Clintonian. Much better are those parts of the book where he looks at what has enabled the--here he quotes Jane Jacobs--"valuably inefficient" ties of neighborhoods to flourish. Drawing on the work of Sean Safford, Dunkelman looks at Allentown, PA, an archetypal Rust Belt city that had a "social architecture" such that "eastern Pennsylvanians were exposed to much more diversified set of acquaintances. Neighbors attended a variety of different colleges and worked in different mills. They were congregants at different churches and regulars at different bars. So the average citizen wasn't nearly so ensconced in any single bubble of connections....[This] random intersection of individuals from different pockets of society spurred big new ideas--even when they appeared to waste resources. Regions focused too exclusively on efficiency may have been able to produce more with less, but...[faced] an insufficient capacity to adapt to new circumstances" (pp. 171-172, 176).

If the current pandemic demands anything, it is certainly the "capacity to adapt to new circumstances." So as economic suffering and new realizations open up the possibility for a truly post-suburban future, however minimally, with such possibilities confronting all sorts of contrary pressures along the way, a focus on "weak," neighborly ties is crucial, as whatever transition may be in the offing may well depend upon those distinctive civic resources. Jacobs's perspective on the civic potential of the less dense, more conservative, middling city was quite negative; a city needed to be truly "great" in both size and diversity, in her view, to allow genuinely robust neighborhood inefficiencies to take root and to their productive, adaptive work. But if the great city--which may had already passed its peak, at least in the industrialized and post-industrialized world--finds itself unable to cope with covid-19, this is time for smaller and mid-sized cities to turn to their neighborhoods, and explore ways to make them part of the shifts in both city spending and urban consciousness which Chuck's "option 2" imagined.

Admittedly, many of those minimally dense, urban sweet spots are decades deep into suburban development forms, with their consequent shaping and sorting of the attitudes of those who live there, making such shifts much harder to imagine. The author and urban designer Kevin Klinkenberg has argued on multiple occasions that we simply can't imagine all the mutually re-inforcing vectors of suburban life being surmounted outside of genuinely cataclysmic change. And since no one is (or at least no one should) be hoping to be visited by utter cataclysm, the practical aim of neighborhood work--at least for those looking beyond the obviously necessary and admirable work of building the aforementioned community attachments wherever they can--has to go hand in hand with assessing the lay of land. At a Strong Towns Summit in Tulsa three years ago, Klinkenberg laid out one possible assessment, analyzing the political difficulty of making the kind of design decisions and adaptations which will promote neighborhood spaces in different kinds of rural and urban environments, against the likely results of doing so:



By his rough--and by no means exact, but thoughtful all the same--calculation, there is so little that will likely be achieved in the face of what Klinkenberg estimates to be massive traditional suburban resistance, and so little that can be done with most rural and ex-urban living patterns anyway, that we have to focus on smaller urban areas to strengthen neighborhoods, and thus the likelihood of a critical number of people taking Chuck's "option 2" seriously. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the living environment best positioned in the upper-left quadrant of the graph in terms of both political risk and neighborhood returns is the "small-city urb"--which may or may not include the minimally dense or mittelpolitan cities mentioned above, but it seems a likely possibility. Remember that one of the key advantages of smaller, dense-but-not-too-dense urban areas is that they have access to open space, which can be productively used to both shorten supply lines and provide meditative respite, which are often entwined concerns in this moment of pandemic-related pressures and breakdowns. In the "Local Leader's Toolkit" which Strong Towns has produced, it's notable that they see "getting people fed" and "providing people space" as among the very first steps any city should take in order to start building resilience and enlisting (or just reminding people of) neighborhood resources. Those who can take those steps most immediately will be those who can begin enlisting neighborhood ties, and thus laying the groundwork for necessary shifts, most directly.

Of course, no one--as Klinkenberg himself admits--can be confident about what the post-pandemic world will look like, even assuming we ever achieve that state. Chuck's speculations about the end of the suburban experiment, and the options cities will face when confronted with such, are just that: speculations. But they are speculations which, to my mind at least, lend a sharpness to long-standing questions about what has happened to those weak, inefficient, yet vital neighborhood connections which provided the foundation for so many families and communities (whether or not Benedict-style) and the virtues--the cooperative efforts, the campaigns for justice, the homely attachments and beauties--they were able to cultivate. I am, unfortunately, not confident that this pandemic will see many of our towns and cities pursuing option 2. But anyone committed to addressing messy, pluralistic reality of how people live their live and build their places--in particular those of us who hope to see the local be democratized and socialized as much as possible--has to settle for continually fighting the long defeat, however long it takes. Assuming covid-19 does not, in fact, kill us all, or reduce us all entirely to barbarism, there will battles to be picked, where there are better odds of empowering neighborhoods and, by so doing, hopefully changing both suburban-addicted minds and corrupt fiscal incentives. Chuck Marohn's work, whatever disagreements one may have with it, gives us some good counsel on where to start.

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