Monday, January 17, 2011

Deep Economy pt. 1

Two questions that I often get asked when I say I am interested in urban planning and regional policy are 1) what do you think about gentrification/is there a way to improve impoverished urban neighborhoods without forcing out long term residents? and 2) what hope do small rust belt or agricultural towns have for redevelopment and regeneration?

Conventional economics does not have much in the way of politically-viable answers to these questions, in part because it advocates for labor force mobility. When possible, people should leave these areas in search of a better life somewhere else. This is the view put forth, for example, by the UK think tank Policy Exchange in their 2008 report entitled Cities Unlimited, which suggested that the government's regeneration efforts should be focused moving Northern England's residents to the prosperous South-East rather than trying to buttress more impoverished Northern towns. Similarly, the gentrification of a neighborhood is often held as a good thing, although more and more research is pointing to a displacement of the poor out to the suburbs as city living once again becomes fashionable, meaning that while the neighborhood may be looking up, that change did not help its residents.

In many ways, the conventional answer is dodging the question. There is no fix for these places, so either tough it out or get out. Recently, I've been doing some reading on these questions, to see who has a better answer, preferably one that keeps the community and their geography intact.

The first book, which I read this autumn, was Deep Economy, by Bill McKibben. He advocates for a more localized economy, with as much of an emphasis on building community as on amassing wealth. His favorite analogy is that the birds More and Better have long been sharing a branch, enabling the Western world to hit both with one stone, but at some point in the last 60 years, Better changed branches. His argument(s) is complex enough for me to devote a few posts to it, mainly because I think he is on to something, but I don't think he makes a good enough case. For one, he has the privilege to live in Middlebury, VT, where it is pretty easy to live locally, and he doesn't do enough to address the challenges one might face living in, say, New Haven, CT, where there is not a single grocery store remaining.

So in short, keep an eye out for forthcoming posts looking at the questions I mentioned above from a number of different viewpoints.

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