The Shape of the City

One thing that a consumerist society requires is a lot of space devoted to consumption. Just how much space? Joe the Planner has written an excellent article on just this topic. The growth of the consumer economy can be seen in the amount of space devoted to consumption.

To get some idea of just how disproportionate this is, we can compare it with other developed nations:

The disparity in these numbers is stunning, and go a long way to explaining at least a portion of the real estate boom. But this is not sustainable. Soon, most of this space will be unoccupied, a wasting asset with no immediate use.

This situation was not really created by "market forces," but by government policies and subsidies. The shape of our cities, or perhaps their shapelessness, was dictated by the way government favored the car over public transportation, the suburb over the city, the homeowner over the renter.

Distributism has been accused of being an "agrarian" movement, a nostalgic "back to the land" ideology. This is only partially true. It is "agrarian," but this is not so much about getting back to the land as it is about establishing the proper relationship between town and country. You might say that the Distributist is concerned with how far your tomato travels before it reaches your salad. Ideally, it would travel from your own backyard garden. But failing that, it would come from a nearby field.

But the fields are no longer nearby, as urban sprawl has chased the farm farther from the city. Moreover, the vast transportation subsidies have made him compete with the farmer in distant corners of the nation and the world; the humble tomato is now a national and international tomato.

The result is that everybody has forgotten what a tomato tastes like; they are picked green and turn red on the truck or in the warehouse as it winds its long way to your table. But turning red is not the same as ripening; the former can happen in the truck, the latter only happens on the vine. The closer that vine is to your table, the better the tomato tastes. And the greater effect it has on the local economy.

The rather artificial economic system that makes this rather artificial national and international tomato possible is coming to an end. We can no longer afford the network of subsidies that make the 2,000 mile tomato profitable. And with the collapse of the tomato will come the collapse of the suburb, at least on its current scale.

Our current "recovery" plans--whether Democrat or Republican--focus on getting things back to the way they were. They are "reactionary" in the truest sense of that word. But they are not viable. Returning to the conditions that gave us the current condition ensure that the current condition will not end. Or rather, will end in collapse. And the more money we spend on going backward, the fewer resources we will have for going forwards.

We don't need to re-create the past, but to restructure the future. That future, I am convinced, is neither in globalization nor suburbanization. It is in rebuilding the regional and local economies. The good news about this is that it does not require more gov't, but less. Not more spending at the top, but more revenues at the local level. It does not require "rescuing" failed institutions, but rebuilding older and more stable ones.

By the way, Joe, since you work as a planner in Buffalo, check out Médaille College. I am sure that I am one of the few bloggers whose family name graces a college.


Kara Kane Friday, February 13, 2009 at 3:18:00 PM CST  

As the web person at Medaille College, hello! I see your name through google alerts all the time, and it's cool to see you mention the College!

Best, Kara

John Médaille Friday, February 13, 2009 at 5:06:00 PM CST  

Kara, try to get them to spell the name right; there's an accent on the first "e". And be sure they are pronouncing it correctly.

Viking Saturday, February 14, 2009 at 12:41:00 PM CST  

John, since you mentioned it, how IS your name pronounced? Is it "may-DYE" or "may-DAY" or what? (I suspect the first, as that rhymes with the similarly spelled "Versailles", at least as I've always heard it pronounced. And wasn't it sweet of me to suggest coloring rather than mortality on that first one?!) Your previous suggestion that if you just disregard the "ll", you'd be fine, left me still ignorant. So thought I'd ask.

Happy Valentine's Day to all you ladies who so look forward to it, and to the gents as well who are roped - I mean, are happy to share it with them!


John Médaille Saturday, February 14, 2009 at 1:04:00 PM CST  

Viking, you got it correctly; it rhymes with Versailles. As I explain to my classes, the "l's" are silent, are silent and are only there to confuse the English; all of French linguistic policy is based on confusing the English and the Germans.

The English retaliate with the silent e. The Germans retaliate by speaking German.

Walt C,  Saturday, February 14, 2009 at 5:31:00 PM CST  

I just wanted to say that I've added this blog to my reading every week. I find it interesting that many blogs I've read,from this one, Kevin Carson's Mutualists.Org to John Robb's Global Guerillas seem to be converging on the observation that our present multinational, managerial,corporatist economy is unsustainable and as Robb notes very vulnerable(his posts on "resilient" localized economies as bulwarks against national emergencies,terrorist attacks etc. are very timely).
I'm currently reading William Grieder's One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. His forecasting of some of the flaws that would emerge from the new globalist system was accurate for having published the book over ten years ago.
I'm not formally educated in economics but the posts here have been very informative in addressing current events and subjects like Austrian economics etc. From reading blogs like this, my friends can't seem to figure if I'm a liberal or a conservative!!!

Richard Aleman Sunday, February 15, 2009 at 10:06:00 AM CST  

Dear Walt C,

That's the key. It is to neither be progressive nor conservative, but to be "traditional" and seek priority of purpose. It seems these days we call progression becoming more primitive, while the conservative wishes to mostly conserve whatever challenges actuality.

These movements are simply obsessed with novelty even though their schemes are not new in the least.

What we believe is that by looking back we can move forward. By taking what worked both for the economy and the for soul of the human being should be applied. That doesn't mean 'turning back the clock' but it certainly means reaping the benefits of "the democracy of the dead."

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