Wal-Mart; Walgreens; McDonald's; Starbucks; Appleby's; Federal Express; ... of course the list goes on and on.
But these national firms are just the tip of the iceberg. There's very little we use that's manufactured locally. There are few consumer products we order that aren't manufactured far from where we live, and reach us only by way of national or regional distribution hubs. And there's little we eat that's grown locally (more on this later).
[photo above left: the intersection of Route 50 and Broadway Ave in the center of Salem, Illinois, population 7,909, birthplace of William Jennings Bryan; photo below, two or three times every hour a mile-long freight train blasts across Emporia, Kansas' main street, a vital pipeline in the national economy crossing a vital corridor of a local economy]
There's nothing new about this -- and, of course, we've benefitted from our national economy in our daily lives. But when you travel along Route 50, say, in southeastern Illinois, and see a Wal-Mart truck pass you about every other minute ... or when you're driving through the Kansas City suburbs and see what seems like a procession of giant distribution warehouses ... it really strikes you how much we're dependent on what happens outside our own community, region, or even state.
[photos: right, trucks heading towards Wal-Mart distribution center in Olney, Illinois, on U.S. 50; below: new distribution centers -- first, Pacific Sunwear, in Olathe, Kansas; and below that, Coldwater Creek, in Parkersburg, West Virginia]
While in Grand Junction, Colorado, planner Jim Komatinksy related to me his amazement at the panic buying (and shelf-emptying behavior) that occurred in Grand Junction and other parts of Colorado last Winter when Interstate 80 was closed by snow for several days, and supplies from Denver and beyond couldn't get through. How could a fairly large city like Grand Junction be so vulnerable?
But though we're hooked into this national (and international) web, it still seems to me there's something in the air running counter to this -- an increasing focus on the local. Two concerns appear to be at least part of what's behind this:
-- One is a gut recognition that at some point -- whether because of an economic or ecological crisis, or some other disaster -- we're going to need to be much more self-reliant as communities. The most cogent argument on the vital need to strengthen local economies has been made by respected author Bill McKibben in his recent book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.
-- The other reason for an increasing focus on the local lies in a deep-seated need to be part of the community we live in, and to be part of a place that has its own sense of identity and place. That's something most of us involved in planning are aware of -- and hear about from citizens and local elected officials.
Part of what worries McKibben -- along with many of us -- is our dependence on fossil fuels. In a short article McKibben wrote for the Planning Commissioners Journal in 2005, he noted: "If one was imagining the greatest gift you could give any community to prepare it for this century, it would almost certainly be figuring out ways to let it live with less energy. That’s because the trend lines become clearer each day: the great and overriding question of the next hundred years will be figuring out how to ratchet down sharply our use of fossil fuel." (We ran McKibben's brief article along with a longer article by planner Karen Popek Hart, "Energy Conservation & Community Planning" -- they are available in a single download that can be ordered through the PlannersWeb)
[Bill McKibben (left above) is a writer who is also a citizen activist. He led a five day, 49 mile walk to raise awareness about global warming last Labor Day weekend. Hundreds of Vermonters joined him on this trek. I took this photo as the walk near its end point in Burlington's Battery Park. Read McKibben's account of the walk on Grist.org, or a report in the Burlington Free Press. ]
Along similar lines, transportation planner Hannah Twaddell reported last year in This Little Piggy Went to Market: the Journey from Farm to Table, how huge energy savings (and pollution reduction benefits) could result from reducing the miles we typically transport the food we consume.
In traveling through towns and cities across the heart of America the revelation to me was not the extent to which we're all so tied in to a national economy -- I expected that -- but the recognition of the importance of building stronger communities, and fostering greater local self-sufficiency.
In terms of self-sufficiency, perhaps the clearest indicator was the remarkable number of farmers markets I passed. They seemed to be everywhere -- in parking lots; under freeways; in permanent, weather-protected structures; on downtown main streets. [photo: vendor at the Athens, Ohio, Farmers Market, open twice a week in the parking lot of a commercial strip development].
They certainly haven't replaced our supermarkets, but their presence is growing. Besides promoting local agriculture, they help build a sense of community. I've previously mentioned my interview with Richard McCarthy of the National Farmers Market Coalition on this -- and I hope you have a few minutes to listen to excerpts from my conversation.
(See also, Roberta Gratz's article on Farmers Markets, and an article we published last year, Community Food Needs & Opportunities, that highlights ways of encouraging local food systems; the latter article, along with several others, was part of the Planning Commissioners Journal's Farm -> Community issue).
Just a bit more on food. Having a sustainable local agricultural base has interesting roots in American city planning. Here's what planning historian Larry Gerckens wrote in an article we published several years ago:
"Governor James Oglethorpe's 1733 plan for Savannah -- America's first regional plan -- set a framework for growth by providing for development by planned neighborhood units, focused on public squares, and edged by through streets. A key feature of the plan was the provision of public land reserves for future neighborhood additions. The plan also provided for Savannah's urban center to be bounded by small allotment gardens for growing food for family consumption. These gardens were, in turn, rimmed by a network of larger farm plots. Each grouping of ten farms shared a wood lot, providing fuel and game. Oglethorpe's recognition of the connection between agricultural production and urban vitality remains instructive for planners today." See R is for Regional Planning, part of Gerckens' Planning ABCs booklet.
During my trip, I had the fortune to visit with Judy Corbett at Village Homes in Davis, California. Judy, along with her ex-husband Michael, developed this ecologically-oriented project in 1975. They recognized the value of local food production by providing its 800 or so residents with land for community gardens and orchards. One fringe benefit is how these gardens also strengthen the connection between residents -- something that those of you familiar with community gardens recognize. (Incidentally, Gerckens notes the significance of Village Homes in his article, E is for Ecology).
During my trip, I also heard a number of planners talking about green buildings, and the value of using building materials from regional, if not local, sources. I had the opportunity to visit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's remarkable headquarters building outside of Annapolis -- where, for example, the wood used for the sun louvers was salvaged from local pickle barrels.
Communities are also looking into shifting energy production to a more local base. For years, hydro and solar power have been part of our energy portfolio. But now you're seeing initiatives like wood chip plants (converting local and regional lumber into electricity-generating wood pellets) and, of course, wind turbines. While the energy produced typically goes into large, interconnected electric distribution networks, they represent at least a recognition that we need to develop new energy sources closer-to-home.
[You never know what you'll run into along Route 50 ... right next to the Amtrak depot in Lamar, Colorado, is a blade from a GE wind turbine. This new icon for the 21st century reflects the big investment in wind power in this part of Colorado. For more photos, see my brief post, In the Wind. ]
But I also encountered first-hand some of the challenges the national can impose on the local. In Worcester County, Maryland, I heard about the county's first encounters with large-scale national production homebuilders. Not only are there concerns about the quality of the housing being built, but also about what impact the arrival of national homebuilders will have on local homebuilders and developers who may not be able to match their pricing and cost-cutting strategies. This important segment of the local economy may be endangered. See my post, Where's Berlin (heading)?
And what of local community identity? Does it matter to anyone anymore? In traveling along U.S. 50, and meeting with dozens of planners and planning commissioners, the sense I got is that citizens and local elected officials are looking for ways of strengthening community. Sometimes it's expressed -- as in O'Fallon, Illinois -- as a desire to keep the city's "small town feel" where people feel a connection to where they live.
Certainly, a sense of connection hinges in large measure on people developing their own local networks, and getting involved in community and civic organizations. But community identity can also be fostered in more physical, tangible ways. Interestingly, one thing that several planners I met spoke of as a way of fostering community identity was the development of community-wide recreational trail systems. While building community identity wasn't a primary purpose of building the trail network, it seemed to be a valuable byproduct. For more on this, see my post C-o-n-n-e-c-tions.
[Above left: kids biking in Miami Township, Ohio -- this recreational trail connects a housing development to a regional park; see my post on Miami Township for other issues they're focusing on. Above right: along a 19 mile long recreational path connecting Nelsonville and Athens, Ohio]
What does a network of non-motorized trails have to do with community identity? I'm not totally sure, but perhaps it's through enabling people (from youngsters to oldsters) to get out -- on bike, horseback, or by foot -- and get familiar with other parts of their city. Or perhaps it's the fact that getting these systems funded and built is often dependent on the hard work of active citizen-based organizations.
It may well be that having a challenging project to focus on is one of the best ways of strengthening local community. That seemed to be the case in both North Vernon, Indiana, and Emporia, Kansas, where the difficult challenge of restoring historic (but vacant) downtown movie theaters has served as a focal point for community action. Another impressive example I came across was in the small city of Ely, Nevada, where business leaders and residents came together to open their own community-owned downtown retail store, after unsuccessfully trying to find a national retailer.
While traveling through Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of the Hillcrest Civic Association. People listened to each other, debated, enjoyed food and coffee, and showed support of a project to convert a run-down neighborhood commercial strip into an attractive, mixed-use development. (Those of you interested in how neighborhood associations can strengthen local planning, see an article we published, Bowling Together: The Role of Neighborhood Assocations).
And planners can also creatively lay out whole communities that promote neighborhood connections and identity. That's one of the aims of many new urbanist developments. But during my Route 50 travels, I saw one of America's oldest, and most successful, planned towns: Mariemont, Ohio. Take a look at my report from there, and you'll get at least a flavor of the role planning & urban design can play.
What was clear to me by the time I reached the West Coast was that as Americans we benefit not just from the national, but from making sure we live in strong, cared for, local communities.