Are Compact Communities and More Locally Produced Foods the Way of the Future?

4.11.13 | Patrick Doherty’s Jan. 9 article in Foreign Policy lays out “A New U.S. Grand Strategy” aimed at reviving our national resilience on the global stage, invoking themes that will sound familiar. He starts from a deceptively simple premise: “The status quo is untenable.”

“Simply put, the current U.S. and international order is unsustainable, and myriad disruptions signal that it is now in a process of collapse. Until the United States implements a new grand strategy, the country will face even more rapid degradation of domestic and global conditions.”

Doherty, director of the New America Foundation’s Smart Strategy Initiative, argues that we need a new grand strategy, which he defines as “a generation’s plan to create the global conditions necessary for the country to pursue the great purposes set forth in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution.” He identifies four “strategic antagonists” that must be overcome: Economic Inclusion, Ecosystem Depletion, the “Contained Depression,” and a “Resilience Deficit.”

Fix these problems at home, he says, and then the United States can lead the world along similar sustainable paths. It’s the domestic part of his plan that is interesting for its implications for regional resilience as discussed here, because two of Doherty’s linchpins for this new strategy are walkable communities and regenerative agriculture:

Walkable communities: The first pool of demand is homegrown. American tastes have changed from the splendid isolation of the suburbs to what advocates are calling the “five-minute lifestyle” — work, school, transit, doctors, dining, playgrounds, entertainment all within a five-minute walk of the front door. From 2014 to 2029, baby boomers and their children, the millennial generation, will converge in the housing marketplace — seeking smaller homes in walkable, service-rich, transit-oriented communities. Already, 56 percent of Americans seek this lifestyle in their next housing purchase. That’s roughly three times the demand for such housing after World War II.

The motivations are common across the country. Boomers are downsizing and working longer, and they fear losing their keys in the car-dependent suburbs. Millennials were raised in the isolated suburbs of the 1980s and 1990s, and 77 percent never want to go back. Prices have already flipped, with exurban property values dropping while those in walkable neighborhoods are spiking. Yet legacy federal policies — from transportation funding to housing subsidies — remain geared toward the Cold War imperative of population dispersion and exploitation of the housing shortage, and they are stifling that demand.

Regenerative agriculture: To meet rising population and income levels, the world needs to increase global food production by 60 percent by 2050, and 100 percent of that new total will need to be regenerative — restoring our soils and cleaning our waterways in the process. For the American farmer, the increase in demand is already translating to record prices, but the heartland is held back from capturing the additional gain from regenerative methods — up to three times the profits per acre and 30 percent higher yields during drought — because of federal policy set in 1972.

It is time to restore America’s heartland. Instead of depleting soils and polluting rivers, the country will adopt modern methods that will bring more land into cultivation, keep families on the land, and build regional food systems that keep more money circulating in local economies.

Although that closing statement strikes me as far too casual, it echoes one key theme of James Howard Kunstler’s 2005 book, “The Long Emergency” — that we must, and will eventually be forced to rescale our lives to a more regional level, abandoning the far-flung suburbs for more compact communities and eating more locally produced foods.

But over at The Urbanophile, Rod Stevens discusses how identity contributes to regional resilience, focusing on Port Townsend, WA, which appears to be embracing its past association with the building of wooden boats as a path to the future:

The new schools superintendent talks of “making the city the classroom”, with the community, its surroundings and all things maritime as the subject of study. There is already a program there now, in operation for about ten years, in which seventh graders go down to the waterfront to learn rowing, and into shops at the maritime center where they learn geometry and measurement while building boats.

The superintendent, David Engle, plans to expand this idea throughout the curriculum, linking the sights, sounds, and smells that children experience every day along Puget Sound to what they learn in school. And that, says Stevens (a business consultant), is a key potential for regional resilience:

Imagine a town in western Pennsylvania saying that it wanted to make the study of steel, coal, rock, geology and making things part of its curriculum. If this had been done 25 or 30 years ago, with modern hands-on teaching, perhaps more of those towns would still have core industries in those fields, no longer giant, but perhaps re-oriented to niche markets, with highly trained workers who spoke “steel” or “glass” in their business conversations. In Port Townsend, they still speak “boat” there.

Stevens has much more to say about this experiment. Please go read the entire post, and put Port Townsend on your resilience radar.

Photo/ Barbara Ray

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