I’ve written about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (that is, the floating mass of plastic waste the size of Texas wreaking havoc in the Pacific Ocean) on quite a few occasions. It’s in the news a lot and is becoming better-known. And bigger. And more devastating. Take a look at this short piece from NPR today. Warning: it’s graphic. It should also be infuriating.
Consider also the eerie parallels between albatross parents mistakenly feeding their babies plastic and the degree to which we do or don’t know what’s really in most of the food we feed our kids.
If you were into civics as a kid, “gerrymandering” is one of the words you learned in 10th grade and still remember. You probably even remember the practice’s namesake, Elbridge Gerry, and that he endorsed the creation of oddly-shaped voting districts that favored his political party in the early days of the Republic. The practice produced a cartographic chimera of sorts, the so-called Gerry-mander, and the practical side American political science began in earnest. For all the time they must have spent outside, you’d think that early 19-century Americans would have known that salamanders don’t have wings but do have arms.
Today, I came across a map of Allentown that Damien Brown edited to show the city’s different sections (East Side, Center City, Downtown, South Side/South Allentown, and West End):
Now, if you live in Allentown, you know that a small pocket of South Whitehall Township (those white polygons) cuts into the West End on the east side of Cedar Crest Boulevard from Washington Street to Parkway. A closer look:
What’s the story here? What political machinations are afoot??? Just the long-term visioneering of Allentown industrialist Gen. Harry C. Trexler, patron of the Allentown Parks System, the Golf Course, the Trexler Nature Preserve and lots of other things we take granted. The space that is now Trexler Park was, before his death, a family summer estate in South Whitehall Township. This land and the land immediately around it (including the Golf Course) only became part of the city because of Trexler’s work and generosity.
Longtime Lehigh Valley residents know most of this already. What I didn’t know: Trexler is probably also responsible for preserving the Lehigh Valley’s home-rule culture. His mistrust of Philadelphian power (antagonistic as it was to the Lehigh Valley’s Pennsylvania Germans) led him to champion the development of a regionally-based economy. It makes me stop and think: even as we recall Allentown’s decline from unique, mid-sized, industrial and commercial base of economic power to a city searching for a new identity and a sustainable economy of the future, if not for Trexler, the plus side of the Lehigh Valley’s history might not have happened at all.
In pioneers like Trexler and, later, the Rodale family, the Lehigh Valley has fine models for conservation and sustainable business. Even though the national economy is groaning, it is also greening. 100 years ago, Trexler and others converted a vacant, run-down city lot into what we know today as West Park. Leaders from all aspects of Allentown’s public life need to keep taking these cues and continue embracing the opportunities financial trouble brings. If we need to build, we must (and can) build sustainably. If we need to tear down, we can do it beautifully. I imagine a city that is increasingly walkable in all quarters, and one where junked lots and vacant parking lots become a patchwork of parks and public spaces.
No one knows how long the current economic crisis will continue. What we do know is this: the days of retail excess are over, and rising generations want walkable, bikable, beautiful urban spaces in which to live and work and spend. We want sustainable, hyper-local options, we want good news for the city and we want to be part of that transition.
On a long enough timeline, chronically closed spaces will green themselves, but cities across the country are starting from scratch with new sustainable ethics and visions. Thankfully, we don’t have to start from square one. If stakeholders are committed, our region, led by our cities, can be a national example of the new economy even it was once a beacon of the old. And unlike silk or steel or cement or retail, sustainability is a business for all times and all seasons.
I used to work for a mutual fund company, but I’d never say I’m an expert on the economy. If you want to wax nostalgic with me about a time when money markets were paying more than .01 percent, I can handle that. If you want to talk about Series 6 and Series 63 licensing exams, I’m sorely out of date. That said, I retain the basics, and I happened to leave the industry just as everything started to crumble.
I say “started” because everything’s still crumbling. I’m no Amartya Sen, but we Americans have the long historical memory of the Great Depression always at our backs, and while most of us don’t really understand everything that’s been going wrong, our gut index is pretty savvy. We know when times are bad and we know when they’re not getting any better.
In the mid and late 70s, just before I was born, there was an energy crisis, a high Misery Index, inflation, bad geopolitical situations and, so I’m told by the media and everyone over 50, a prevailing and understandable emotional malaise. People were worried, afraid, out of work, strapped.
In 2011, the gut index tells a similar story. We know, deep down, that we’re still in an energy crisis and will be until renewable fuel becomes a nationwide efficiency and standard. The Misery Index is officially back in political discourse. The economy is abysmal, the world stage is a mess (with some hopeful things still happening), and people are worried, afraid, out of work, busted.
Once upon a time, when main street was “white washed windows and vacant stores,” we had the luxury of telling ourselves that even if our mid-sized industrial cities failed, the wealth of the burgeoning suburbs would save us. Fail our cities did, and so grew the suburbs, over green space, agricultural space, water tables, cemeteries. So grew our commuter corridors, our pollution emissions, our traffic patterns, and BMIs.
Take a look around your local suburban strip mall. Witness all the empty store fronts. Consider all the tier two stories at your local mall. If your gut’s like mine, it’s telling you things are getting worse.
I’m not an alarmist, but it seems patently obvious to me that the era of suburban mercantilism is over. And, like most forms of mercantilism, the suburban boom of the last 20 years was, itself, a bubble. On the frontier line of our industrial cities, townships had wide open space to develop and overdevelop. The businesses leaving our strip malls like they once left our downtowns are never coming back, that is, there will never again be the faux demand for that many grocery stories, hair cutteries, pet shops, Subways, and Chinese buffets. We simply don’t need that many Wal-Marts or Targets or Sears.
What to do now with these vacant spaces?
Knock a few walls down and mix open space in with surviving retail. Plant flowers, get benches. Make butterfly gardens and bike racks. Young people drive the economy, and young people like being outside. We like having access to options. We’d love to sit in the grass with our kids while our spouses run errands elsewhere on the strip. We like eating outside, learning outside, shopping outside. Tell us that your micro-greens in the suburbs are part of your commitment to sustainability, and even if we don’t believe you, we’ll use them. What goes better next to a Petsmart than a dog park? Why not put tables and chairs and umbrellas between Subway and the pizza place? How about some of those lawn games hipsters love? Maybe a fountain or two.
One of the things our suburban communities lack is access to open, common spaces at commerce centers. Target being close enough to drive to from soccer practice isn’t what I mean. I mean walkability and multipurpose. Micro-greens could bring these opportunities. Kids could paint murals and the real estate companies could compete for most beautiful, creative, or sustainable patch. There could be concerts and readings and rallies and ecological learning stations. There could be weather monitors and air quality sensors. There could be meetings and speeches from leaders. There could be questions. And all of the sudden I’m talking about sustainability in much larger terms. I’m talking about art and culture and civics, all of those other things not commonly associated with our suburban places, and I’m talking about doing them out in the open, in front of people as a way of engagement, ecology and economic innovation.
My gut index says many, many people are more likely to patronize a multipurpose complex like the kind I’m describing than the same old depressing vacant strip malls. My gut says people want creative solutions, more fresh air, more green grace and more synchronicity. In short, we want better options than the failed strip mall aesthetic, and we want to be able to access our disparate goods quickly and efficiently. Beat those vacant spaces into open ones. If you unbuild it, they will come.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been approached with advertising opportunities here on The Daily Cocca. All the offers were for legitimate operations; no link farms and nothing MLM or sleazy. Sponsored links and content, and the content has been things I think my readers would actually enjoy. But for now, I won’t be going down those routes. You might know that the good folks here at Automattic (the company that runs WordPress) have a policy against blog owners running ads or sponsored content on WordPress.com hosted sites like this one. Blogs with traffic in excess of 25,000 visits per month are eligible for an Ad Control feature. The Daily Cocca is gaining steam, but is not quite at 900ish hits per day, dear readers. If I ever do run ads or sponsored content, rest assured the ads will only be for things that are on the square, and the content will only be posts or graphics that are engaging and worth your time and mine. I’m not into blogging for the money (sort of like writing). I’m interested in connecting with awesome people and sharing awesome things.
If you know me professionally, you know that I do make part of my living by working on content and social media outreach for groups with the right kind of ethics. Three Pillars Trading Co. is a new company I’m working with. They’ve asked me to help capture the essence of their fair-trade products and three-pillared approach to sustainable, responsible business. I’m plugging them here because I like their mission. I’m going to put a link to their Facebook page in one of my sidebars to help promote them and to pretty up all that white space. For the record, they have not asked me to do this and I’m not being paid to place their content here at TDC. I just want to give them a shout out, and perhaps start a discussion about how we can use our blogs to help ethical, sustainable operations simply because it’s the right thing to do. We’re all in this together. To that end, if any of you have projects that you think might sort of fit in with this idea and you’d like me to put together a graphical link to them and display them on my white space, let me know. I’ll do it for free (though a link back here would be appreciated). If you want to talk about hiring me for other things, well, hey, that’s great too.