The Good in the 'Hood

The past weekend saw the end of the season for my favorite English team. My Blues finished exactly in the middle of their league after a dour season. Our owner 's  assets have been frozen while he is on trial for money laundering, so I doubt we will be in the market to add quality to the squad this off-season. I will now have to get my soccer fix much closer to home. Fortunately, the season is in full swing for young Spence Rushing. He is currently playing for the CFC Academy and playing in a rec league as well. I love watching Spence play, it is one of the great joys in life. Of course, I’m incredibly biased, but the boy possesses a silky left foot and does the beautiful game justice.

My little Cryuff

The relative downside to his participation is the fact that we have to drive all over Chattanooga to get him to practice. It is a minimum of twenty and thirty minutes one-way to drive to the two fields we typically practice and play on. I don’t leave downtown Chattanooga very often (for the purposes of this post, let’s define it as I-24 to the North Shore and the River to Holtzclaw). I drop off and pick up the boys from school here, my consulting work is done from the Southside, my teaching work is done at UTC, my design/build work is done at Collier Construction on Main St., I shop here, I bank here, I go out to eat here, I go out for a drink here, I buy my cigars here as well as my groceries. In fact, the only regular activity that draws me away from downtown is soccer practice. (Practice!)

Unfortunately, I have spent much of the spring teaching Spence to deal with the anguish of having sports cancelled by inclement weather. I suspect that fully half of our practices and games have been called due to rain or wet fields. Early last week we got the word that the fields were (once again) closed, but that our CFC Academy coach had secured Finley Stadium for our practice. What a joy. The playing surface and the stadium are far superior to the grassy fields we usually play on in the ‘burbs. The boys also enjoyed playing on the same field that the “big boy” CFC players use. The greater value for me, however, was that we were playing in our own neighborhood.

Having a practice for which travel time was 20% of the norm got me thinking about the value of neighborhood institutions. Consider the logic in having a community where people who live in close proximity to one another can send their children to the same neighborhood schools, shop at the same neighborhood grocery store, recreate at the same local park, and eat and drink at the same neighborhood restaurants and pubs. The need to drive is greatly reduced, your interactions with your neighbors are deeper and more frequent, there is “found time” during the day, and the money one spends tends to stay in the community.

Our society, unfortunately, doesn’t operate that way. We live in isolated housing subdivisions, shop in generic national chain stores, eat at generic chain restaurants, and organize life based on the concept of economies of scale.  In fact, a sober look at society shows that we have contempt for traditional neighborhood structure. Those who favor bussing children across the county to massive, mega-schools administer our educational system. Our civic recreation philosophy has been one of creating large, regional-scale facilities. We are told that a grocery store can’t exist unless it’s a minimum of 45,000 square feet and serves at least 4,000 people. Spending at chain restaurants (that operate at regional and national scales) represents the lion’s share of that market. The problem with each of these things is that they are being considered in isolation and the wrong metric is being used to judge whether or not the technique is prudent.

The problem lies in judging everything by its monetary value without a consideration of the complexities of life. The argument for bussing children to mega-schools is based on cost. The argument for fewer and bigger parks is based on cost or providing high-level experience for a specialized activity. The scale of grocery store is based on cost. The ability of chain restaurants to succeed is based on their economy of scale. In each case, the various facets of our lives are being considered in isolation and decisions are made based on what makes the most economic within each of those silos.

The fact is that most of the important things in life can’t be quantified economically. The overarching goal should be to improve to quality of our lives. Is there no value in a neighborhood where parents and kids can walk/bike to their neighborhood school, walk/bike to their neighborhood park, walk/bike to their neighborhood grocery store, and walk/bike to their neighborhood restaurants? What is the cost of a lifestyle where the average American spends 2.5 hours a day in a car and spends an additional 2 hours a day working to pay for it? What could you do with a free 4 and half hours a day? What is the cost of land lost to the monotonous monoculture of the sub-urb? What is the cost of repairing and maintaining our crumbling automobile infrastructure? (the better part of $2.2 TRILLION) What is the cost of an obesity epidemic created by sedentary lifestyles and an unhealthy food supply system?

We are told that it costs more money to organize life a neighborhood scale- but I suspect that when the total picture is considered the economic difference isn’t that big. Is it worth paying a few cents extra for groceries in your neighborhood if you pay less for gas and save time? Is it worth forgoing the specialized play equipment at the mega-park to have a neighborhood space you can use as you at your convenience? Is it worth paying a few extra dollars in taxes for a neighborhood school to save dozens of hours and gallons of gas?

A brief example: Compare the trip to the (still relatively close) St. Elmo Bi-lo we used to frequent with a trip to our new neighborhood market- Enzo’s. The Bi-lo trip is a 6-mile, 20 minute roundtrip drive- or in economic terms $3.39 for the drive (based on the GSA rate of .565/mile) and $__ for time (fill in the hourly value). The Enzo’s roundtrip is a 1.6 mile, 10 minute drive – which costs .90 for the car and $__ for time. In hard costs (car) I can afford to spend 2.5% more on my groceries at Enzo’s. In soft costs I have 25% more to spend on groceries, or 10 minutes of life to enjoy. At the end of the year I have an extra $130 in cash plus 9 hours free hours.  Beyond that, the money I spend at Enzo’s goes to my friends who live in Chattanooga while the money I spend at Bi-lo goes off to Jacksonville, FL. Now figure the same for life’s other activities (restaurants, pubs, schools, trips to the park, etc) and you can begin to see why urbanism makes sense from both economic and quality of life standpoints.

Unfortunately, there are a great number of Chattanoogans who don’t have the choice to live in urban neighborhoods with the amenities I've outlined. I don’t believe that the benefits of urbanism should accrue only to a privileged few. I see no reason why every person in the city should not have the opportunity to live and raise their children in a neighborhood with access to great schools, appropriately scaled public space, and healthy food. That is nothing less than the promise of urbanism and the essence of the American Dream.

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