New Quality of Life Measure: Retail Percentage

Last week the Traverse City Record-Eagle, which does a decent job reporting on northwest Michigan’s population growth and business development, published an article with these facts. In 1997, shoppers in Grand Traverse County spent 58 percent of their money for retail sales in the Traverse City. Last year, according to a new economic analysis, the city attracted just 12 percent of those sales.

As a measure of the quality of life, the percentage of retail sales held by a central city is hard to beat. As the percentage of retail sales falls in the central city so does the quality of life in the region. That’s because traffic, water, and air pollution, family costs and stress increase in the surrounding suburbs. Safety, security,  and the sense of place that drew people to northwest Michigan in the first place decline. The transition is steady, almost episodic, like standing in a river and trying to hold back the current. And after 10 years people pause just for a moment and wonder what the hell happened. The pace of life quickened. Costs went up. Their time got tighter. The good life they’d promised themselves gradually evaporates in the hothouse of the new congested and expensive suburb they’d allowed to be built.   

traffic.jpgOver the last 10 years, it’s not as though Traverse City’s Front Street, the main business district, developed an acute illness, though the new economic study indicates that with its high rents and boutique stores, the downtown business and retail district could be in trouble. The more significant trend occurred in the surrounding townships, particularly Garfield Township which used its master plan and zoning to design an auto-centric place, complete with requirements for parking, ample setbacks, sewer and water extensions, and expanded roadways. Orchards that once supported cherry trees were converted into shopping centers and hotels and big-box stores. Tens of thousands of new residents headed in their cars to a sparkling new array of national retail destinations. Garfield and its neighbor, Blair Township, attracted them all — Wal-Mart, Menard’s, Lowe’s, Home Debot, Best Buy, MC Sports, Kohl’s, Rite Aid, Borders, Staples, Office Max.  Garfield is the place you go to buy lightbulbs and see a movie. Traverse City is where you can find a candle lit meal  and gourmet chocolates. 

Traverse City has managed to keep most of its downtown businesses open because over the last decade the regional market expanded. But Michigan’s stagnant economy is catching up with the small downtown stores, many of them family-owned and not as capable as they once were of competing with the national chains. Money is tight. And the regional and national markets are tilted in the favor of the big boxes. We taxpayers build the road and sewers, set the zoning, and award the real estate investment tax loopholes and global trade agreements that make Wal-Mart and the rest tick. Meanwhile we tax the family-owned businesses, charge high rents, and discourage housing investments that make it possible for working adults and their families — shoppers in other words — to live anywhere close to downtown. Traverse City, for instance, is getting set to once again prohibit people from renting out granny flats above their garages, which would encourage students and young families to live downtown. 

Much has been written about the phenomenom of purposefully aiding the big-box companies that need it least. Stacy Mitchell’s new book, The Big-Box Swindle, tells much of the story. You wonder when this big-box phase of metropolitan development will begin its sunset, and a new and more intelligent form will take its place. People have a right to expect more. We deserve more. 

Cleaning Up Those Coal Plants

Tom Friedman has a very interesting piece in the March 16 edition of the New York Times that reports the back story of the announcement last month that TXU would not build eight high-polluting coal plants in Texas. Turns out that the new owners of the utility were concerned about the public relations fallout from the battle they’d been engaged in with grassroots groups in Texas, and national environmental organizations, particularly Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

The campaign against the plants involved the public’s growing knowledge of the costs of climate change, as well as the influence of the Internet and social media to inform and motivate the opposition. Friedman reports that some heavy duty Wall Street financiers also were involved. In the new era of public interest advocacy, the convergence of money, communications, research, and public opinion has the power to move major corporations concerned about their place in a global world.

Here in Michigan, we found similar publilc interest success three years ago when a Texas energy developer arrived in Manistee proposing to build a big coal-fired power plant. Residents put together a profoundly convincing case about the environmental and economic costs to the city and the region if the plant was approved. They also discovered that the developer could largely avoid paying municipal taxes, thus saddling Manistee with all of the costs associated with the plant, including rebuilding roads and providing police, fire, and emergency medical services. That evidence and more was disseminated over the Internet, fostering a very lively email conversation, and ultimately drawing over 1,000 people to three public hearings, after which the city ultimately turned the plant down. dirtycoal.jpg

In 2007 a new mainstream thought has entered the conversation about coal-fired plants in Michigan. Not a single new one ought to be built in the state, ever. The same thought has crossed the national intellectual radar lately. Amanda Griscom of Gristmagazine reported last week that James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s top climate scientists threw down the gauntlet. “There should be a moratorium on building any more coal-fired power plants,” Hansen told the National Press Club. 

The evidence is powerful for developing cleaner and more economically productive energy sources, like solar and wind. The costs of coal are clear. And enough people know the basic parameters of the debate to make a ban on new coal plants plausible. Facts well-disseminated to an interested constituency has completely altered the balance of influence on the usefulness of coal as a fuel for generating electricity. And it’s happened Mode Shift fast.

Mode Shift News and the Net

One of the rules of journalism that I learned a long time ago is that it’s okay to be ahead, but not okay to be too far out front. Another rule  is conflict sells better than cooperation. 

Mode Shift, which describes the political, cultural, and economic context of a civic movement that is changing patterns of metropolitan development, is ahead of most other forums in covering these stories. But it’s not too far ahead, which is probably good.

The hard part is that the American Mode Shift is principally a story of collaboration to invent novel ideas that are actually yielding promising results. In other words it’s a good news story, and that violates a basic tenet of journalism in the good ‘ole USA. 

Nevertheless it’s comforting to know I’m not alone. Along with the Web site of the Michigan Land Use Institute, and Smart Growth America, there are a handful of other forums that I pay attention to that are chronicling similar ideas and their results, especially those based in the West.

One of the best is New West, based in Montana, which approaches the Mode Shift from a multi-state perspective and does a very good job corralling trends and breaking news.

Another is Tidepool, based in the Pacific Northwest and now managed by the smart people who work for writer Alan Durning at the Sightline Institute in Seattle. Tidepool’s frame is much greener than New West’s, but that fits the ecotopian empire that lies between Vancouver and northern California. 

A third forum that is starting to pay more attention to the wave of green, energy efficient development strategies is Grist Magazine, also published n Seattle. Chip Giller, Grist’s founder, is a Brown graduate and a writer and editor from suburban Boston who was exposed very early to high concept environmental ideas. His baby sitter was Bill McKibben, author of the 1989 classic “The End of Nature,” and arguably the best environmental writer of his generation. 

I played a cameo role in helping Chip launch Grist, actively contributing pieces for tiny fees that helped to generate credibility. I also participated in the three-day strategic planning session several years ago  (McKibben and John Pascantando, the director of Greenpeace USA, also attended) that helped Chip turn Grist from a tiny start-up to the power house Web publication it has become.

chip-giller.jpgBut Chip, (see pix) whose picture graced the cover of Vanty Fair’s Earth Day edition last year, hasn’t been that interested in the greening of metropolitan development strategies until lately. Last year I tried to interest him a series of pieces that described how several cities were taking steps to become greener and more prosperous, and that the strategy was being embraced by dozens more regions. Chip’s response : “Oh, you can be our good news reporter.” Ouch! It was the green equivalent of “if it don’t bleed it don’t lead.” Nevertheless I see more of the Mode Shift in Grist’s report than I’ve seen previously.

The tie is Grist’s concern with global climate change. But whatever the frame, the reporting leads to the same conclusion. Cities are becoming the new incubators of environmental and economic policies that make them greener, more prosperous, and better places to live and do business. It’s good to be ahead. Just don’t get too far out front. 

Flip: Scarlet A With Invitations in Age of Social Media

Ryan Burke is a student at the University of North Carolina who until Valentine’s Day this year rolled through his undergraduate career in a veil of unmistakable obscurity. But this is the age of social media, when ubiquitous video cameras, email, and the Internet can vault creative instinct to unimaginable heights of notoriety. YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and legions of video file-sharing sites have enabled young people to reveal, expose, share, and broadcast every aspect of their lives. Social media is responsible for great poetry, deep textual conversations, as well as Girls Gone Wild.

acthepburnbringingup.jpgBurke knows this and put the anything goes culture to work last month to prove a personal point about trust, fidelity, a boy’s wounded heart, and the power of public exhibition. He confronted his girfriend, who he’d learned had been cheating on him.

It wasn’t so long ago that such knowledge was confined to a close group of personal friends. But like a 17th century Puritan, Burke made his ridicule and anger known on the technological grapevine, posting a message on Facebook about his plan to conduct a public dumping. The scene of graceless personal petulance and community condemnation that unfolded in The Pit before some 3,000 other students was simultaneously ugly and impressive.

It revealed the power of social media to inform, recruit, motivate, inspire, entertain, and disgust.  It is that kind of ubiquitous influence that makes social media such a new and critical part of the nation’s evolving political, economic, and cultural geography. 

Climbing Gas Prices, Slipping Dow: A Connection

This week the price of regular gasoline in my village at the top of Lake Michigan reached $2.60 a gallon, about 62 cents a gallon more than in January. Late last month, the Dow Jones experienced the steepest drop in years. Are the two connected? You bet.

You might also ask how these two trends are linked to the American Mode Shift, the transformation of metropolitan regions into cleaner, greener, more energy-efficient, more prosperous places? 

Here’s how. Oil is and will remain the economic lifeblood of the planet. There is nothing remotely on the horizon that can replace it, despite what the President of the United States and the governor of our fair state say about alternatives. A few nations in the Middle East, led we’re told by Saudi Arabia, have most of the oil. 

Well smart oil supply watchers, like the Oil Drum, have been reporting the strong likelihood that Saudi Arabia is flat out lying about how much oil it really has, and how much crude it is actually pumping. This sort of fact is important because the margins between oil supply, production, and demand are so tight that any chatter in the system produces wild price fluctuations that quickly become apparent at the pumps at Stapleton’s, the convenience store at the corner of US-31 and M-115, where I’ve purchased gas for over a decade now. Matthew R. Simmons, chairman of Simmons & Company International, a and a respected analyst, provided attendees at a London conference last month great background on the trends in production.   gas-prices1.jpg

Oil Drum reported that Saudi production fell 8 percent in 2006, a huge decrease for a nation that has boasted about its immense oil supply, and the technical ability to bring it to the surface. Though the news attracted no notice in America’s mainstream media, the money men and women on Wall Street, and the shrewd investors who move markets, pay attention to oil production because it is so important to stability. What explains Saudi Arabia’s sinking production in a year when oil markets were so strong and demand for petroleum was rising? The Saudis said they were trying to stabilize prices, but that would have meant increasing production to lower prices. Energy experts say they have a more likely explanation. Saudi Arabia has less recoverable oil than it claims.

As word of the production decline seeped out of the Middle East last month, stock prices plummeted in the Far East, then in Europe, and swept into U.S. markets. Stock analysts were invited onto NPR to issue calming rhetoric about a “market correction” and how investors shouldn’t panic. Maybe so, maybe not. But the underlying pressure in the economic system will continue to cause unexpected market eruptions for years, and they are likely to get worse. A couple of years ago the term “peak oil” crept into the American conversation to explain why gasoline prices had climbed to $3.20 a gallon after Hurricane Katrina, and why they’re likely to go higher this summer, and higher than that the next. Peak oil describes the economic knife edge where demand is outstripping production because there are just no more easily recoverable reserves left to produce. Exxon, for instance, is spending $20 billion to increase its production by 1 million barrels a day. In years past, that kind of investment would have yielded much higher returns.

And that leads me to the American Mode Shift. How do you protect yourself from the increasing entropy of a world that is running on increasingly scarce and expensive fuel? You live in a place that offers energy-efficient options in transportation, housing, accessibility, and development patterns. In other words, you try to reduce your vulnerabilities, and that means living where there are alternatives to the expensive, fuel-consuming, drive-through economy. 

Fortunately, there are many more of those places in the United States than there used to be 20 years ago. The momentous civic movement that is producing better places in the United States is occurring in response to the shifts in market signals, including the economic and environment cost of crude oil. A great train construction race has begun in the West. (See earlier posts to Mode Shift) In the East, regional rapid transit systems are under modernization or expansion in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Atlanta.

New York, Salt Lake City, Portland, Seattle, and other cities are requiring public buildings, and many private ones to be constructed with the highest design standards of energy efficiency and environmental sustainability. New zoning and master planning is taking place in Dallas and Austin and Albuquerque to draw homes, schools, businesses, retail, and recreation closer together, saving fuel, time, and money. Green spaces and green roofs are under construction in Chicago and New York to reduce heat island effects and save energy for air conditioning and heating. The idea of these ideas and many others — building biking and walking paths, constructing schools close to neighborhoods, providing venture capital to energy efficiency entrepreneurs — is to provide residents with a competitive edge and a better place to live. The American Mode Shift in our cities is specifically intended to provide residents oil-reducing options that keep the quality of life high while energy reserves run low.