Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

Econogenesis and Flow

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The key to a sustainable local economy is flow and confluence. I once visited the little town of Hinesville, Georgia, which is situated right outside the gates of the U.S. Army’s massive Fort Stewart. Like many military towns, Hinesville features long six-lane boulevards lined with crummy retail strips. Every massive block seems to include the same combination of nail salon, pizza joint, cheap motel, chain restaurant, electronics emporium, tattoo parlor and auto parts dump. These boulevards continue on for miles and miles in a criss-cross pattern until they peter out at the gates of Fort Stewart or somewhere else in the Georgia countryside.

One day, took a wrong turn and quite literally fell off the Hinesville grid. A series of wrong turns landed me in the middle of a vintage Southern downtown so perfect it could have doubled as the set of a Southern gothic movie. Wide, tree-lined sidewalks bordered a commodious thoroughfare with herringbone parking. A courthouse, the largest building on the downtown square, was flanked by a couple of churches and a long commercial building with street-level retail spaces and offices above. And a block off the square in either direction was residential housing, large houses at first, tapering down to modest but lovely homes beyond. Compared to the rest of Hinesville, the old downtown was a treasure and a relief. Sadly, it was also as dead as a doornail. Nothing moved … there was nobody there. The storefronts were all empty. So were the offices above them. The churches were shuttered, and even the courthouse looked abandoned. It was midday in April, a lovely time of year in Georgia, and Hinesville was dead.

Downtown Hinesville is no longer a place. A place has life, and living things have flow. Their multiple systems are switched on and interdependent. They can sustain themselves to a large extent, and their purpose is built-in and obvious. None of that was evident in downtown Hinesville. And what about the rest of Hinesville? That isn’t a place either. It is a colossal machine, a vending machine, kept going by massive, artificial infusions of federal cash. People live there, of course, but they relate to each other in much the same was as people in a supermarket. There are the usual courtesies, but they could just as easily be at the Piggly Wiggly up the road or the Whole Foods a thousand miles away. There is no shared history or identity, no common future or enduring value in the experience of living there. Hinesville is a postal code and a name on a map, but it is no longer a “civitas,” a place.

In geography, a confluence is the point at which two or more flowing bodies of water meet. The Ohio River is born at the confluence of the Alleghany and the Monongahela Rivers, and ends 981 miles later at its confluence with the Mississippi River. Confluence is present when flows meet and join.

Water isn’t the only thing that flows, of course. Anything that mimics fluid dynamics can be said to “flow.” Data moves in a flow from node to hub to node. When joined to other flows, data becomes information, knowledge, even wisdom. Money flows from many different sources, joining with other flows to become productive capital. Energies of all kinds can be said to flow, from electric power to creativity. Commerce has a flow, discernable in the movement of goods and services. Even crowds of people move in a flow, both on foot and in vehicles.

A living city is a confluent city. It is a place that flows. More precisely, it is where multiple flows converge to create a dynamic, creative, prosperous, attractive, and sustainable place. It is our contention that economic development and isn’t about designing end-states. Planners are not and should not pretend to be Master Architects because planning isn’t a utopian enterprise. The planner’s job is more like a plumber: understand the flows that make up a particular place, and work to optimize their creative and complimentary convergence.

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