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VOL. 6, NO. 1 -- SPRING 2004

Local Economy and Traditional Neighborhoods

Much can be said for the idea of community leaders giving serious thought to growing their own local economy.

Often we think that bringing national chains into our communities is a good thing, a sign of success. We believe that someone somewhere can develop a piece of real estate or a business that meets our local citizens' needs better than we could do ourselves.

As I see it, one is either on the side of a) growing a local economy, being a community builder, nurturing local businesses and aspects of connectedness in our blocks, neighborhoods, municipalities and regions, or b) part of the victim/exploiter dichotomy, vulnerable to or profiting from the get rich quick strategies developers are reviled for.

But as long as we are the ones profiting, who really cares? Right?

Development either takes the form of the "job shop," with buildings and businesses developed one by one to meet specific needs -- these are our favorite neighborhoods of old. Or, it takes the form of the "assembly line production" -- and carving up farmland for suburban cookie cutter developments suburbs is the worst example of this.

The production mentality invariably leaves a bad taste in our mouths. Even new urbanism, with developers used to the profit margins brought by the economies of scale of suburbia and municipalities used to the ease of administering "production developments," can be vulnerable to many aspects of the assembly line perspective. This can leave people who know how real traditional neighborhoods function with something we end up not liking very much -- those dreaded hybrid developments that never quite seem right and give critics of new urbanism so much to rightly criticize.

At least surgeons get to bury their mistakes.

Our favorite old neighborhoods took centuries to build. How can we be confident enough to believe that even the most brilliant among us can really design and build whole fully functioning villages, by contrast, virtually overnight? Our models in this effort, our real historic towns, have been a collective ongoing effort of generations of our ancestors working out the bugs of what makes a community work. It's hard to replace all of that sincere and persistent hard work of community building with a little inspiration, a formula and the fever to get something big built in a big hurry at a big profit ... and to get it right.

If we don't want someone from somewhere to come into our neighborhoods or our regions with the last great development solution -- whether it be big boxes that offer low prices or something called new urbanism (solutions that may risk throwing our local economies into a tailspin) -- then we have a responsibility to "grow our own" right developments. If we don't want someone else to do it wrong and "do it to us," then we have a responsibility to do it right -- ourselves.

In order to get development and local businesses that meet the needs of the local people and are creditworthy, we need:
1) a few local banks that will make loans in the neighborhood to property owners and business owners;
2) a high percent of local property owners who maintain their properties to a high standard;
3) local municipalities that provide a reasonably high level of municipal services; and
4) citizens who are engaged in the community, connected to each other, communicating with each other, understanding that "you get what you pay for" and are willing to support elected officials who support good planning and providing adequate public services.

This is not easy, but it is possible. It is what they call "community." It is the place we have all been wanting to live.

Joyce Marin serves as a borough councilwoman in Emmaus, Pa. She has worked in commercial real estate finance and community revitalization.