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What Is The Future of Exurban America?

By Greg L | 2 July 2014 | Local Economy | No Comments

There’s sort of a landmark town our family passes through on the way to and from relatives.  It’s not the nice sort of landmark that makes you think “boy, wouldn’t it be great to live there,” but one of those innumerable decaying small towns with boarded up buildings, vacant houses and an economic base that appears to consist entirely of government offices and thrift shops.  As I drive through, I wonder how this all happened as I realize that the fears I had the last time I’ve passed by have once again been fully realized as I ponder what the next stage of economic disaster will bring to what was once quite clearly a rather lovely little place.

Why does this happen?  That question is often pretty easy to answer, but the simple answers don’t seem satisfying.  Perhaps that town depended on some industry, like coal mining that federal policies are deliberately driving into the ground, or perhaps emerging economic realities are undermining the economic raison d’etre for such a place.  Simple answers might be satisfying in terms of wrapping a simple question in the tidy bow of a simplistic answer, but it doesn’t provide much insight towards the more pertinent implied question of how we prevent the destruction of small town America.

Small towns used to be the core of this nation.  A hundred years ago more people in this country lived in small towns than in urban centers.  Now we increasingly warehouse people in dense urban developments, fostering a dependency on shared services that are almost always provided by government and undermine the individualistic nature of our culture.  We’ve replaced small retail with a succession of boom-and-bust big retailers, creative service industries with chain restaurants and convenience stores, and turn a culturally diverse and regionally distinctive America with a once-size-fits-all succession of strip malls and nondescript townhouses where every place looks like every other place.

We are becoming culturally boring, our small towns are losing their individual distinctiveness, and as they decay large swaths of our population are left to wander amidst the ruins of our cultural heritage in increasing poverty.  If you’re a suburbanite, or an urbanite don’t think this matters to you ponder for a moment what sort of tax burden you bear to perpetually and quite ineffectively shore up this economic rot.  Have you looked recently at how few of your state tax dollars remain in your community and how much are sent to subsidize failing ex-urban communities lately?

If we don’t get a grip on why some small towns succeed and why so many are failing, that tide of decay can quite easily start washing up against larger and larger communities as we are increasingly packed into more dense and indistinctive human warehousing.  What will the future hold for places like Yorkshire, Haymarket or Manassas?  Do they try to hang on, or do we give up and just accept that they’re going to fall apart at some point?  How do they hang on if that’s what people want of their future, and how do we do that without burdening taxpayers even more than we currently do?

I’ll be looking for answers, and readers just might have some paths to explore they’d like to illuminate in the comments below.



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