It’s hard to watch the “how it started/how it’s going” meme go around and not immediately think of our cities and towns. They started so well, with integrity, hard work, local ownership, and pride. And now they are, well… should we say ‘different’. Generally, as we move forward, things get better, but in terms of our built environment, we are not progressing, we are regressing. We are actively making our towns worse. We are investing in making them less attractive. We are building in a way that makes people’s lives harder and less meaningful. We have let the economic concerns of a few, degrade the lives of millions.
Suffice to say, IT is not going well. It is going quite poorly.
It started well because people take pride in their work. When people put their name on something, they want it to be done well. When we do something for our community, we want it to be a positive reflection on ourselves and our fellow community members. Do you take better care of your own car or a rental car? Do you take more pride in your home, or a hotel room? Things we have an ownership stake in, we care more about. Things that belong to us for the long-run are of more value to us than things we consider temporary. We take pride in things that last, things that we deem OURS. We take pride in such things, we maintain them, we care for them. This is the story of our cities, or (sadly) at least it used to be.
As ownership has passed from local hands to shareholders’ hands, there is less reason to care. No one person owns the Panera in the strip-mall out by the highway. It is owned by real estate trusts and development companies and shareholders, etc. No one ever considered building it with pride, because it was never about the community, it was always about the profit. More money spent on materials would mean less money to go around to the complex web of owners and investors.
It is not going well, because we have lowered our standards. In order to accommodate the financial interest of out-of-town corporations, we have allowed things to be built that are cheap, ugly and not worth maintaining. Cities have dropped their standards time and time again, so as not to risk being accused of being ‘anti-economic development’. Funny enough though, towns with high standards keep on attracting new businesses. Do you see the conundrum? I sure as hell do.
Standards easily decline, but they are much harder to raise. People are, in fact, desperate to see their community standards lifted. No one wants to live in a town where things are falling apart and where everything is disposable. Standards can, and must, be lifted.
I recorded a podcast this week with the Mayor of Monessen, Pennsylvania, Matt Shorraw. Since taking office in 2018, Mayor Shorraw has hired a building code enforcement officer, issued over 500 violations, seen a majority of said violations fixed, collected enough fines to pay for that officer, instituted a vacant property registry, passed 17 pieces of new legislation, painted curbs, replaced rusted signage and put all code violators on notice. After some initial pushback, he found that residents were delighted to see standards begin to take a new direction. People felt a renewed sense of optimism that someone cared enough to do something (anything!) about all the problems. Having standards back in place has given Monessen a sense of pride.
So how did it start? One piece at a time, with thought and pride and care. And how’s it going? Shitty, to be honest. Without pride and standards, how can cities feel anything BUT shitty? But let’s no forget, standards don’t just move in one direction. There is no reason we should live in places that are less attractive and inviting today than we did 100 years ago. We most certainly deserve better. It started well, it might be going poorly now, but there is no reason things can’t get better. It is up to us to see that they do. Don’t we deserve it?