What might Nashville be like in twenty-five years? While my friends and I have been seeking to answer that question through the lens of the “transition towns” movement, with what we have called “Transition Nashville,” Metro’s “Nashville Next” program has been the city’s attempt to envision our future, and, to a certain extent, the planners involved in Nashville Next have done a good job. They have asked at least some of the right questions, and they have solicited, and elicited, a fair amount of citizen involvement in their visioning, but I think there are some unasked questions and misguided assumptions in their process. I think “the next Nashville” will be very different from what they envision, and that proceeding on their basic assumption, that the future will, overall, be a lot like the past, could produce some very unhappy results. If we recognize these errors and correct our course, Nashville could still be a pretty nice place to live as we approach mid-century. I am going to start by quoting what Nashville Next’s website and then offer my own comments and suggestions.
This is what their website says:
NashvilleNext is based on input from more than 17,000 participants and counting. Nashvillians consistently named the following issues most important to Nashville’s future:
Walkable, strong neighborhoods
The Guiding Principles represent the future Nashvillians want and serves as the foundation of the NashvilleNext Plan.
3. ELEMENTS AND ACTIONS
NashvilleNext includes seven plan elements. Each has its own chapter in the plan with goals, policies and actions.
Art, Culture and Creativity
Support art, culture and creativity through greater artists’ education, the creation of arts districts and supporting the city’s growing creative class.
Health, Livability and the Built Environment
Support a healthy built environment of distinct community character by enhancing safety, transportation, housing options and green spaces.
Economic and Workforce Development
Support an enhanced workforce, access to job opportunities, investment-ready places for new industries and a competitive quality of life.
Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure
Reinforce the connection between our land uses, transportation and infrastructure, and encourage wise investments in Nashville’s future.
Education and Youth
Support a communitywide vision to provide quality care, education and opportunity to Nashville’s children and youth with the expectation that all
children will succeed.
Natural Resources and Hazard Adaptation
Protect Nashville’s land, air, water and natural resources, develop wisely, reduce hazards, and become more resilient to extreme weather events.
Encourage housing that is affordable and accessible for all, designed in a context-sensitive manner, and that meets current and future market demands.
Champion the Environment
Nashville protects its environment through transportation and housing choices, green buildings, and infrastructure.
Foster Strong Neighborhoods
Nashville’s neighborhoods are safe, affordable and diverse gathering places that grow with us as we move into the future.
Nashville uses community-supported education to prepare our children and residents for tomorrow’s challenges.
Create Economic Prosperity
Nashville has a diverse and competitive economy and high quality of life that attracts and retains a strong workforce.
All Nashvillians, regardless of background, are able to get where they need to go throughout the county and region.
Ensure Opportunity for All
Nashville values its diversity and ensures that all communities share in the city’s growth and prosperity.
Nashville is a strong community that represents the best of Southern hospitality, creativity and multiculturalism.
These are all worthy goals, but, as I said, what troubles me is the way this plan seems to presume that the twenty-first century is going to be more or less a continuation of the twentieth, which was an orgiastic, short-sighted whirlwind of resource exploitation and mindless, extravagant consumerism–not to mention horribly destructive wars. That party is over. We can still have a good party in the twenty-first century, but it’s going to be a lot funkier and more down-home. There probably won’t be strawberries from the global south all winter, but there could be plenty of strawberries in season.
music break: Eliza Gilkyson, “The Party’s Over
While Nashville Next doesn’t overtly talk about the possibility of ecological catastrophe, they do hint at it, in a section
, entitled “Natural Resources and Hazard Adaptation”:
NR goal 1
Nashville invests in and increases its natural environment for beauty, biodiversity, recreation, food production, resiliency and response to climate change through mitigation and adaptation strategies.
NR goal 2
All communities in Nashville enjoy equally high levels of environmental protection, equitable access to nature and opportunities to improve their health and quality of life.
NR goal 3
Nashville’s built environment — public, private and residential — conserves and efficiently uses land, energy, water and resources while reducing waste and pollution.
NR goal 4
Nashville’s built and natural environment is resilient, sustainable, and smart because it adapts to and mitigates the impact of climate change involving extreme weather, hazards and catastrophes.
“Climate change” is going to play a very big role in our city’s future. The plan anticipates millions of new residents
in Nashville, but seems to presume that most of them will have the economic resources to integrate rapidly into Nashville-as-we-know-it. I have to wonder how many of our new arrivals will be climate refugees fleeing our country’s coasts as cities like New York, Miami, and New Orleans are drowned by rising oceans, or evacuating a dried-out Southwest. If, as is the case for many Americans, these people’s primary asset was the home they owned, that home will have become worthless–literally underwater, or maybe out of water. We can catch a glimpse of what this will be like today as we note how our city integrates what is essentially a refugee stream from across our country’s southern border.
I think Nashville, as a city, needs to be very sure that there is housing available for those of slender means. That’s already a problem in this town.
It’s called “gentrification.” Developers are in the house-building business to make money, so they find a neighborhood with relatively low property values, start buying houses, demolishing them, and putting up fancier houses that are sold to wealthier people than those who have been living there. This drives up rents and taxes for the original residents, and makes it more difficult for people with low incomes to stay in those neighborhoods. As far as the developers are concerned, that’s what is called “an externality.” In other words, the developer doesn’t have to care where those people go. The result is an increasingly fractured social structure, as the residents of once-coherent neighborhoods are scattered around the city and lose their circles of support.
We don’t like to admit it, but the root problem here is the basic assumptions of our economic system–the idea that it’s OK for people to own as much as they can get their hands on, and use the power that comes with that ownership to further enrich themselves. “Economic progress” becomes like a game of “Monopoly,” in which one player ends up with all the money and everybody else is broke. In real life in America today, as in Monopoly, the impoverishment of those who lose at our economic game is not the winners’ problem, and the current conventional wisdom of lowering tax rates on “job creators” “so they will create more jobs” only exacerbates this problem by failing to use the government as the peoples’ tool to make things fair for everyone. The growing American underclass–people who do menial labor such as pushing a shovel or watching a cash register, people who are structurally unemployable because the work they know how do to has been moved offshore, people who have been bankrupted by the high cost of medical care, and people who are psychologically ill-adapted to the stress and separation of modern life–is another “externality”to all too many of those who have succeeded at the Great American Monopoly Tournament.
Indeed, the whole notion that wealthy “job creators” drive “economic growth” embodies two serious fallacies. First, there’s the
notion of “job creators.” The truth is that one of the ways that wealthy entrepreneurs and corporations maximize their profits is by having as few employees as they possibly can. Second, “economic growth” is the problem, not the solution. “Economic growth” is the ultimate pyramid scheme. It drives the expanding exploitation of our planet’s ecosystems, which, viewed through the lens of growth, are “natural resources” that need to be harvested or extracted and monetized to be “worth anything.” “Economic growth” and the system of loaning money at interest that drives it, posit infinite expansion on this very finite planet. So what if we end up destroying the planet, as long as we save the economy? Right….just another “externality.”
Another root assumption of Nashville Next, and our economic system in general, is that the gravy train of cheap fossil fuel energy is going to continue unabated for the forseeable future. Our current oil glut and its accompanying low fossil fuel prices will prove to be short-lived, and come at a tremendous, yet-to-be-paid cost–which, again, is “an externality” to those who are profiting by destroying the planet to wring every last possible barrel of oil and ton of coal out of the Earth as quickly as possible. It, um, boils down to the fact that there is no alternative to water, and there is no practical way to purify ground or surface water that has been contaminated with fracking chemicals, coal leachates, or the residue from turning “tar sands” into fuel. To put it bluntly: we can’t survive by drinking oil and eating coal, but as long as we’ve got good water we can make do without fossil fuels. For all the history of our species, right up until the last two hundred and fifty years, we did just fine without them.
Here in Nashville, we have so far been spared the direct effects of this rapacious extraction. Our water sources are not at risk, at least not yet, but I am willing to predict that we will soon see very high fossil fuel prices again, followed by their near-unavailability. We need to prepare for this eventuality while we are still in a time of relative plenty.
That leads to the second part of this discussion: what can we here in Nashville do
about this global problem? Many of the big answers require national action and international co-operation. Charles Eisenstein expressed it well in his book
, “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible”:
The logic of Separation traps us in a paradox. The world can change only if billions of people make different choices in their lives, but individually, none of these choices makes a difference. The things that make a difference make no difference. What if I do it, and no one else does? It sure looks like almost no one else is. Why do it?
I am not actually suggesting that we do these small acts because they will in some mysterious way change the world (although they will). I am suggesting, rather, that we orient more toward where our choices come from rather than where they are going. The new story validates and clarifies our choices, but the motivation comes from somewhere else. After all, how can we really know what the consequences of our actions will be?
We will have to undertake the reorganization of Nashville as if everybody else in the world were going to follow us. Even if they don’t, this reorganization will make it easier for us, the people of Nashville, to ride out the shocks that are coming. And, even if the shocks are not nearly as severe as I and many others think, these measures will still make “the next Nashville” a better place to live than it is now.
The basic principle is to localize and decentralize everything that we possibly can. Government, work, shopping, education, community interaction, and entertainment should all function at the neighborhood level. By “neighborhood,” I mean an area that a reasonably healthy person could walk across in under a half hour, which in most areas will be no more than a mile and a half across. Davidson County covers approximately 500 square miles, meaning that there would be about two hundred of these neighborhood units, allowing for parts of Metro that are rural or completely non-residential.
Each neighborhood would have a community council, with a balance of elected members and members “rotated in,” as we do with jury duty. The council would have primary responsibility for zoning and codes questions and school administration, and the police for the neighborhood would be responsible to this council. Neighborhood council decisions could be appealed to countywide authorities. School and law enforcement personnel should live in, or adjacent to, the neighborhood where they work. In neighborhoods where there are foreclosed, neglected, or abandoned homes, Metro should use its power of eminent domain to take over such properties and manage them in such a way that they are neither eyesores nor entry points for gentrification. We should look into the establishment of community land trusts
as a further bulwark against gentrification, and an aid to promoting stable neighborhoods with more widespread owner-occupancy. And of course we should be financing home and business energy efficiency upgrades through payments on utility bills, and hiring crews from a neighborhood to fix up their own and their neighbors’ homes. These neighborhood crews could be an excellent way to give hands-on training in construction and remodelling skills.
Metro would help each neighborhood establish a community garden, or gardens, if there is a desire to do so. Metro could also help establish neighborhood food co-ops
in “food desert” areas.
But here’s the big one: Metro would also help each neighborhood establish a manufacturing enterprise or enterprises that would
the Mondragon paradigm
produce something we need here in Nashville. That could be anything from hammers and saws to clothing to shoes to food and medications. These factories would be worker-owned co-operatives, similar to the Mondragon co-ops that are thriving in Spain and around the world.
This network of community enterprises and neighborhood businesses will radically change the way Nashville operates. Our traffic and transit problems will be eased as more people find work within walking distance of their homes. Families would be relieved of the burden of needing to own and maintain an automobile in order to shop and get to work, which would give them more disposable income. The need to own an automobile is a kind of tax on working people that needs to be abolished.
Why start making things in Nashville, you might ask, when our clothes and household goods can be made so cheaply in China?
That part of the party is ending, also. Rising sea levels and diminishing fossil fuel supplies will disrupt and ultimately destroy our ability to import just about anything from overseas. We need to prepare for that eventuality before it arises, because once that crisis strikes, it will be much more difficult to put this plan into action. Besides, the “big box” stores we now flock to for cheap, imported goods are essentially pumps that suck money out of Nashville and into the pockets of their corporate owners. The Walmart Waltons didn’t get to be one of the richest families in America by winning the lottery. Their money came from the pockets of working people in every county, city, and neighborhood where a Walmart operates. Making our own goods will increase the amount of money circulating in Nashville, and make the community as a whole wealthier.
What I’ve presented here is just a brief overview of my vision for the future of Nashville. There’s plenty of detail to go into, and, in coming months, I will elaborate on as many of those details as I can. Each of the topics I’ve mentioned–housing, schooling, law enforcement, codes and zoning, and community infrastructure–presents a wealth of possibilities to make a Nashville that is fairer, and more fun, for all its residents.
Let me leave you with this: there is a mode of transportation we could transition into, the construction of which
doesn’t require any materials from outside the Nashville area. The motive power of this mode of transportation, moreover, is not only solar-powered, but, miracle of miracles, self-generating, requiring no fancy equipment or fossil fuel to be produced. Even better, the “exhaust” from that motive power is a valuable garden fertilizer. Finally, this form of transportation is so child-friendly that children love to care for these “engines.” What is this totally local, child-friendly transportation technology? It’s called a horse and buggy. Think about it.
music: Indigo Girls, “Hammer and a Nail