Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

One of the great fallacies of the modern age is the notion that progress always means “moving forward”.

Something we used to do is automatically off the table, in this view. There’s no point in going back.

As I look forward deeper into the twenty-first century, what I see is a society that succeeds precisely by looking back and learning how to do old things again.

Our future, in other words, will depend more on relearning than novelty.

The “War on the Car”

Look back a century. What you’ll see in our cities are streetcars (trams). Powered electrically, operating on fast headways, these were the primary means by which people got around.

Sharing the streets with them were bicycles, some horse-drawn wagons, and the first of the motorized vehicles in use.

Today frustrated drivers love to scream about people “making war” on their cars, whenever a bicycle lane is put in, or a transit right-of-way built.

Here’s the reality: the private car is a prime example of one of those things that can be good on an individual basis, and absolutely lousy in great masses.

You simply can’t build enough roads. Look at Las Vegas Boulevard — the infamous “Strip”. Three left turn lanes at intersections, six lanes to proceed ahead, plus right turn lanes … and it’s not enough to clear the traffic or help it flow.

A century ago we were just learning how to build integrated systems to move people around. Neighbourhoods dealt with best on foot. Bicycles for journeys or errands. Streetcars (and, to a lesser extent, buses) for commuting and longer distances. Interurbans and the passenger rail system to go from city to city.

Shops delivered. Many services “came to you”. (Hint: there was lots of work doing jobs we don’t hire people for now.)

In the bigger centres, subways were being built, or elevated lines: mechanisms for increasing the density of travel or providing yet another way of exchanging time and distance.

We know the world is urbanizing. It wasn’t that long ago that the human race — the planet as a whole — passed the “more than half live in cities” mark.

If we want to live in great urban areas, we’re going to have to rethink how we get around them.

Paradoxically, that starts by rethinking the neighbourhoods we live in.

Cul-de-sac and curvy crescent subdivisions that lack services, with all the services parked out on arterial collector roads, make for environments with an average of ten to twelve car trips a day — children to school, to activities, shopping, oops! I forgot the milk!, you name it.

We should want to make war on the car. To turn it back into something we use occasionally, or for particular purposes, but doesn’t have to be the only way open to us to get around.

We used to build “streetcar suburbs”. You know them: they’re called the Upper West and Upper East sides in Manhattan, the Glebe in Ottawa, Kitsilano in Vancouver, the Danforth and Bloor West Village in Toronto … even today these are seen as “prime places”.

Actively restricting cars would get us to rethink zoning, rethink spacing, rethink the value of local businesses (leading to employment), rethink how to build — and we’d probably be healthier, too.

The future isn’t in solving the energy question but keeping the cars in their current numbers and uses. Hydrogen highways and electrical cars are solving the wrong problem.

One last thing. Solving this problem by looking back applies just as well in smaller centres. You just need fewer options: Charlottetown, PEI, wouldn’t need a subway to deal with its size. So — like all good solutions — it’s fractal and plays at many scales.

Health Care by Eating Right

Our ideas about medicine were designed for a time when most people lived two to five years after retirement at best, and where most problems to be solved were acute in nature: fractures, infections, attacks.

Our current demand, though, is for chronic conditions, and for a population that lives one third of its life post-retirement. Type II diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol management, decay from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, a long list of lifetime conditions.

At the same time, because we spend so much time trying to get from point A to points B, C, D to Z daily, we’ve also turned to as much pre-packaged convenience as possible.

All of these have been good for pharmaceutical giants and agribusiness, but we’re beginning to understand clearly that driving constantly instead of moving under our own power, coupled with high-fructose and chemically-added foods, is linked to the chronic conditions we face.

So we need more natural food in our mix. Since that takes time to prepare, there’s an opportunity to have businesses that prepare healthy soups, stews, etc. ready to pick up in our neighbourhood (if we don’t want to or don’t have time for cooking today), alongside selling the fresh components (if we do and love to prepare food).

On the one hand, community supported agriculture and farmers’ markets bringing in the goods — on the other local businesses serving local needs — both as part of the health care system.

The year we lived in The Hague, we had a typical European residence. A refrigerator that held just enough space for a day’s food — and neighbourhood shops where you could either buy food or buy prepared items within a block or two. A nice five minute walk and the day’s errands could be done.

Indeed, if we got really creative, we might see all three options for food under one roof: a single outlet with a few tables (if you’d like to eat out, be served, enjoy life), a counter to pick up prepared items to take home (if you’re not looking for the restaurant meal tonight) and the raw ingredients available (if you’d like to cook).

Doing that today would be a zoning nightmare, an inspection nightmare (different inspectors for each line of business) — but again, we used to have these “combinations”.

For tourists, we still do: there’s one such (“complete with goats grazing on the grass roof”) on the highway across Vancouver Island from Parksville-Qualicum Beach to Tofino.

There are still some that come close in places like New York City. We could be doing more of it where we live.

Watch our health start to improve, too.

Local Money

We used to also have local monies, too. Oh, they were all using the same brand name — dollar in Canada or the United States — but they weren’t issued by a central bank.

They were issued locally. In Canadian cities, local banks issued money; breweries and railways issued it; governments did, too. There was a mix.

Why this matters is that different places have different economies.

A place like New York City, with its international banking connections and institutional dealings, supports and needs money that’s different from a farming community, a small town with a single manufacturer, etc.

Back when the 1890s turned into the 1900s, “dollars” had different value. In New York, one from Flint, Michigan might trade at 93¢ (New York). Springfield, Illinois, 88¢.

Back home, in those communities, though, a dollar was a dollar. So local money tended to stay in the community. People with savings tended to plough them back into their community, its businesses, its institutions.

Nowadays, of course, we’re focused on “big”. Joe’s Coffee on Main Street is a nothing; get me 1,000 shares of Starbucks! Stan’s Diner, meh!; get me 1,000 shares of McDonald’s.

The money flows out. The community languishes.

People who advance local monies tend to talk about the tourism potential, but the real value is that the price (on the national stage) can be set for the local economy.

If Ontario communities, for instance, had local monies, they wouldn’t have to see their manufacturing roll up and blow away. Windsor could be priced at 80¢ relative to Toronto, and suddenly that plant there is profitable again.

You know, we have computers and communications these days — it would be dead easy to deal with. Not like one hundred years ago, where judgement calls had to be made without information.

Back then, governments minted the coins — and they were stable in value (being silver or gold). Heavens, even a penny was worth something!

If it makes sense for national currencies to “float” relative to one another — and apparently since 1971 it has — then it makes sense for communities to do likewise.

Keep more of the money local. Let its value reflect the value-add of the community.

You know, we won’t have a jobs problem any more if we keep looking back for good ideas.

Let’s dump “progress” as “must move forward” and turn it into “let’s make it better”.


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