The South (And West) Will Flood Again (And Again, And Again)
The floods in America’s Southeast depict a country whose land-use patterns cannot absorb the amount of rain they receive. That means American industry and government need to work- collaboratively if they can, combatively otherwise- to stoke a market for denser land use with more absorbent land. The alternative is more losses.
Images of submerged Atlanta lawns sting my eyes in part because they show a city that purported to have cracked the code on urban amity. From 1994 to 1996, I worked for a nonprofit housing developer in Atlanta and learned the system. Federal incentive always flows to the city, thanks to its strategic position as an air hub for goods and a land bonanza for corporations that do business in office-parks. Low-income neighborhoods get some government money and use some variable level of organizing and politicking (depending on location) to improve the job base and housing stock. While I was there, this dynamic led to some progress toward higher-density, lower-carbon living. But not much: success still equaled a second car, and my progressive colleagues still guffawed to learn that I took the bus to work.
I gather some of that devotion to petroleum has faded and some high-density neighborhoods have emerged, but it’s clear from the floods that “high-density” also means “kooky”- the standard of Southern success still entails a big lawn and a circular driveway. That doesn’t mean people who aspire to such success forfeit the right to sympathy. But it does mean that when the current flood dries, we will need a radical voice or a dramatic shift in scorekeeping to make Atlanta and the hundreds of cities like it sustainable places to build families, businesses and institutions.
When I lived in Atlanta, I heard periodically that families would seriously reconsider their isolated ways if a disaster provided a “wake-up call” about the cost of relying on cars. Well, we’ve had several disasters since then, and I hope few people persist in blaming individual families for the effects of longstanding land use policy.
We are awake. We’re just too far apart from each other.
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