There are many ways communities might be termed at-risk. Rural plight, inner-city poverty, systemic violence, and overpolicing are the bigger ones. There are others, such as housing shortages, water scarcity, coastal flooding, wildfires.
But the governments and politicians tend to look at these things and unconnected, not deserving of any kind of coherent plan or design. That’s a mistake. We need to have community standards to assess the risks and to plan to either fix or abolish bad communities rather than letting people suffer the consequences.
Too often, we hear politicians offer lesser ideas. Job training for those who lost a job in a factory or in a mine, for example. To hear some tell it, more policing and harsher sentencing can supposedly solve poverty in the inner city. Building barriers will save the coasts from rising seas. Continental aqueducts. Fireproof forests. And so on.
But in this day and age the symptom-treatment approach seems pretty worthless. Instead of that, we should have our standards and use them to decide how to help communities.
First is resources. If there’s not enough water, or if the sea is eating the land, we don’t need to have folks live there. Nobody is saying people should go build a new city at the bottom of the ocean, because we can’t live there. That’s becoming true for certain areas, particularly keeping carbon budgets and energy budgets in mind.
The second factor is economy. As with resource failures, there are places without a viable economy, that aren’t supporting basic services like grocery stores, hospitals, and schools. They either need economic redevelopment or they need to be closed for the same reasons as we should abandon coastal areas that aren’t safe and can’t be made safe economically.
Now, I know people have a romantic view of communities. Politicians love to lather praise on how special every town, every street is. And there’s some truth to it. But the fact is that all places where humans live can be special, if the people care. And that’s not something that changes just because an area has become screwed up.
The third factor comes from overconcentration of wealth and power. Housing shortages, zoning problems, places with thousand-dollar parking spaces. That sort of stuff. But also where the local administrative unit contains so many people that responsibility to the governed becomes difficult or impossible.
On the one hand, regulating communities shouldn’t be too heavy-handed. Municipal laws often mention how many parking spaces various businesses must have, which tends to lock-in car-based transport. But the other side of things is that if communities are too full—if given their resources the demand is too high, rather than a supply problem—then new communities should be developed to take on new capacity.
In some cases, it is supply that’s needed. The land exists, the resources exist, but artificial scarcity has restricted development. Again, community standards could point the way to alleviate the problem. More importantly, community standards could deliver dependable measurements that would be used to assess changes and correct our communities’ paths before things get too bad.
Most of what’s mentioned is already done, sporadically, in the form of community resource assessment. But there’s no tie-in between areas and communities, and there’s little will to condemn at-risk communities in favor of relocations and things like that. And the assessments are done locally with the single goal of improving the community standing, with the idea of inter-community competition. But strained and distressed communities may lack the resources or administrative abilities to undertake these kinds of assessments, or they may lack the basic resources to really undertake redevelopment.
The main point is simply that politicians too often hide behind symptoms and never get down to the real questions about how communities can develop and flourish. They hire more police but never address poverty. They offer job training, but there aren’t buyouts in rural areas that no longer have a tent pole, the tent has come crashing down, but they can’t afford to abandon their only store of wealth: their home.
We shouldn’t let generations remain trapped in broken places. We should have global standards (which must include standards of government, which is one factor unmentioned here) for communities and make efforts to eradicate plight that dysfunction brings. These sorts of issues will become more common in new forms with coastal flooding, wildfires, and so on. We need community standards. There are novel solutions to be had, if we can understand the proper state of things and get creative with community relocation, funding, and so on.