The Reruralization Solution

35 thoughts on “The Reruralization Solution”

  1. Im am converting a golf course that had been closed for 8 yrs into 22 irrigated farms in rural Arizona. We have a clubhouse, small market in the former pro shop, a farm equipment library for the growers and a commercial kitchen co-op to help the farmers with value added produce. If you get to AZ–would like to get and share ideas as there are many bankrupt golf courses. Mike (golf course undertaker)

  2. This reminds me of the South Bronx back in the 1980s where some IBM guy developed a greenhouse nursery to grow herbs for New York City restaurants. Apparently, it worked out fairly well for a while, but it got a bit too ambitious, overexpanded and collapsed. Then the crime rate in NYC collapsed, interest rates came down and the city, including the Bronx, had a major revival starting in the 1990s.

    Two links – I hope this doesn’t trigger the spam filter:
    http://www.nytimes.com/1983/06/16/nyregion/port-agency-offers-bronx-herb-farm-some-room-for-growth.html
    http://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/23/nyregion/herb-garden-an-oasis-in-bronx-withers.html

    1. Yes, I remember this place and the attention it received back in the 80’s. It experienced the same trajectory as most other businesses. The majority fail after two years. This guy managed to hold on a bit longer than average. The market is brutal. That’s why the examples I gravitate toward are small scale and built around a social rather than purely market driven model.

    1. Thanks for the link. We’re in general agreement.

      When I was in university a million years ago a friend and I would play a cocktail party game to amuse our geeky friends. He’d look at me earnestly and ask, “What happens when the banks fail?” I’d respond in a professorial tone, “Oh, don’t worry. The insurance companies will bail them out.” Then he’d tilt his head like a puzzled dog. “What happens when the insurance companies fail?” I’d smile knowingly and say in a patronizing voice. “Oh, the government will bail them out.” He’d tilt his head the other way. “What happens when the government fails?” I’d look surprised, but patient. “The banks and insurance companies will bail it out.” Funny, right?

      My personal expectation is that we aren’t going to solve any of the problems you refer to. They’ll simply get ahead of us and the system will crash. The likely responses from the higher-ups will make things worse not better – liberal or conservative… doesn’t matter. The politically palatable options are all seriously limited at this point.

      The preferred method of dealing with federal debt will be to inflate it away gradually enough that people don’t notice – at least not right away. The US can get away with that so long as we’re still the world’s reserve currency and a “flight to safety” destination. That won’t always be the case. The gory details of how that ends are irrelevant to the Big Picture as far as I can tell.

      State and local government debt can’t be inflated away like federal debt, but I can imagine a scenario where the feds absorb those debts in a bailout similar to bank rescues. The political fallout of having state and municipal bonds default on a large scale will be too frightening to office holders so they may be made whole by the full faith and credit of the almighty dollar in D.C. (See above paragraph.)

      Government obligations will experience an initial soft default as pay and benefits are reduced for new hires (this is already standard practice) and old promises for current pensioners are incrementally chipped away as we saw with Detroit’s bankruptcy. This is just the beginning. Social Security will tinker with the fictitious inflation rate and the feds will pay out in inflated dollars. Medicare / Medicaid has consistently reduced reimbursement rates and medical providers have responded by becoming “more efficient” or opting out of the program altogether. Eventually there will be a hard default on government promises, but that’s still some distance away.

      Forget government debt. Private debt (mortgages, student loans, credit cards, auto loans…) dwarfs public debt by orders of magnitude. It can only be paid back if the economy grows at an infinite and ever accelerating rate. That’s not an option. So the private debt will be defaulted upon and the system will crash. The timing and specifics are unclear, but that’s the most likely trajectory.

      The important thing is to formulate a personal plan for riding out these storms. It’s not the end of the world. Life will go on. But it’s important to position yourself to stay out of harm’s way and ride out the troubles better than folks who aren’t paying attention.

  3. A few observations from where I sit in Reno. My city will certainly suffer much of the pain you describe. Land vulues in the city range from $.5-$1 million per acre. These aren’t premo spots, just empty lots in marginal parts of town. Incremental development will yield returns lower than the cost of capital. As we say in Reno, “There’s no limit to how much you can lose!”

    If I drive over the pass to the wet side of the Sierras, I can buy grazing/farm land for $5k per acre in California where the climate is mild and gets about 30″ of rain annually (compared to 8″ in Reno).

    So that’s a 100 fold difference in land costs (with better climate and water).

    California is a nightmare for urban development. But I have been reading the rural development code for some of these counties (check out Eldorado County) and there is a surprising freedom of what can be built on rural land. Houses, ADUs, employee lodging, all types of farm structures…all “as of right”.

    It’s a tragedy that most of this rural land has not been turned into micro dairies, grazing forests for jamón Américo, orchards, and the like. Instead the countryside is dotted with vapid “equestrian properties” and photocopied McMansions with 12 car garages.

    The misalocation of wealth, productivity, and meaning can be found across all of Duany’s transects. Your thoughts Johnny?

    1. I’m not Johnny, but I’d like to offer (as a midwestern grain farmer who has raised a few animals) my take on why the rural land hasn’t been turned into “micro dairies, grazing forests for jamón Américo, orchards, and the like.”. Despite what you may read about the profitability of various small scale ag ventures, the numbers generally don’t pan out. Low pay, high risk/capital investment, hard labor, manipulated (when they exist) markets, cheap (dubiously labeled) imports. This country produces piles of cheap, often crap, food. Much in the same way we create our built environment.

      1. We are in agreement. But there are essentially two markets for agricultural products.

        There’s the bulk industrial market where farmers are told to “get big or get out.” They mass produce hogs and cattle that are sold to the suits in Chicago at $6 per head profit margins (if you’re lucky.) Grain works if you have 1,000 acres under cultivation and receive federal crop insurance / subsidies and take out huge loans for chemicals, fuel, and equipment. I’ve spent time with farmers who signed contracts with major corporations who were legally obliged to sell at a loss when they read the bait-and-switch fine print. This is the vast majority of what is produced – and imported.

        I interviewed a man in Denver who successfully produced fish and veggies in solar greenhouses year round. He had to give up on selling in the open market because Colorado Correctional Industries undercut fish prices. (Much of the domestic farmed fish sold in big box stores and supermarkets is processed by prisoners. Who knew?) He couldn’t compete with slave labor. Now he sells his equipment exclusively to hobbyists who “grow their own.”

        Then there’s the infinitely smaller market between individual small diversified farmers and specific customers. You’ll notice the examples I show in this post are all religious or philanthropic based producers. There’s no way for small farms to compete with Krogers, Safeway, and Publix. So connections are made through entirely different channels based on something stronger than a dollar.

        This week I bought a hog directly from a family farm. I paid up front and they’ll deliver it butchered and ready for my freezer in a few weeks. I do the same with beef and poultry. (I have three big freezers.) I like the quality of the meat and I like giving my cash directly to the people who produce it for me. I also like having a year’s worth of food on hand so I don’t have to think much about shopping. The CSA model for veggies and fruit works equally well. So does the local farmers market down the street. I had one farmer tell me she doesn’t grow anything she hasn’t already sold via subscription. This is a small market, but it’s an economic model that works for those who are properly engaged.

    2. There are several issues here.

      High land prices in Reno are the direct result of migratory wealth, not home grown value. Reno is a beneficiary of the high cost and insane regulation in California. I know several older people who have cashed out of the Bay Area and enjoy a much higher quality of life and radically lower costs in Reno. I’ve also talked to people in their 20’s who are thinking about buying a house in Reno which would be a huge improvement over their $1,000 per month one-sixth room mate share of a two bedroom apartment in San Francisco. I understand this is an apples-to-oranges comparison, but self selecting individuals do sometimes make that choice. Nevada also actively courts investment by providing any and all subsidies, tax holidays, and give-aways to relocating businesses well beyond what other states offer. Tesla is a prime example. So in the short term Reno makes sense. Does this distort the local market? Absolutely. Is it going to hold up in the long term? Probably not. Is there anything to be done about any of it? Nope.

      Caveat emptor on the land use regulation in El Dorado County. I spent years sorting through the theoretical possibilities of doing all sorts of things in various towns and states from Hawaii to Ohio. Bottom line… building anything new or substantially modifying any existing structure is seriously difficult almost everywhere. If you’re a seasoned professional with a deep understanding of the local bureaucratic fauna… knock yourself out. Otherwise, NFW. Life’s too short.

      On the other hand, quietly repurposing existing property in subtle ways that doesn’t require special permission works pretty well. I’ve had great success taking cheap run down homes on good land and bringing them up to a good standard on a tight budget. My mistake in the past has been to attempt to do anything too ambitious. Keep it simple. My sweet spot is ugly little houses on oversized lots right on the edge of a good walkable old town – close enough to ride a bike or take a healthy walk. These aren’t always fashionable places, but they do the job. And I buy them at the bottom of economic cycles after a big market correction. Clean them up. Rent them out. Hold and wait for the market to recover.

      The misallocation of wealth you observe at the moment will be the primary source of opportunity in the future when many of these places crash. The McMansion with a twelve car garage on a five acre lot will make a perfectly viable productive mini farm homestead. The way the property is occupied and managed may change, but the building itself doesn’t need to.

  4. I’ll take the ornery view here.

    My mother grew up on a family farm in the Appalachian part of Ohio. Her parents moved their growing family there during the Depression…the opposite move from what most people made…after my grandfather lost his “city” job. The farm has very productive springs, a big bank barn, a 500-year stone house built by my great-great-great grandfather, and it was electrified just before they moved in under the REA program.

    They employed all the practices you speak of, but it was nothing more than labor-intense subsistence farming. They raised their own cattle for meat and milk, pigs, poultry, eggs, fruit, vegetables, and sold milk, animals, eggs and timber to be able to afford clothes and foods they didn’t raise. Mom learned to cook on a coal stove. They also burned coal for heat. (An oil and gas well came in just as my grandparents were too old to shovel coal.) They were beyond thrifty because they were just dirt-poor.

    I’m not all that interested in turning back the clock 50 or 75 years and living an agrarian subsistence life. Perhaps my view is shaped by my frequent visits to the farm in childhood, and my (one) summer spent as a farmhand; like you, I’ve seen it up close. If the world were in collapse, maybe that would look good to me. As long as I have other options, no, I’m not going back to the farm. (I even burned out on gardening food in my growing-up years at home. Mom and dad are slaves to the garden for 6 months of the year.) I suspect this life looks good from a distance, to people unfamiliar with really hard physical work and animal husbandry.

    Now, to the extent that a shrinking city could productively employ people and land for intensive agriculture that otherwise stand idle and troublesome…good. To the extent that the folks in food deserts could grow (and would eat) their own produce…good. But they won’t make living wages doing that work, not without a subsidy or a greatly diminished lifestyle.

    I get that last phrase is one of your key points in almost every post: we may all have to accept a diminished lifestyle because the one we have is unsustainable in the long term. But I am realistic enough to understand that I probably won’t make that choice until I have no others left; people who are already there may choose this path sooner, but it looks as if many instead voted for the president-elect in the hope that he will buy them a few more years in the middle class.

    1. This kind of conversation tends to go to the extremes. Either absolutely nothing is wrong and all this talk of limits is nonsense, or we’re about to experience the Zombie Apocalypse overnight. The reality is almost always somewhere in the middle. Over several decades Detroit, Youngstown, Buffalo, Erie, Flint, etc contracted and devolved incrementally. At each step along the way there was an attempt to maintain everything in its prime 1950’s form against all external reality. Eventually the roads turned to gravel and city services were cut back anyway. It just happened in a reactive manner due to severe budget shortfalls and a slow default of obligations over a fifty year period. There’s quite a lot of wiggle room between living a normal suburban life with an office job vs. a hardscrabble subsistence farm. I’m suggesting that towns identify the things they want to intentionally preserve while they let go of things that they don’t really need. But that’s not a conversation we humans like to have. So we’ll go the route of involuntary devolution instead.

      1. I understand, and in my own way I’m agreeing: on the single-family scale, I won’t give up a whole lot unless forced, and that’s really no different than the choices faced by the polity. Places that are closer to “being forced” allow those things to happen. I do see what you’re trying to get across.

        So I turn off the water when brushing teeth, pay for recycling because my community doesn’t provide it free, use only the lights I need, use a simple setback thermostat so the house doesn’t burn as much energy when we’re not in it or sleeping under heavy covers, and don’t heat the place to 72 anyway. Those things are fairly easy and painless. (If everybody did it, it would help.)

        But growing a bunch of our own food or moving to a point between my job and my wife’s to cut down commutes is highly unlikely unless we had to sell the house anyway…which would probably mean we were both unemployed for a long stretch, and didn’t need to commute. That’s a doomsday scenario.

        1. Our cultural narrative is that our current set of arrangements are non-negotiable. We like things the way they are and we aren’t going back to a Third World living standard. My perspective is more subtle than that. Rural towns emptied out a century ago when industrial cities offered a better option than the farm. Industrial cities emptied out fifty years ago when suburbia offered a better lifestyle. Now we’re seeing many aging suburbs decline as the economy shifts again. If you have the skills to thrive in whatever the new economy might be this conversation about contraction is irrelevant. You’ll migrate to the new great place – wherever that may be. So how do the places and people that are left behind respond to their abandonment? This isn’t new. We’ve been here before. What can we learn from Detroit? That’s my point.

            1. Yes and yes. There are never exactly two choices. And you can whine like a spoiled child about non-negotiability, but the universe is not interested in your opinion. All those Sumerians and Aztecs didn’t want to change, either.

  5. What would be really valuable to see reruralisation of most of a suburb paired with urbanisation of a part of it, turning it from endless sprawl into a traditional small town surrounded by agriculture. If the population goes down by 2/3, but most of the remaining third cluster into what can be called an actual whilst the rest embrace rural living…

    1. I agree that clusters of compact small town Main Street life surrounded by productive agriculture is the best option – and this is what we’ll likely see over the very long term well beyond my lifetime.

      I was asked to be optimistic and offer solutions. The reality is we built too much stuff that can’t be maintained over the long haul so it won’t be maintained. We have a choice about how we respond to that reality. We aren’t going to embrace decline. We’ll fight it at every turn. But in the end result will be the same either way. Meh.

      1. You’ve shared this link before in a comment – http://www.andrewalexanderprice.com/blog20151203.php#.VpVJzJMrJMA

        Shops may have to provide acres of parking, but are there necessarily time limits on it? Could parking lots be rented out for people to store their “RVs” on it indefinitely, particularly if the local government turns a blind eye? It might be an option to provide small villages, especially if the shops can still be used as shops. A trailer park, basically, and hopefully dense enough to provide customers for the shops and support jitneys to the nearest proper towns…

        1. I spend a lot of time with people in government on a very casual off-the-record sort of way. What you’re suggesting is a non-starter from a political and cultural standpoint. Government is obliged to prevent such work-arounds, particularly when public outrage presses in on City Hall. I know of towns who attempted to quietly permit RV camps on out-of-season fair grounds and similar properties where proper bathrooms and police supervision were available. The opposition was enormous and the programs were quickly terminated.

          The de facto version of what you describe exists in a slightly different form. Clusters of RVs and tent encampments spring up in places that people don’t care about – under elevated highways in semi-abandoned industrial zones on the edge of town or behind dead strip malls where there are no immediate visible neighbors. The police eventually clear these camps out, but they immediately spring up again someplace else.

          The poor are not wanted and towns will do almost anything to make them go away. So they’re pushed from one neighborhood to another, from one town to the next. Whack-a-Mole. Actually addressing the problem and creating a pathway for stability and upward mobility? Not so much.

          1. During the Great Depression, a string of Florida cities would each pick up anyone homeless and dump them in the next town. It didn’t quite form a loop. Everyone had to walk back to Town A.

  6. We are already seeing some towns reverting to gravel roads on residential streets. Given that many of the homeowners likely own big SUVs and fancy trucks, the gravel roads should be no problem. And you’re right that many people might prefer living near a cute organic farm than a dead muffler shop.

  7. People (police, fire, parks & rec) are the most expensive component of any city budget. So I think that’ll be the first consequence. It was no accident that San Jose, the most sprawling and residential of our large cities in the Bay Area, had trouble finding the money for police & fire a few years back. Detroit is the canonical example of a city that simply can’t afford to police itself given the geography.

    After that, sewer maintenance is an enormous expense as it ages. San Francisco can get away with passing expensive bond measures, but obviously Flint can’t. Roads themselves aren’t too expensive in the big picture but nonetheless it’s an expense.

    As for re-ruralization, I’m all for it. But like you said, that doesn’t solve the revenue problem. Only a lot more commercial and/or denser residential can make that equation work.

  8. A friend of mine did something like this in Buffalo, NY. He bought some empty lots and built a community garden on them, The lots were all dirty, and any produce would not have been healthful so he built raised beds and got soil from the local city composting department. Been going about four years now.

  9. This is an interesting idea – but in many places it is not going to work. Drive around the small towns in northern Michigan (north of I-96) and you will notice something: water towers. Many of these systems were built in the 1970s and 1980s because the ground water is polluted. These are tiny towns with often surprisingly large water infrastructure. The industrial age left a stain on this region that will remain for generations. Devolution sounds good on paper but struggles to answer the environmental issues. Many of these towns are way below economic critical mass and disincorporation, etc… sounds like a solution; except for the water problem.

    We will probably get there eventually – speaking specifically of Michigan small towns – as we have rural counties with median ages in the upper fifties. Our oldest county has a median age of 57.9! And this is not a retirement area – far from it.

    But the water issue is going to make this transition politically UGLY!

  10. Have you looked at the Russian ‘dacha’ model and whether it has ideas we can borrow? It strikes me that any reruralization might be able to learn from the small scale gardening practices of other cultures.

    1. I was one of those kids who wandered from Leningrad to Moscow right after the Berlin Wall came down. I stayed with Russian families as I traveled and stayed in a dacha village on Ladoga Lake that summer. So yes, I completely understand that model. Life was pretty good on the dacha compared to the alternatives during the Soviet collapse.

  11. I live in an area that you sometimes photograph. I was always very dissatisfied with the layout and design of that media business. It does look residential and is set so far back from the street. But to my real point, I don’t get your devolution thing. In a world of overpopulation shouldn’t we be redeveloping our brownfields so that our pristine lands might remain fallow?

    1. The O’Reilly Media building is the way it is because of the zoning regulations and building code – and no doubt a great deal of “community input.” The authorities insisted that it be set back off the road, vegetative screening, the fire marshal required that several large fire trucks be able to easily encircle the complex, there were minimum parking requirements, generous nature buffers from existing homes, ADA compliant features… The offices are a lot better than they might otherwise have been if the company had cut corners on the design – namely, it would have been a Ramada Inn.

      As for devolution, brownfields, overpopulation, and pristine lands:

      Devolution is a response to the existing economic contraction in particular locations. Instead of struggling to maintain the existing framework in the face of insolvency, why not rationally embrace decline in a conscious and controlled manner? I don’t believe towns will do this, but I’m suggesting it’s a good idea given the futility of business as usual. The end results will be very similar in the long term – the streets won’t be paved, the sewer and water systems will degrade and fail, etc.

      Brownfields exist everywhere. In some places it makes tremendous sense to build on them, although getting permission from the authorities and neighbors is a serious impediment. In other places market demand and population are in retreat so there’s no need to build more of anything. In either case productive market gardens are a pretty good alternative use for vacant degraded land.

      Overpopulation may be a global phenomenon, but it manifests itself unevenly across the world. South Asia is grossly past its natural carrying capacity. The Great Lakes and Midwest could easily support many more people at a reasonable standard if people were thrifty and mindful with the resource base.

      There are no pristine lands anywhere anymore. Humans no longer need to directly or consciously alter the land to seriously affect its condition. Producing food on brownfield sites very close to where people live and eat is a direct benefit to the environment relative to the usual process of monocrops and long distance refrigerated supply chains.

      1. Thanks for this response. You are always very thoughtful.

        Sometimes, the reasons for a certain type of development are not as obvious as it looks. The problem with the local zoning in this case was not that the project was “required” to be that way but that the site development options were overbroad. This meant that in this case the community was begging for the developer to put the building up front but, like most zoning docs, the parking lot setback was within the rules and rights of the developer.

        I agree with you that where folks want to live and where the buildings are currently located is often not a match. However, there are so many fantastically designed historic yet empty cities across America, I am gratified to hear that many young R&D start ups by our fresh out of college youth are locating in these previously vacated cities across America. (see article in Atlantic) Cheap buildings and housing in a once well-planned city. This topic goes me some hope. I see that your issue is different and also important because we can correct for overdevelopment, as well.

  12. Are you familiar with John Michael Greer and his “Green Wizard” tag? Or his idea of “retrotopia”?

    I enjoy your take on things. Thanks for the blog!

    1. Yes, I’m familiar with John Michael Greer. We’re on the same page when he describes a slow drawn out devolution that happens so subtly that individuals don’t notice the changes from decade to decade. But then you wake up one day late in life and realize the enormous shifts that have occurred.

      There’s really no chance of towns getting ahead of the decline curve in a rational way. Government reacts to immediate pressures. Even when enlightened leaders explain the nature of a problem to the electorate they’re immediately rejected. Humans have painfully short event horizon. So we’ll continue to do the things that work right now and let the future take care of itself. Turns out… we’re actually living in that future we didn’t want to think about some years back. Funny how that works.

  13. Sweet… I knew you could do it Johnny ! I’m already re-energized with your positive potential solutions in: “Reruralization”. Reversion to gravel roads in little used cul de sacs and YES ! catchment water. Both work great for me. Taking it a step further… electrical independence with off grid solar systems. My American made panels are better and cheaper than ever and even current storage systems are more than reasonably functional with improvement on the near horizon. Thanks Johnny ! … consider making potential solution/redirection a part of more of your future posts.

    1. Yep, the “off-grid” phenomenon is an interesting one. As more people (initially rich, eventually middle class) are able to buy a Tesla roof and Powerwall, they’ll pay less into the grid. We’ll need to come up with payment solutions that maintain the grid while encouraging as many as can afford it to produce their own power. People will moan “but I live off-grid!”, but it’s similar to complaining you don’t have kids yet have to contribute to the education system. It’s a public good you benefit from, whether you feel you use it directly or not.

    2. I’m in the process of writing a post about off grid options. When I crunch the numbers for my own properties I don’t see myself paying for photovoltaics and Tesla battery banks to keep the whole house going without the grid. Instead I’m doing everything I can to reduce my need for power first. I’m partial to non mechanical non electronic options that do the job as passively as possible. That’s a lot less expensive and I don’t need to get entangled with contractors and permitting authorities. A lot of this is behavioral. I bought a really well made clothes drying rack from an Amish company for $150. Compare that to the cost of solar panels and an electric dryer. Rainwater catchment works really well and entirely by gravity. A 5,000 gallon tank isn’t cheap, but it will continue to supply water even in a power failure or earthquake situation. That’s worth paying for. I’ve used fancy German made equipment and UV zappers to filter the water, but a Big Berkey works just as well with no moving parts. There’s the forty five minute daily commute in a hybrid or all electric car, or there’s a bicycle in a walkable human scaled neighborhood…

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