Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Downtown Rubik's Cube

When it comes to finding an answer for the downtown parking meter question, the biggest mistake Salem can make is trying to answer the parking meter question.  

That’s because Salem doesn’t have a problem for which parking meters are a solution.  Indeed, because we have for so long refused to grapple with our real problem, parking meters are very likely only to aggravate and accelerate downtown’s decline.

The best metaphor for Salem’s downtown and our approach to it is a Rubik’s Cube, that maddening three-dimensional puzzle where the challenge is to twist and rotate the small multi-colored cubes into one larger cube with six, one-color faces.  You can’t solve a Rubik’s Cube by attacking one color at a time. The puzzle forces you to keep all six sides in mind as you make a move, and you must often be willing to misalign several faces temporarily to move the whole puzzle towards a solution. Impatient attempts to attack each side as an isolated problem always produce greater frustration later, if not complete defeat.

If we want to solve Salem’s downtown conundrum and re-create an attractive, thriving city that again offers the benefits that urban places provide for residents and those in surrounding areas, we have to stop trying to address Salem’s problems in isolation.  We need to realize our problems are as connected as the faces of a Rubik’s Cube, and that we will not make progress unless we are willing to think about the puzzle as a whole. 

And thinking about the puzzle as a whole starts with recognizing the main issue:  Why did Salem change from a thriving and attractive small urban center to one that seems to present nothing but insoluble problems, problems that regularly defeat the best efforts of well-intended people and investments of millions of dollars?

I submit that the main cause of Salem’s decline is that, to a very great extent, we stopped planning and building in Salem as a place for people, and started concentrating all our efforts on serving only a particular kind of people: people in cars.

The differences between a place built for people and a place built for cars are both profound and pervasive, showing up in ways big and small, far and wide. In Salem’s downtown, our focus on cars first has almost entirely displaced and depleted the graceful social capital that was built up and built into Salem before the post-WWII era of auto-mobility. And our failure to come to grips with the way that people—even people who arrive in cars—dislike and avoid places built to privilege cars is an important reason that so much of what we try to do for or to downtown Salem is fruitless wheel-spinning.

Like a Rubik’s Cube, our challenge has six faces and a hub, around which the faces revolve.  The hub of Salem’s downtown puzzle is putting people first, not just people in cars. That is the central hub because that’s what connects all of the six faces, none of which can safely be ignored.

Around that hub, imagine a cube with four sides, a top, and a bottom.   
  • One side is market-sector economic goods and services, which are normally allocated by ability to pay;
  • a second face is public-sector goods, like buses, streets, bridges, roads, schools, libraries, and parks, which are very often allocated by other means;
  • a third face is public health and safety, which is usually seen as a cost only, and is often an unrecognized victim of choices in other areas;
  • and the fourth face is our natural capital: the renewable and nonrenewable natural resources, including places for pollution to “go,” and which provides the real basis for our wealth and well-being.

The bottom of the box, which is supposed to support the sides firmly and evenly, is our method for deciding the relationship between the sides of the box: what we will provide for Salem via the market sector, what the public sector should do, how much weight we will give to public health and safety concerns, and how much of our finite stock of natural capital we will spend, and how much we should leave for the people who will follow us.  

And the top of the box, which might be thought of as the lid, or the opening that lets us access what’s inside, is our time horizon: are we patient, willing to study a problem long enough to consider how it looks from each of the four sides, or are we impatient, petulantly demanding on aligning the green squares on one side, no matter what that does to the rest?

Until Salem recognizes the central hub of our downtown dilemma—overindulgence of the automobile at the expense of the habitability and livability of downtown—and the way in which premature, single-focus solutions to one problem just creates bigger problems to deal with elsewhere, we are doomed to spin and twist at our little cube, while downtown suffers and the last remnants of the once-thriving city dwindle away.