Rightsizing not downsizing…I used to wish I would have come up with that phrase. It’s so simple and sounds like a great idea. I mean really, the idea that we might do something “right” for cities is far more attractive than simply reducing its size. It got me thinking about what is the right size for a community, and what does it mean to “down” size one? And is rightsizing even desirable?
First, full disclosure, I’m a student of cities. From Jacob Riis to Jane Addams, and Robert Moses to Jane Jacobs. I have taken the study to the highest level in academia, so I come at this with a lot of book learnin’ but also, I hope, with the experience of working with people most affected by poor planning. In any case, I was happy to see the phrase again recently because it gave me an opportunity to do some rethinking. And rethinking is “continuing education” in these parts…
Downsizing cities has traditionally meant a reduction in size. Rightsizing has come to mean focusing on particular areas in a blighted city, providing incentives for folks to live and work there, and moving functions from productive/consumption areas at the margins, while (sometimes) demolishing buildings to maintain the new density. In essence, it’s been about consolidating neighborhoods and reallocating resources. But, in a recent article,Roberta Gratz writes that rightsizing is really urban renewal in a different suit. Urban renewal was and is about demolition, introducing (often forcing) mixed-use development, reducing neighborhood density, and building freeways that slice through and cut off communities. Focusing on housing, I once wrote about the issue as it exists in HOPE VI, a program intended to improve public housing but more often resulted in large-scale demolition. Major downsizing disguised as rightsizing.
I’ve come to think of how these concepts relate to our community food security goals at home&community. The downsized city has forced a lot of the food production/distribution functions to the exurbs and suburbs, and decentralized the process. The rightsized city is moving these processes out of marginal productive/consumption areas to the areas leaders want people to live and work. I’d like to see a more organic approach. Returning the city to more organic roots.
Density is key. Most planners will agree that bringing people and services into some center, where everyone can connect and interact, encourages community and economic growth. In Gratz’ view, cities improve by introducing positives not by removing negatives: you add to what exists, don’t replace it, don’t overwhelm it.
So what about our community food system (CFS) project? Well a CFS can thrive in this context. It can introduce a whole host of “positives” in terms of health and economic improvement. And, by its nature it includes community members in its creation and definition. It is shaped by need and is an inherently organic process. As a “system,” a CFS needs connections and those connections must be close. Taking into account local food and farm-to-table issues, there are no productive/consumption areas at the margins because food is produced in small lots and local yards along with local urban farms where the people already are. Distribution points, whether they be farmers markets, mobile food carts or corner grocers become “positives” introduced into the city. And, with proper management, the CFS responds to shifting needs in the local community.
In fact, the existence of a community food system might actually be evidence of a revitalized (or revitalizing) community. No downsizing, no rightsizing, just some positivity for a (real) change.