Wednesday, April 4, 2012

After the Zombie Apocalypse

I was mildly surprised, upon checking my mailbox a few Mondays ago, to find a zombie crawling out of it. My excitement at finally getting to use my zombie apocalypse skills quickly faded when I realized that it was just an article by Allen Best in High Country News about Teton County, Idaho and its “zombie subdivisions.”


We’ve written a lot about Teton County and similar rural or exurban areas (my own take is here), so the basic story is familiar. Beginning in about 1990, amenity-driven population growth substantially increased the value of land in many rural areas, leading to a boom in residential development that “bust” in 2007 and 2008. That bust left behind thousands of acres of partially developed subdivisions, empty houses, and roads to nowhere across rural and exurban America – Maricopa, AZ; Rio Vista, CA; Myrtle Beach, NC, and of course, Teton County, ID (and here, and here, and... well, just wander around on Google Maps yourself). To the extent the zombie subdivisions have a positive aspect, however, it is in how they make obvious the detrimental effects of particular land-use choices, and perhaps motivate new choices. Maybe we’ll emerge wiser, more careful, and better able to imagine the consequences of our choices.


So we know that part of the story. Short of an ugly photo of a zombie, what does High Country News have to add? Its contribution to the conversation is small but very significant, and it is perfectly distilled in a single quote by long-time Idaho farmer: “I see bicycle riders here, young people riding in the middle of the day!”


Rural geographers (and others) speak of a concept they characterize as “re-territorialization”—the reassignment of resource access rights, and local or regional cultural hegemony, to a new population or interest group. In the public lands West, we see it in changing notions of the purpose of federally-managed lands, e.g., from resource extraction to amenity consumption. But it is no less important in the changing power structures and community visions that allocate rights in private lands.

The Idaho farmer’s bewilderment that people might be able to ride bicycles during the middle of the day, rather than be driving a tractor, represents a persistent understanding about place and what that place should look like. It is also an understanding increasingly overwhelmed, and perhaps disrespected, by emerging majorities. Our choices to formalize cultural transitions into law necessarily oppress reasonable perspectives about land, the appropriate allocation of particular interests in land, and the “sense” of a community. But in many cases these perspectives are fundamental aspects of a place’s cultural history. They are also fundamental aspects of what the rest of us understand as, and love about, rurality.


So while this insight isn’t particularly earth-shattering, it does seem that the zombie apocalypse forces us to focus more carefully on a specific question: To what extent should our new choices respect the cultural understandings that gave rise to the old choices we want to undo? Put another way, can we both love and protect the old rural while simultaneously eradicating the perspectives that created it?

Jerry Long

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Community Design, Exurbs, Planning, Sprawl, Subdivision Regulations | Permalink

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