04 November 2009

LateBlog: Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper

Due to some technical issues, I was unable to liveblog today's talk. But here is a summary of how it went.

Part I: Dr. Deborah Popper on Great Plains History and the Buffalo Commons

Dr. Popper described the history of the settlement and development of the Great Plains as an agricultural landscape. She talked about about short-grass and mid-grass prairies, Easterners and immigrants. There were always economic cycles of booms and busts that shaped the landscapes. Mix in some dustbowl. With mechanized farming, increased production and an influx of capital the great plains were seen as key to helping feed the world.

Then came the decline and with it came environmental degradation and loss of jobs. In the 1980s debts were called in. Suddenly the thinning population underwent lifestyle changes - itinerant ministers, no afterschool.

This, said Dr. Popper, was a region characterized by variability. Indeed!

In response the Poppers proposed the Buffalo Commons. Their 1987 Planning paper proposing the Buffalo Commons was one of the top 25 papers in 25 years. It was meant as a metaphor but it resonated so well that it stuck. Even the name was more provocative than they may have intended.
Buffalo = animal they had gotten rid of
Commons = Sounds like communism
Tribal groups responded positively. They have higher rates of diabetes and recognized that a shift towards buffalo meat could help.

Still, many communities wondered if they could get back to growing their economies. WHat kind of hazardous waste facility could we attract? How many casinos can we build? Dr. Popper suggested instead that they "Look to the land."

Part 2: Frank Popper on the next Depopulation Crises

Dr. Popper donned his infamous buffalo hat for his portion.

After letting his wife tell one story of regional decline and redempetion, he suggested that we look elsewhere for others - Northern NE, Northern MidWest, Lower Mississippi Delta.

(DT - Double Play! LateBlogging comes with some benefits.)

He asks whether the declining part of big cities like Detroit and Cleveland are really all that different than the Great Plains. Now that drivers on Detroit's Interstate highways are treated to the sight of pheasants, it is becoming eerily similar. And both the plains and the cities are left with aging communities less able to migrate.

3 cities have emerged as trying to be more creative or aggressive in finding new futures for their communities: Youngstown, OH, Braddock, PA and Flint, MI. Youngstown is getting creative about its future and looking into ways to rework ownership patterns. Flint is seeking to buy up vacant land. Braddock's mayor is on the cover of this month's Atlantic Monthly. From Buffalo to St Louis, more and more post-industrial cities are now where the Great Plains was back in the 1980s when the Poppers first proposed the Buffalo Commons.

For so long Western Civilization had embraced the notion that growth was a sign of health. These examples confront us and challenge us to reconsider the notion.

(DT - Another run!)

What will the urban equivalent of the Buffalo Commons look like? What will be the next sites of rapid depopulation? Suburbs? Coastal zones?

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