Today’s society is built around circles and lines. Meanwhile we govern in squares and blocks. People live in one place; work in another; shop on the way home; drive to consolidated schools; and pursue play in boundary-less regions. It’s simply the institutional systems that are struggling to catch up to human behavior.
Just a few decades ago, consumers frequented local stores, schools, churches, and worked nearby, but this has all changed. We’ve invested billions in transportation infrastructure creating a commuting culture. So, 30 minutes isn’t too long to get where we want to go even if we drive by several more convenient establishments along the way.
Here’s an example. I grew up on a farm in central Indiana five miles from the county seat with 16,000 people. The city is home to several manufacturing and agricultural businesses. People who live there consider it the county’s ‘center,’ but behavior at the fringes tell another story. Two-thirds of the county interacts daily or connects regularly with a major city one county west. The northeast portion of the county frequents another large city while the southwest portion travels a main corridor to the expanding Indianapolis metroplex. So the county seat is geographically and governmentally the center, but the circles and lines tell another story.
What opportunities exist if we see people, communities, and assets/amenities as collections of nodes waiting to be threaded together? What if we are not constrained by geo-political boundaries and, instead, let the issues define the players and geography? If a community wants to create a scenic byway or rail trail, the line of communities will be threaded together. If the issue is commuting for higher education, students may attend any institution within a 50-mile circle. If the center drives the conversation, people often focus on the center and overlook potential partners at the fringes of a circle or thread to join them. Here are some key questions to ask before deciding who is in charge, where the money comes from, and the pre-determined outcomes.
- What do data and visual assessments tell us is already occurring regionally?
- How might issues be addressed differently if we didn’t start with geo-political boundaries?
- Are the issues circular or thread-like (they are rarely square or rectangular)?
- Is our conversation inclusive of geography, interests, diversity, and ideas?
- Is there a willingness to cooperate or collaborate?
Context counts. Every village, town, and city is part of an even larger region, so why chase the center instead of the opportunity? I recently heard a speaker say that people first find a region for work and then choose a place to live. If we focus on serving people’s needs and wants in circles and threads, we can avoid the curse of the center.