The Rubber Band Theory

I apologize in advance for the lack of pictures, but if you’re into words I have some really sexy opinions below.

This is the first time I’ll admit it, my teachers were right… Sometimes what you learned in school you’ll actually use someday. I didn’t know it at the time and I can’t remember if I was in middle school or high school in this particular case. In one of my science classes we had done a few experiments testing the physics of rubber bands – it all seemed to be fun and games at the time. Really, the only thing I thought I learned was that you don’t want to be on the wrong end of the rubber band when it snaps.

When analyzing the city I live in, I have been trying to make a correlation between why it is underperforming in many aspects and how sprawl has been at the root of the problem. In this, the Erik Reader Rubber Band Theory, I plan on using an old science experiment to emphasize the point that a city is strongest when it is not being stretched in many different directions.

With this being the budget season for municipalities across the nation, the most common conversation being had is, “We are being stretched to our maximum capacity.” Immediately, we think people are getting overpaid or there are services we need to cut. That might be the case. However, what I suggest is that we have continued to stretch our city networks further and further away from what used to be our city center. This is what is causing wasted time and money.

Originally, cities were built with everything in a close proximity. A look at some old maps shows a lot about a city. What started off as a couple of homes and businesses turned into a Main Street. Slowly, more was built around the center of these cities. To make the best use of space business owners lived above their stores. Buildings were built taller to house more residents closer to what they needed to access. Neighborhoods slowly built up around the city center. At the time, neighborhoods weren’t segregated by income classes. Sure, there were lavish homes, but there was a true mix of housing within a neighborhood. This added to the strength of the core of the city.

It seems we were on track with planning our cities. We had used inherently smart techniques of city planning passed down from previous societies. There have been many chronicles of struggle in cities throughout the years, and we are at yet another crossroads in the way our city functions. Literally, what I mean is that our heavy reliance on the automobile and the building of roads is leading to a very unsustainable future for our cities. Some are ready to snap.

This leads to what we were taught as kids in our science classes. For this experiment, I’ll use our local taxing bodies, the County and the City. Imagine one is holding one end of a rubber band, and the other is holding the other end. At the beginning of the experiment the rubber band is at the strongest it will ever be. This (in my example) is before sprawl took place in our cities.

The County and City start to stretch the rubber band, each pulling in opposite directions. Initially, it is still strong – closely resembling the rubber band when the experiment started. While the rubber band is being stretched they both start to wonder if it will break. The slow creep of sprawl has demolished some buildings and built newer buildings further away.

They continue to stretch the rubber band. By now, the rubber band is getting tight and is nowhere near as strong as when they started. In this case, sprawl has taken over. We have started to build further away from the core of our cities, requiring automobile use for almost everything we need. Roads have become more and more expensive to build and just as expensive to maintain. Yet, we continue to feed into the thought that this system won’t break.

At the end of the experiment, we learn the result. The rubber band is not at all as strong as it was when the County and City began stretching it. We stretch it a little further until it finally snaps. When it snaps, we learn our lesson. Right now we are currently at the point where our cities either snap or we understand they will before someone is on the wrong end of the experiment.

We learned many lessons when we were young and now is the time to apply these lessons. The next time you look at a map of your city, see a sprawling mess of nonsense, and hear how budgets are being stretched – just think of how that rubber band is being stretched. Who is going to realize it’s going to snap and not be on the wrong end of the experiment?


6 thoughts on “The Rubber Band Theory

  1. Erik, this is EXACTLY what I have preached and continue to preach. This is a major argument for historic preservation. Infrastructure is already in place in the city cores and needs nothing more than to be utilized and maintained. Along with more chipboard and vinyl houses comes the need for existing resources to be spread way too thinly.

    Serious population growth is one thing. It is also a rarity. In too many cases, I find that many people who claim to value diversity rush to build new suburbs so they can be easily surrounded by neighbors of the same income, background and values. Ironic, isn’t it? Take a thorough look through Peoria’s North Valley. You will see the Victorian homes of workers right next to homes built by doctors, jewelers, lawyers, etc. They lived in harmony and interdependence.

    In my opinion, the main problem is lack of education helped along with a good healthy portion of living in a nation of affluence. I know this personally. I grew up in an affluent enclave in a small Southern town. I am currently restoring a Victorian home in the North Valley and my neighbors come from every imaginable walk of life. If it is taught me anything, it has taught me to communicate with diverse peoples.

    I do not have the financial ability to tuck my tail and run to the suburbs where it is easier to pretend there is a trouble free world out there and the most important issue is the color of this season’s bath mats. Thankfully, I also have no desire to live there again.

    Urban sprawl=social necrosis.

    1. The North Valley is actually one of my favorite areas in Peoria. It has the foundation to really resurect itself, but few believe in it. The only way society will function as a healthy one again is if we actually have to live by people not only of different backgrounds, but by different income levels. It has been the quiet segregation of income allowed by zoning and planning commissions that have reverted things back to an unfair playing ground. I agree with the mindless consumerism and with finding it tough to ever want to settle with a cookie-cutter home “further out from the city.”

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