Monday, November 26, 2012

Diversity and Change

In yesterday's post I ended with the thought that diverse habitats, whether natural or human, can change in ways that are beneficial. I suggested that ecosystems, and not just species, evolve over time so that change is part of the   landscape whether we are considering a forest or a city.

I'd like to pursue those thoughts a little more and focus on the question of urban diversity. Numerous scientific studies have shown that diverse ecosystems are "healthy" ecosystems, in that they can regenerate after disasters (like a flood or fire), ward off pathogens (like a disease that could wipe out a single species), and resist invasive species. Can we say the same thing for urban environments?

I've been pondering about my own city, Cambridge, Massachusetts. When we moved here from San Francisco in 1988 we encountered a community that seemed to burst at the seams with incredible, vibrant diversity. Whichever way you looked at it, from economic structure to ethnicity, Cambridge was, to put it in biological terms, a "hotspot" of diversity.

Over the past decade or so this has changed. Cambridge now has fewer children, fewer schools, fewer elderly, fewer artists, and fewer working class families. At the same time, we look good on paper. Higher tax revenues, better services, and a healthier environment than ever before. From a social perspective though, I wonder how healthy we are.

Can our community accommodate social evolution for families with children? Are our educational institutions stronger, or do relatively privileged families continue to pull their children out of public schools? Do we manage our land resources appropriately, or do big pharm corporations (who do pay those taxes) continue to take a wider physical chunk of our neighborhoods? 

Fifty years ago Cambridge began a long decline as light industries, the basis of our economy, dried up or moved. Along with them a large portion of working- and middle-class families left the city. When we moved here in 1988, just before the ongoing development and real estate bubble, Cambridge was considered by many people to be a dangerous, crime-ridden community. It had lost its economic base and much of its urban fabric. A new economic base has emerged and along with it, an urban fabric of a much different cloth than the one that was here half a century ago. We are richer in some ways but poorer in others. As the diversity of our community continues to erode, what is the outlook for our urban ecosystem fifty years down the road?

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