On Bump Outs, Logistics, and Citizenship in a Small Town

Over the last few months, I’ve been contributing some short essays on small town life from North Dakota Quarterly’s back yard in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Here’s one, In Praise of Trucks, and another, Alone Together in a Small Town. Maybe someday, I’ll write a little book or something. 

– Bill Caraher, Editor

Recently, there’s been a pretty interesting debate in our home base of Grand Forks, North Dakota  on bump outs. Bump outs are a form of curb extension generally designed to protect pedestrians crossing busy streets by narrowing the road and slowing traffic at intersections. The Grand Forks City Council has installed a few temporary bump outs in downtown Grand Forks on an experimental basis and, as one might expect, they have attracted both positive and negative comment before eventually being voted down by the local city council.

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What’s been particularly interesting to me is that the conversation around bump outs has tended to pit perceived “liberals,” who are in favor of the bump outs against “conservatives.” The former, it would would seem, favor these bump out because they cost money and liberals tend to favor public spending. The latter are skeptical of public spending especially on things that smell a bit of the nanny state and might inconvenience the flow of private vehicle traffic through the city.

This juxtaposition in a curious one. After all, the so-called liberal position has little to do with some uncontrolled need to spend public funds, and almost everything to do with the desire to improve downtown Grand Forks. In fact, since, as far as I know, Grand Forks doesn’t have a problem with pedestrian injuries, the bump outs are not even explicitly designed to solve a problem, but to demonstrate care or concern for producing a walkable city. The desire to produce a walkable downtown is not exactly a neutral thing. At its best, it demonstrates an interest in reducing our dependence on motor vehicles and fossil fuels, producing a higher density and, as a result, more efficient and cost-effective living space. In the best of situations, it would also produce a stronger sense of community through increasing the opportunities for interaction between neighbors and residents. At its worse, investing in amenities such as bump outs reflects a commitment to urban property values by building an appealing mixed-use downtown that is attractive to private investors and susceptible to gentrification.

Downtown Grand Forks is developing rapidly with new housing being built, new businesses being started in existing buildings, and new offices. The private concerns who have invested in these properties see a good partner in the city government who is willing to commit public funds to increase the value of their investments (and, inasmuch as these things are related, the quality of life for folks living and working downtown). The interest in bump outs is consistent with the recent willingness to sell downtown “pocket parks” to private investors for development. The desire to partner with private investors to increase urban density downtown is a rather direct example of using public funds to bolster the private sector. It is hardly surprising the most politically powerful developer in the U.S. made investment in infrastructure a key talking point in his campaign. Developers love infrastructure because it builds value for their portfolios. New urbanists also love infrastructure investments because higher density, high value development is a more efficient way to produce tax revenue for communities because infrastructure costs per resident (and per physical footprint) are lower in high density downtowns than in suburban sprawl. The more revenue the high-density urban center can produce, the lower the taxes for everyone in the community.

So there is some irony that, on the one hand, bump outs appear to be some liberal ploy to spend public money “willy nilly” when, on the other, they’re part of a pretty well-established strategy to use public funds to support private investment. Moreover, the kind of high density downtown favored by hipster new urbanists also supports lower taxes for suburban libertarians who prefer the freedom of more dispersed settlement closer to city limits.

Some of the folks who opposed the bump outs are equally interesting to me. Putting aside those folks who just oppose everything, the more intriguing, and ultimately success argument, against bump outs is that they will disrupt the flow of traffic through downtown.

This argument intersects with a growing, global interest in logistics. A number of authors have noted that the late-20th century expansion of the global supply chain has changed the nature of urbanism and citizenship in key ways. For some, this involves the emergence of “supply chain citizenship” which involves a sense of loyalty to a series of economic relationships mediated by transnational corporations. In many cases, this involves buying a particular product because it is produced in an ethical way (think: free trade coffee), but this can also involve supporting corporate interests in one’s community even when they run counter to local interests or traditional government institutions. In the latter case, this reflects both a skepticism toward the role of government which is seen as either corrupt, incompetent, or fundamentally opposed to the free functioning of markets and the growth of wealth, and a greater confidence the interest and ability of a private concerns to care for its workers and communities. In a 21st-century twist on company towns, a version of supply chain citizenship reflects greater willingness to contribute to global corporate well-being than the local community. It imagines that the rising tide of corporate profits will lift all ships or, at very least, that a sense of shared responsibility for corporate profits (or ethical behavior) will be recognized and reciprocated across the supply chain.

A version of this kind of supply chain loyalty manifests itself in the willingness of citizens to support the often questionable practices of oil companies in the Bakken oil patch against the interests of the state or federal government. While the long term benefits of extractive industry to the state or traditional communities is difficult to identify, understand, or quantify, it appears to some that the oil industry might be a better and more loyal representative of local interests than, say, the state government. In effect, the oil industry attracts a greater sense of confidence and loyalty than the state. This is a particularly useful phenomenon for transnational corporations whose values, operating culture, and profits rarely align neatly with the vast number of traditional public interest along their global supply chains. Substituting corporate citizenship for traditional citizenship is just good business especially as logistically demanding operations like oil production necessarily involve work that cuts across numerous public jurisdictions.

Returning to bump outs and logistics on the local level, the most compelling argument against bump outs is that they will disrupt the flow of traffic through the city and entice pedestrians to approach truck traffic at an unsafe distance. While Grand Forks can be busy, it is largely busy in a small town way, but the relatively easy flow of traffic through the community should not disguise the role of Grand Forks in larger supply chains. Grand Forks, like all cities, is a “logistic city.” Situated at the intersection of US Route 2 and the Meridian Highway (now, US 81 and Interstate 29), home to the largest flour mill in the U.S., a stop along the Great Northern Railway’s “Hi-Line” connecting Minneapolis to Spokane, and served by the Empire Builder, Grand Forks always stood as a node in the continental flow of goods. In other words, the origins of Grand Forks has always asked its residents to think globally about the function of their city. The flow of traffic through Grand Forks fortified the city’s existence and played a role in its development as a regional hub with banks, municipal services, transportation facilities, a university, an airport and a hospital.

At the same time, the needs of traffic flowing through Grand Forks continues to challenge local residents. In my sleepy neighborhood, for example, the movement of cars heading east and west across the Point Bridge over the Red River has prompted calls for traffic calming measures to reduce or slow the flow of traffic. In downtown Grand Forks, there are those who see bump outs as a threat to the movement of sugar beet trucks during the annual beet campaign. While there is little doubt that the sugar beet industry brings revenue to the city and the region, the ease of movement through downtown Grand Forks has about as much impact on the global sugar industry as similar logistic issues have on the price of oil from the Bakken. The existence of bump outs in downtown has only a rather small impact on the functioning of the sugar beet campaign and on the global sugar industry. Changes in tariffs on sugar, global markets conditions, and even the climate have a much greater impact on the fate of our local beet farmers than bump outs. In other words, the local impact of bump outs on the role of Grand Forks as a logistic city is minor.

At the same time, the battle over bump outs does pit the two views of citizenship at odd with each other. Those in favor of bump outs see their highest priority as developing the wealth of local property owners both directly through a vital and deliberately planned downtown and indirectly through the impact of these improvements on the local tax base. Those opposed (notwithstanding those opposed to everything) privilege the flow of goods and commerce and traffic through the city as a responsibility for communities situated along the global supply chain irrespective of direct local benefits. In sum, being good citizens of a global supply chain trumps being good citizens in a local community.

As our lives become increasingly entangled in the transnational web of logistics expect these competing forms of citizenship to challenge our loyalties more and more frequently.

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