Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Red Queen

In Through the Looking Glass, Alice found herself running alongside the Red Queen but despite their running, they were not making any progress through the landscape. The Queen told Alice that “around here, one must run as fast as one can simply to stay in the same place.” Biologist Leigh VanValen (1973) borrowed the idea to explain that organisms must keep evolving to keep up with those that are getting better at eating them, keeping from being eaten by them, infecting them, or appropriating resources that would otherwise be available to them. Organisms constantly evolve just to keep up with the other organisms they share the ecosystem with. I had occasion recently to ponder how the Red Queen hypothesis may apply to communities. Our communities must keep running just to keep up with the constant changes in demographics, global economics, technology, and other dynamics from regional to global levels. If we stop, we risk extinction. We shouldn’t lurch from trend to trend. Some towns – like one about 100 miles southwest of here -- have large, gaping holes in their downtowns after some developer with the latest idea of a downtown hi-rise development went bust. Maybe someone urged caution, maybe not. But we mustn’t be so cautious as to do nothing. Let’s be careful and practice due diligence, but change we must. Plenty of other towns sat by while the world changed out from under them and now find themselves going extinct. We need forward-thinking people to help a community keep its collective eyes on the future; we need cautious people to prevent the holes in the ground. Thank you forward-looking people, thank you cautious people. What we don’t need is people that think everything should stay just as it is. It won’t. We might stay the same, but the world changes and we will find ourselves at the mercy of outside forces. We need, as a community, to decide what is valuable that we want to keep as-is and what we can do to keep up with the world while preserving those features. Even the natural, historical, cultural features that we want to preserve need some stewardship and need our messages about them to be continually updated. We need to agree on a way of identifying preferred options and how we can try to achieve them. Examples are out there to draw from. Even here in Michigan. A few communities have laid out their plans and, not coincidentally, are now among the few communities in Michigan that grew in population from the 2000 to 2010 census. The Michigan Land Policy Institute is studying those examples and sharing their insights around the state. Our descendents won’t appreciate it if we let our special places drift off into over development. Nor will they appreciate it if we let them drift off into extinction because we didn’t keep running.

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