I recently had occasion to spend a lot of time at Baptist East Hospital in Louisville. It is a large hospital on a sprawling campus. While walking about 1/4 mile from my car to the hospital, it hit me that we, the public, the citizens, are asked to make accommodation to the desires of developers, or other profit-centered parties.
Why must a hospital be so large? Is that the best way to deliver quality health care, or is it the most efficient way to maximize profit? Is a sixteen screen megaplex the best venue to showcase movies, or it the best way to squeeze a few more bucks out of a diminished workforce asked to handle theaters on a spoke and wheel system? Is the shopping mall the epitome of choice, or is it a capitulation to developers who wish to reorder society in a way that benefits them while allowing the old, original commerce centers to deteriorate? Does the old deteriorating commerce center hurt the mall developer in any way, or does its deterioration serve to reinforce the decision to move farther out from the sinking ship of trade?
In each of these examples, with which all Americans are familiar, we can see that large developments do, in fact, deliver some benefits, but they do so at quite a cost. The success of these large ventures is built upon a sturdy foundation of costs shifted from the developer, the owner, the schemer, onto the citizens of the host communities. These shifted costs are sometimes referred to as externalities. Externalities are imposed upon the commons, that which we by right of our citizenship or residence own and share in common with our fellow citizens or neighbors--air, water, open land, places or things too big to be hauled in, tied down or titled with the aid of an enviable checkbook.
And when, or before, this cost shift occurs the clarion call is jobs, prosperity, and growth. Such a compelling case is made that few can resist the pull of the grand project. But with each grand project we must try to assess the plans, the schemes, the dreams, against the needs of the entire community. Is a reach for the brass ring an expansion of that which benefits the most citizens, or is it another example of a community forced to dance to the tempting tune of developers whose intentions may be good, but whose plans will cause disruption to slower, smarter growth?
For years now the United States has been enthralled by movement toward the horizon. Without the myth of the limitless horizon, Westerns could never have been made. Here, in our own microcosm, we have been to the horizon, it's just a little ways out State Street in one direction and a about the same out Grant Line and Charlestown Roads in other directions. We need to move toward the horizon alright, but it's a place to search for possibilities to improve what we have. How can we take the infrastructure bequeathed to us and save it, improve it and hand it to those who follow us? The answer is not always the next big thing. It may well be many, many, small, good things we do to improve life in this small city for the greatest number of its citizens.