Visions and Enivison

September 17, 2008 | 28 comments
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I am sorry I have not been posting more regularly. Hurricane Ike slowed me down a bit. However, everything is starting to get back to normal. So…. Here we go.

If the nineteenth century Mormon experiment in planning claimed anything, it claimed to be founded on revelation. At the local level, church leaders relied on what is known as the Plat of Zion. This Plat came from what Joseph Smith claimed to be personal revelation. It called for things such as set-back requirements for each houses for gardens and orchards; public infrastructure—like churches, temples, schools, and bishop storehouses—set in the center of each village; and wide roads set off in a grid-like pattern. In practice, church leaders made sure farming and industry occurred outside of the village center and added public squares and other community space. The Mormon village plan was the main way the church integrated the poor among Mormon general society: as new emigrants came, they would strategically be directed to settle in one place or another and be given a firm foothold from which to succeed. At the regional level, church leaders and particularly Brigham Young sought to create a society that was self-sustaining. Perhaps the best known example of this is the effort to build the “Mormon Corridor,” which entailed building strategically placed settlements from Salt Lake City to San Diego. This allowed Mormons to take out the middle man along the trade route and also provided a diversity of landscapes which helped Mormons produce a wide range of goods, particularly agricultural products. Brigham Young’s mantra became, “We can produce them or do without them.”

While I do not want to focus the discussion just on Utah, recent events in Utah provides an interesting corollary. So, fast-forwarding more than 150 years, we see communities struggling with the problems associated with unplanned communities (urban blight, urban sprawl, strained infrastructure, loss of open space, and poor people living in isolated enclaves). A few community leaders got the ball rolling on a public planning process called Envision Utah. The idea behind the process was to help identify community values and to create different growth scenarios to help people see various forms of future growth. The vision that came out of that process resulted from the input and efforts of more than 10,000 people. As public input was weighed, the process identified a “quality growth scenario” and the scenario enjoyed a great deal of community support. The scenario called for more community investment in public spaces, less suburban growth, more investment in mass transit, more integration of people of the poor, and more conservation of tax payer dollars and natural resources.

Of course building a better community takes work. Brigham Young made this clear: “I have Zion in my view constantly. We are not going to wait for angels, or for Enoch and his company to come and build Zion, but we are going to build it.” Along similar lines, Wilford Woodruff once said, “[W]e can’t build Zion sitting on a hemlock slab singing ourselves away to everlasting bliss; we are obliged to build cities, towns, and villages….”

Why did Mormons have problems creating this community and why has Envision Utah been slow to really take root (despite some signs of progress)? People put their self interest above community interests (whether they think about it in those terms or not). So, the situation plays out as a familiar problem called the tragedy of the commons.

How does this work? For whatever reason, for example, many people prefer living in suburbs over the inner cities for reasons such as cheaper housing options, fewer social problems, and more square-feet and bigger yards. In aggregate this adds up to more urban sprawl, which harms the environment, isolates the poor, and drains public resources. But the person choosing to move the suburbs captures all the benefit of this decision and only has to bear a fraction of the costs. On the other hand, if the person turned down the temptation of the suburbs, it would only amount to a small contribution to the “solution” that would be allocated all to the person making the sacrifice of living some place he or she would rather not just for the good of society. Local and state governments do not stop the tide of self interest. In many cases, they do not even try to do so, and perhaps even encourage such decisions by zoning out low income housing and mandating “planned sprawl.” In the nineteenth century, the church proved unable to stop members motivated by their self interests. Yet, the church leaders tried relentlessly to break the tragedy of the commons. Today, many local and state leaders, just as much of society, doesn’t seem to care.

* In full disclosure, much of these thoughts I plan to introduce as a guest blogger are based on an article I wrote called “Revitalizing Zion: Nineteenth-Century Mormonism and Today’s Urban Sprawl.” It recently was published in the Journal of Land Resources & Environmental Law. The article in its entirety can be found here. For those of you interested in learning more about the tragedy of the commons, I recommend you read the first four paragraphs of another paper I wrote found at the same website called “Emerging Commons and Tragic Institutions.” To view either of those papers, go to the website and click the corresponding link that says “download.”

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28 Responses to Visions and Enivison

  1. mike on September 17, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    I think we tend to idealize the community building of the early Mormon history. It was difficult and often failed. Consider the financial mistakes in Kirtland that bankrupted the church and made the leaders look like swindlers and thieves. Consider the Iosepha community of polynesians who didn’t make it through one Utah winter. Many other examples come to mind. But somehow they muddled through and we have much to thank them in their efforts.

    Here in a large metro area in the southern states we have a different twist to the problem of community building. To illustrate: image a large detailed street map of the entire metro area. The map has little red pins placed in it where each active LDS member or family lives and little blue pins where each inactive LDS person lives. These pins would form the image of a lumpy donut and the red donut would have a larger diameter than the blue one. Now place a cam recorder in front of the map and watch the donuts change over a few years. You would see the donuts expanding and getting thinner, the red one more quickly than the blue one. The wards on the edge of the inner diameter of the donut appear healthy but they are slowly dying. The wards in the center of the donut cover large congested areas and are already in deep trouble with many difficult problems. The wards on the outer diameter of the dount seem to be thriving.

    Since the population is moving quickly and the buildings are not portable, most wards are not ideally matched to their building. Many buildings are under-utilized and others have three or four wards using them. Building decisions in the past were made with far too much of a rosy view of future real growth and not enough appreciation of urban flight. The temple was once conveniently located just off the beltway with the best possible access to the entire region. Now it is dead center in the middle of the worst traffic jam.

    Many of the wards out in the suburbs are so lily white that people from southern European heritage tell me that they felt like freaks attending them. Our ward on the inner edge of the dount has a diverse racial mix and is quite tolerant. Some wards have a majority of minorities and although nobody says it outloud, their youth are not generally welcomed with open arms to suburban stake dances and any behavior problems are harshly corrected. Friends in the thriving wards tell me that they are bored and seldom have challenging callings; I guess this can be a good thing. Other wards have the opposite problem. We have far too many young couples who recently moved into apartments and are on their way into homes further out in the suburbs, with not much for them to do in the church and a youth program nearly defunct with attendance in the single digits.

    I don’t know the answers but it seems that we are impossible to organize, in the sense that most people are not in the place where they could develop their talents best and serve most effectively. As a contrast, the Jewish community here (which is not quite as numerous as we are) pumps several millions of dollars into a few large Jewish community centers with private schools and every kind of music or sporting facility you might imagine that almost resemble a small college campus. When Jewish people move here they can decide how close to these centers they want to live and it tends to concentrate them in one area, with those who want a less close relationship living further away. If we started right now it would take us at least 20-30 years to be where they are today; which was a direct result of anticipating accurately their future and building for it.

  2. Tim on September 17, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks for the tragedy of the commons discussion.
    Orson Scott Card has some interesting things to say about how we treat our cities and suburbs. It’s one of the few times where I find myself agreeing with him. Here are the addresses to two of his posts:
    http://www.ornery.org/essays/warwatch/2007-04-08-1.html
    http://www.ornery.org/essays/warwatch/2007-04-15-1.html

    Like with health care, I think we should look to Europe for some ideas (while making sure that we don’t adopt their narrow, winding roads). They have a public transportation system that’s usually centered in the middle of the city. They don’t like sprawl. Many of their cities have lots and lots of open spaces. They lessen traffic jams by increasing public transportation and decreasing the amount of parking in the city (so more people will take the train or bus). Joseph Smith had the right idea. It just needs to be converted so that it can work in the 21st century.

  3. Tim on September 17, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    By the way, glad to hear you made it safe through Ike. We got hit too–not as severe, but totally unexpected. Some of my neighbors are still without power, and a large tree is still blocking our street.

  4. James McMurray on September 17, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    Goes to show that nobody can accuse democracy of being too efficient.

    The suburbs obviously have a great deal of inertia behind them and aren’t going away, and shouldn’t necessarily. However, the shift away from suburbia is already underway. As Orson Scott Card points out in his article linked by Tim (#2), the market value of non-suburban style development commands a significant premium over the suburbs. Many people crave authentic experiences and are realizing that suburbia generally doesn’t deliver this (though it can be compensated for, and of course many are also perfectly happy with the suburban experience)

    Ironically, government (often fueled by NIMBYs, many of whom would espouse free market ideologies until it doesn’t work for them, I guess) is getting in the way of the market meeting these needs through more compact and walkable communities. Economics 101 says that ultimately, supply will catch up with demand, but it’s amazing to consider Envision Utah as evidence of how long and tedious that process has been.

    As a current, parallel example, could you imagine how things would play out if someone had pitched the PEF concept to Congress? We don’t often consider this aspect of our church leadership (though it can cut both ways, a la Mosiah 29)

  5. Velska on September 18, 2008 at 9:17 am

    It seems that the “invisible hand” doesn’t always produce the ultimate results. We live in a sparsely populated urban area of about 200,000. We have an apartment a decent walking distance from the only Church facility in the area, with a convenient bus route serving, too, when the weather doesn’t favor walking. We have parks and open spaces around us – our neighborhood is a mix of apartment buildings and townhouses about 2.5 miles from downtown shopping streets.

    The last 10 years has seen the expansion of more “suburban” settlement – areas without sidewalks, parks, stores or even schools. Every family needs two cars to survive in that setting, and you can imagine what that does to budgets with these gas prices.

    Point is, community planning has shifted from “planning” to just providing infra for the sprawl (if you can call it that in the scale I’m talking about).

  6. mike on September 18, 2008 at 10:39 am

    The biggest reason people flee to the suburbs is the authentic experience of crime. Nobody wants to be shot and die for the 5 buck in their wallet or have their homes looted on a regular basis or their vehicles stolen or be raped. Criminal activity is difficult to control when the criminals in the US have been given so many advantages (because of our idealistic devotion to freedom and civil rights) and the police are bound up hand and foot. Single or married adults can figure out how to thrive in the big city, but when your children get to age 5, and enter the public school system in a big city, your perspectives change. About the second time little Eliza or Spencer comes crying home from school after being molested by playground bullies whose parent is a crack whore, and dogmatic leftist school administrators laugh at you because you’re white (and therefore rich and evil) and burned-out teachers don’t give a damn, you start looking for a house in the suburbs. Two hours commuting every day, even with gas at $4 a gallon, is suddenly worth it. I have watched this happen to several families in my ward.

    What illustrates this on a broader level is to compare two cities of similar size and economic situation: Toronto, Ontario, Canada and Detroit, Michigan, USA. How are they similar and how are they different? Both are industrial giants on the Great Lakes with similar climates. If anything Detroit has the more prosperous economic history. The nice neighborhoods in Toronto are close to downtown and Toronto doesn’t have near the murder rate and criminal activity. The schools are much better and the best are not way out in the suburbs. The Mounties are respected and do a better job keeping everybody under control. In Detroit you have to live 20+ miles from the downtown if you want a decent house and public school. The Detroit police are in a war zone shooting it out with various criminals on a frequent basis and loosing big law suits for their brutality. If you don’t belong to the right gang, you will be shot. Which means most of us on this blog don’t even have the right to walk down some of their streets, not that we would ever want to.

    You want to get decent folks back living in the city? You need to put the criminals in jail and get the schools back to teaching instead of grinding social axes.

    We Mormons can only have a limited effect on this problem because we are only about 1% of the population and we are not respected. A few individuals with good ideas who happen to be LDS might come along, but there is not much more we can do to encourage that. We possibly could lead by example, if we built something obviously way better in Utah, where we are strong in numbers. But I think that opportunity has largely passed us by. Salt Lake City is going the other direction in spite of a massive infusion of church investments and is now politically controlled by those with interests and values strongly against us. Utah is going to be under 50% LDS in another decade and is probably close to 25% active LDS right now. A few Utah Mormons have managed to really piss off many of their non-LDS neighbors as expressed by the vicious anti-Mormon movement centered there.

    Our best bet is to focus on the people we have some influence upon, which are our own active members. We can fly off onto fictious planets with Orson Scott Card and speculate about a US Congressional PEF (hasn’t Congress already botched up about 50 similar programs?) Or we can consider realistic solutions on how to better build our own ward communities, not just in Utah and in the strongholds in the Intermountain West, but across the nation and the world.

    What can I do in my ward this week? Or this year?

  7. Icky on September 18, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    Offering a similar yet – owing to obvious cultural, ethnic, etc, factors – contrasting picture from Scotland U.K: Our sprawling metropolis of Glasgow & environs – a conurbation stretching to around 1.7 million (only 600k within municipal boundaries), contains 5 wards and 2 branches, with tellingly several apiece having closed in recent years. Underlying societal factors prove increasingly inimical to growth, even rentention. In the former respect, anything remotely smacking of U.S.-based \’right-wing\’ religion – sadly a glib but popular perception of LDS – has not helped (ask serving missionaries , compare this with their counterparts of c.1990) and general urban problems of more universal application.

    The principal ward in the \’better\’ (University-residential) half of the centre serves as the flagship – its member-core comprising mostly professional families, complimented by a yearly round of students, the majority from North America. Some years ago this bulwark received a remnant from a burned down – subsequently closed – branch in a nearby grim estate, more recently the members of a folded one from an affluent suburb-village. One consideration in this centralising has – like the scenario mentioned above – been isolated youth; similarly another peripheral small town ward closure (joined with neighbour 4 miles away). The other 2-3 wards in and around city perimeter likewise struggle – contrasting with situation 15 years ago when attendances of 130 with 6-8 missionaries now read 40-50 and 2 respectively.

    Yet, and again finding parallel with much of the above, \’fringe\’ (I mean primarily socially-economically disadvantaged – and virtually no race issues here) members likely constitute the vast majority (but by no means all) of in-actives, as a sizeable number of younger, 2nd and 3rd generation, couples with kids observably move to a new-town ward 25 miles off, more than coincidentally even settling where possible in neighbouring clusters – mini Zions – quite understandable given concern surrounding children\’s potential friends in our \’godless\’ communities (problems in the West of Scotland with teen-drinking and knife crime are pretty chronic even by British standards).

    But it\’s not all doom and gloom. There are generally more encouraging regional pictures, though in more compact towns on Scotland\’s East Coast.

  8. JH on September 18, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    I see some encouraging signs in the development patterns in Utah, even though suburban expansion continues there.

    First, Kennecott Land (while it is developing green space) has largely adopted the principles articulated in the Envision Utah process. Housing in their Daybreak development is in high demand and seems to sell at a premium to suburban style developments (and such premiums are not uncommon for new urbanism style developments). At some point, the old school developers will hopefully realize the market is changing at that they are leaving money on the table by not changing their development style. If growth occurs on this better model, it should at least slow the loss of open space because new urbanism simply requires less land per person.

    Second, there is a revival going on in Utah’s downtowns (which is being helped along by the Church). This is making downtowns safer and more attractive, which again should help reduce the loss of open space. Developers will hopefully respond to market demands by developing more in existing cities.

    The biggest problem I see in Utah development is the lack of good central planning. Some might suggest that the government should exercise more control over planning in Utah, and I, in fact, am not opposed to such efforts. I do, however, think they are unlikely to succeed given Utah’s political climate. What I would like to see is more building by large, national developers, who I believe, might bring higher quality. Too much of Utah development occurs in small chunks by local, small developers or slightly larger regional developers. I think these people are operating on a business as usual model because it is safe. But, I think the smarter, national developers are starting to realize that consumer demand is shifting toward more urban and new urbanist style developments and that such developments are actually more profitable. Some more of this smart development in the West would go a long way to help address these problems.

  9. James McMurray on September 18, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Mike-

    Rather than take aim at your misguided and thinly veiled jabs, let’s talk about crime in the context of Brigham’s original post, because that’s a very interesting angle to consider this. In context of self vs. collective interest, crime is somewhat unique, as you would never fault anyone for being “selfish” in seeking their own personal security, while some would criticize those who they see choosing to move into a house that is “too big” (a highly personal and subjective judgment).

    Detoit makes for a fascinating example in this regard. While crime is an authentic experience, the perception doesn’t always match reality. I’ve spent time downtown at night and wasn’t afraid for my safety (this wouldn’t hold for the whole city, though). The number of new housing starts in downtown in the last 5 years speaks for itself (the overwhelming majority by college educated and affluent buyers). Regardless, the threat of crime in Detroit has greatly fueled the tragedy of the commons Brigham Daniels referenced, and will take years to overcome (if it ever does). Going back to Brigham’s Young’s vision to intersperse the poor among established communities…it is an incredible solution to this problem. All the Envision Utahs of the world and market trends towards downtown living don’t hold a candle to it, as important and encouraging as they may be.

  10. BruceC on September 18, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Re #9 – James McMurray,
    Stockton, California took the approach of scattering pockets of low income housing throughout the city. Enforced through zoning codes and requirements for subcontractor development plans, the result is that there are few low crime neighborhoods in Stockton. Without leaving the city, there are no suburbs to move out to. There is a bad part of town and the rest is considered not-as-bad. But crime is high everywhere. According to the FBI Stockton was the 9th highest in property crime per capita in 2006, with other crime stats close to it. By comparison Detroit was 5th. Without the structure of the gospel to meet the temporal and spiritual needs of the poor, Brigham Young’s vision is untenable.

  11. James McMurray on September 18, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    BruceC-

    Interesting. I’m curious to what you mean by “pockets” of low income housing. Ideally (and this is my understanding of how Brigham Young directed things to go), you wouldn’t have pockets at all, but completely scattered. Also, we should consider that good urban design, which can impact crime on a micro scale, is more than just a function of spatial distances, so any number of things could be playing into the situation in Stockton.

    However, I generally agree with your basic conclusion – no degree of planning or design can replace the need for a law abiding society, which the gospel certainly promotes.

  12. Tim on September 18, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Let’s look at Germany (since I know it better than any other foreign country). Big cities. Cops that aren’t as respected as they tend to be here.
    But they typically make an honest effort to keep their cities nice.
    They put more of a focus on education. They make sure everyone has food and an apartment, while encouraging those few who aren’t working but should be to get a job.
    They don’t have the same problems with poverty that we do here.
    The truly big cities do have areas that may be a little bit scary. Red light districts and such. But even they are relatively safe (as far as violence goes).
    What makes the difference? I’m convinced that decent schools and a lack of poverty make the difference.
    I also think that our infatuation with the prison system is an issue. They don’t reform–if anything, they make people more prone to violence and crime. Maybe we should consider other punishments for non-violent offenders, such as fines and community service hours.
    I’m sure there are other factors involved.
    Most German cities are safer, nicer, and much more livable, than most American cities. Maybe we should see what they’re doing, and try to implement it.

  13. Jim Donaldson on September 18, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    >The biggest reason people flee to the suburbs
    > is the authentic experience of crime.

    Not even close, at least in cities in the West. I live in Denver, in the central city and have for 30 years, my whole adult life. While Denver isn’t Detroit, it isn’t Toronto either. But what drives people to the suburbs here is mostly housing prices. The price per square foot is much higher close to the middle for obvious reasons. Everything worth going to in Denver is in the middle. A healthy percentage of people work in the middle, but the housing near the middle is either smaller or very expensive.

    The busing in the public schools (Denver had the most interventionist busing order in the nation) reduced the number of students in the public schools by half. When the busing ended a dozen or so years ago, we thought that some of the families who left because of it would return because it is simply a great place to live, but we failed to understand that there were years of pent up housing demand and the housing prices, always high, skyrocketed. Unless you are willing to live in a relatively small house (say, 1500 sf), many families simply can’t afford it.

    I think that the quality of life for most people would be far better if they had fewer things, smaller houses, parks as their backyards, 10 minute commutes, owned fewer cars traveling many less miles, and frequented and strengthened the small businesses who support and build neighborhoods, but most people apparently don’t agree, particularly most Mormons. They are the first to the edge (that’s were we build the new buildings). I suspect they have no idea what they are missing, but conformists to the core, they just do what the others all do.

    The more heterogeneous wards that result closer to city centers are also healthier, where diversity trumps status, and people are so needed to run the ward that we can’t afford to marginalize even the marginal, we have to include them.

    As always, just one guy’s opinion.

  14. Brigham Daniels on September 18, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    I am sorry I have been very absent from the conversation. I have only had the most spotty access to the Internet due to Ike. I only have it long enough now to read over your thoughtful comments. I wished I had time to write a response worthy of them. Maybe I will have a chance later tonight. Time will tell.

  15. BruceC on September 19, 2008 at 11:15 am

    By pockets I would give this example. A developer will build on 100 acres. He is required by city ordinance to set aside a cetain number of units at a lower cost of entry. In practice this means an apartment complex. So the 100 acres will have a scattering of houses (100+ units) with a small apartment complex (25 units) in one corner. Clever developers will place an elementary school, or roads in such a way to isolate the houses from the apartments. So in every part of the city there is a low income apartment complex within a mile, sometimes more than one. The police force is stretched so thin, it amounts to no coverage at all.

    Admittingly there are other forces at work. Stockton’s forclosure rate is one of the highest in the nation

  16. James McMurray on September 19, 2008 at 11:54 am

    I see. One of the failings of most current zoning systems is the inability to enforce designs that would provide a more favorable outcome. Instead of this economic integration becoming a benefit as it could be, it becomes a detriment. Developers with a lack of vision or responsibility + local governments ill-equipped to address (or recognize) these problems = trouble.

  17. mike on September 19, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    James #9

    “I’ve spent time downtown at night (in Detroit) and wasn’t afraid for my safety”

    I rode a train and walked the street to my work place in downtown Atlanta every day for about 14 months, sometimes in the dark. One of my friends and co-workers who grew up in downtown Cleveland repeatedly warned me to stop doing it. But I wasn’t afraid for my safety. I was a tough guy from out West who used to ride bulls in the rodeo (actually my cousin rode the bull, I write the bull).

    That all changed the day some thug stuck a loaded gun in my face. You can not predict how you will react the first time your death seems that immediate. I am glad I did not have a gun as my coworkers suggested, or one of us might be dead. A friend of mine did win a shoot-out with a thugh a few years ago when he was the Bishop. He spent a few weeks in jail while they sorted it all out out, so even if you win it is not good. I jumped in front of some cars going about 50 mph that swerved and missed hitting me by inches and then managed to outrun the guy who was 20 years younger down the middle of a busy roadway weaving wildly between speeding cars and was very lucky not to be killed.

    I was so upset that I was going to immediately quit my job and move as far away as possible. That afternoon, skinning poached caribou in the Arctic National Mosquito Refuge seemed far better than a job here with a million dollar salary. My coworker told me to take a couple days off as sick leave and think about it.

    I switched to riding a bicycle down the same road and I think it is safe because it is so outside the box for this neighborhood. I also started dressing to look like a crazy street-person. I notice they seem to leave those folks alone. I think it is about as safe as driving and cheaper. I wouldn’t want my wife and kids doing it. They seldom leave their bubble, about 25 miles out in the suburbs. I doubt this is a workable solution for very many people and most would have moved to a safer job.

    Now to the other issue. Brigham’s poor usually had some integrity and willingness to work their way out. Most of the poor today have not only a poverty of money; but a poverty of integrity, character and ambition. They function under false ideals; that we owe them and that anything they do is our fault. Life is so unfair that blowing up buildings is a good thing to do. Brigham would have had Porter horse whip such people and it still would not help them.

    Also Brigham’s poor had no other option once they found themselves in an isolated community with winter approaching. They had to buck up or die. Some died in spite of their best efforts.The poor today will never actually be allowed to starve, in fact most are morbidly overnourished and most can scrounge up enough to support various drug addictions. They have to leave their community if they entertain any hope of making themselves better. One of the best things that has been done to lower crime in the big cities is to bull-doze the government housing projects and force the occupants somewhere else. Just getting them away from each other helps.

    We have lots of new development downtown and we had even more during the Olympics. But these property values are always at risk do not hold or grow as much as in the suburbs. It only takes one really wild party or one shoot-out, or one arson to trash a piece of property and drag down the neighborhood. And we still have not built the good public schools, so the only option for young families is private schools.

    Denver is an interesting example. I am surprized at the cost gradient and low rate of crime. I wonder what underlying factors are driving it. Newer homes, all else being equal should be more expensive. All of the desirable things downtown can and probably will be built in the suburbs. The large city I live in (Atlanta) is much more complex. Many areas in closer are very expensive, but others are not. A large historic beautiful 4 level church with towers almost 100 feet high that would rival any of our old pioneer tabernacles in grandeur was put on the market for only $100,000 dollars and did not sell. You can find a million dollar mansion next to a $20,000 shot gun rat trap.The suburbs do tend to have larger houses which are less pricy, but not all of them. It seems difficult to find all three together: decent house price, good public school, low crime. If that is easy to find in the Denver suburbs, no wonder so many are flocking there.

    Another factor is the influence of private schools which cost $15,000-25,000 per year per student. (I tell a relative in Utah with 11 children that the public education of their family is worth more than 3 million dollars.) Most private schools have a church backing them up. I wonder if we couldn’t do well in this arena with BYU functioning as a flagship and the missionaries helping out. If we had the best private schools with a tuition advantage for our members, many intelligent ambitious people would beat a path to our baptism fonts. We might find the first generation less than entirely sincere, but we could then genuinely convert most of their youth and populate our church with the best and brightest of the next generation. The private schools tend to be in older more established areas and they tend to lift nearby property values. But there are many neighborhoods with high house prices, high crime, horrible schools, and long commutes.

    About half the kids in my neighborhood are in private schools and my kids would be also, except they cut a deal with us. As long as their national achievement test scores are above the 90th percentile, and they stay off drugs and go to early morning seminary and so forth, they can remain with their friends in the public schools and that money will be available to them for college (or to help them support their parents in old age). The public schools were decent when we moved here but are rapidly rotting away. Their high school is frightening, and another 200 from the no-child-left-behind program showed up again this year. My kids are among the last small group of Mormons to attend this school. In three years only one or two Mormon kids if any will attend their school each year.

    I agree that the heterogenous wards closer to the center of the city do a better job of including everyone. I suspect that if I lived in a ward “on the edge” they would have made my life at church pretty miserable and visa versa. (I am diverse, not ethnically, but diverse in perspective.) We have some pretty high status rich people in our ward and they tend to be the leaders so I am not certain that diversity trumps status. More of a near equal relationship. It seems that the Mormon first generation rich got that way because they had talent and that talent is useful in leadership roles. (Talent=sucking up skills from a darker perspective).

    But I worry about the retention of youth. Our diverse wards often do not have enough teenagers to function properly or else too many of them in very difficult situations that can drag even the best kids around them down. I think we pay a steep price in the poor retention of youth. I have watched far too many of our stalwart youth slip away as they leave for college. I can not believe we would have lost as many if they had been raised in large better functioning wards way out in the suburbs. I suspect that church wide statistics are collected that would prove or disprove this proposition. Do we retain a greater portion of youth in the wards out on the edge of the sprawl than we do in wards in the center of my donut? I suspect it is a complex question that needs to be asked in the strongholds (Utah), in the moderate strength areas (Denver,California, etc) and in the far flung areas. Anyone know the answer to this?

    Scotland (#7): What a sad story. One I fear could be the aproximate future of many other regions if we don’t get a better handle on this problem.

  18. Ugly Mahana on September 19, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    Yikes.

  19. Seth R. on September 20, 2008 at 10:25 am

    Mike, I suspect crime rates have less to do with how many poor people you have around, and more to do with how law enforcement and community planning are being handled.

  20. queuno on September 20, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    Another factor is the influence of private schools which cost $15,000-25,000 per year per student. (I tell a relative in Utah with 11 children that the public education of their family is worth more than 3 million dollars.) Most private schools have a church backing them up. I wonder if we couldn’t do well in this arena with BYU functioning as a flagship and the missionaries helping out. If we had the best private schools with a tuition advantage for our members, many intelligent ambitious people would beat a path to our baptism fonts. We might find the first generation less than entirely sincere, but we could then genuinely convert most of their youth and populate our church with the best and brightest of the next generation. The private schools tend to be in older more established areas and they tend to lift nearby property values. But there are many neighborhoods with high house prices, high crime, horrible schools, and long commutes.

    You’re presupposing that a private school is better than my school district’s public education (at a fraction of the cost).

    I like the relative solitude that living in the suburbs provides. I’ll keep my 0.2 acre in the suburbs (a few hundred feet away from a large park) and send my children to the public schools, because (a) the schools are just as good as a private school, (b) taxes are way cheaper than in the city, and (c) crime is less, and (d) it’s quieter.

    Besides, I don’t want people joining the church because of our supposed skills with education.

    And while I do have a 75-mile daily round trip to work, I don’t actually go to work every day. I telecommute 2-3 or more days per week.

    Now, what was the benefit again of living in the city?

  21. queuno on September 20, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    But I worry about the retention of youth. Our diverse wards often do not have enough teenagers to function properly or else too many of them in very difficult situations that can drag even the best kids around them down. I think we pay a steep price in the poor retention of youth. I have watched far too many of our stalwart youth slip away as they leave for college. I can not believe we would have lost as many if they had been raised in large better functioning wards way out in the suburbs. I suspect that church wide statistics are collected that would prove or disprove this proposition. Do we retain a greater portion of youth in the wards out on the edge of the sprawl than we do in wards in the center of my donut? I suspect it is a complex question that needs to be asked in the strongholds (Utah), in the moderate strength areas (Denver,California, etc) and in the far flung areas. Anyone know the answer to this?

    It’s sort of a self-perpetuating problem. Parents with the ability or the opportunity to move, tend to select wards that have strong youth programs (which, tend to also be located near good schools). You get transferred to a new part of the country, and you’ve got 3 kids — are you going to move to a ward with 8 kids in the youth program or the ward with 40? How about 60? Is there a tipping point where too many is too many?

    If it’s on the edge of the sprawl that we retain youth better, it’s only because more and more members have moved there, including the best youth leaders. If you have a ward that has suffered significant membership drain, you are likely to have retention problems with the members (adult and youth alike) that remained.

    I think the solution is partly that wards should be drawn to be more diverse. Why couldn’t wards be drawn that includes areas of downtown *AND* suburbs? This doesn’t work everywhere — in North Texas you have entire stakes comprised of suburbs and exurbs. But how about Utah? [I do NOT by any means intend this as a slight to any particular city. I am NOT Utah bashing.] Couldn’t you take redraw wards in such such a way as to maximize youth membership?

  22. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 21, 2008 at 12:21 am

    I have 3 adult children. Son #1 is a nurse and lives in a duplex in the SE part of SLC. Son #2 is a computer jock whose wife is a database manager and they are strapped paying for an expensive house next to the mountains because they want a better class public school for their kids. Our daughter is an at-home Mom who home schools and lives in a house in Kennewick WA in a typical suburban development that is right next door to a business park where her husband works and the main shopping mall for the 100,000 people in the commute zone. Her city was a tiny farm town 50 years ago so there is no urban core. They make their choices based on what they can afford. My son in law made a deliberate choice to avoid the many high paying computer pro jobs in Utah and (after 6 years in the Air Force) return to his smaller home town, which has a highly educated high tech economy with a Federal research center and many nuclear engineers (like Idaho Falls my own town). With high speed internet, express delivery and jet travel, businesses and people are moving to such smaller communities with higher quality of life and natural amenities like the Columbia River and Yellowstone. They meet the Plat of Zion better than core cities or suburbs.

  23. Jim Donaldson on September 21, 2008 at 12:21 am

    I am not convinced that having more youth is significant to youth retention. I used to believe in critical mass and I’ve swung all the way around. There are just so many variables that isolating cause and effect is pretty much futile, I think. My daughters grew up in wards with small youth programs (one year one of my daughters was pretty much the only seminary student), where often the adult leaders outnumbered the kids. They are both still active as adults and they believe they had strong memorable youth experiences. Neither went to church sponsored colleges and have had primarily fine nonmember friends throughout their lives. I think it was far more important that they had productive relationships with youth leaders than with other youth, which is often, at least in our experience, a very mixed bag.

    About ten years ago a number of stake boundaries in the southeast quadrant of greater Denver were redrawn so that each stake was more or less pie-shaped with homogeneous suburban wards on the outside and a heterogeneous city ward on the inside. Our stake president said at the time the redesign was primarily to strengthen youth programs. It hasn’t really worked very well, in my opinion. The distances (at least 23 city miles from edge to edge) made anything more than the occasional large stake activity (youth conference, girls camp) impractical and then the kids tended to ward-up anyway, because those were the only kids they knew. The wards with large youth populations where most of the kids’ best friends were other church members tended to maintain that identity, which is understandable. We had a consolidated stake scout troop for a while but that was abandoned and the program sent back to each ward, some with many scouts and some with very few. Just like before.

    I agree that youth retention is staggering problem, I just think the number of kids involved does not have all that much to do with success. In fact, I think sometimes large numbers may result in parents thinking that youth leaders and other youth will carry that ball. But they don’t. Youth retention remains primarily the parents’ responsibility. Sometimes it is easier to understand that if there is no apparent alternative.

  24. James McMurray on September 21, 2008 at 1:04 am

    Mike-

    I’m sorry, that sounds like a horrible ordeal. Isn’t it interesting how significantly individual experience can impact our individual attitudes about perspectives on supposedly “objective” topics? That said, I find your suggestion that “most” of the poor suffer from the host of social ills you describe to be highly problematic. For example, you said:

    “Most of the poor today have not only a poverty of money; but a poverty of integrity, character and ambition.” and “…most are morbidly overnourished and most can scrounge up enough to support various drug addictions.”

    Am I understanding this right? Do you truly believe that MOST of the urban poor are fat, drug addicted liars with no desire to improve their personal situations? If so, I find this outlook very troubling and uninformed. My personal experiences suggest otherwise (and not just from strolling around Detroit). I hope your negative experience hasn’t colored your perceptions to such a degree.

    Queuno:

    A shorter commute time is not the sole advantage to living in the city on both a personal and a societal level. On the personal level, the perceived advantages are guided by both circumstance and preference. There are trade-offs between suburban and urban living in both directions, and to me, it’s largely a value-neutral proposition (from a personal standpoint). For example, you have better access to public amenities and services in the city, while further out, those amenities tend to become privatized or lacking altogether ( i.e. cultural venues or sports teams). Different strokes. The kicker, as Brigham points out in the original post, there is that pesky “tragedy of the commons” phenomenon that exposes the hidden, negative effects of our individual behaviors multiplied on wider scale.

    I don’t view this as an all or nothing proposition – I see solutions that can more effectively realize the benefits of the positive aspects of suburban and urban life. Whether we are willing to accept what I see as our responsibility to the public good in this regard, as Brigham suggested, is the critical question. Since our current church leadership does not directly engage the membership on these issues in the 19th century, I expect there will be a wide range of opinions on the issue. Mine is only one.

  25. mike on September 21, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    I really appreciate this discussion. It is making me think and I agree with many comments and accept most of them as being correct in the context that they are made. This is a complex problem and I appreciate you bearing with me even if you disagree and pointing out weakneses in my ideas.

    #20 Queno. Part of me agrees with you. The problem is that my ward had lots of youth when I moved here 15 years ago and I thought I was choosing what you have. But it changed and I became wrong. So I should move? The funny thing, it is the ward that now resembles an inner city ward, the actual non-LDS community/neighborhood is not nearly as bad, but the public schools are going to pot. Years ago I was one of the first in my ward to see this coming and I attempted to get other ward leaders to do something about it and they told me that I was crazy. Even now some think this is just a cycle that will correct itself. Now it appears too late for some members of my family and many other youth and it will be much harder if possible at all to make this ward as youth vibrant as before. Once roots get put down and a person feels ownership and responsibility to the ward it is hard (and too expensive) to move.

    I agree that not all private schools are better than public schools. If you have a good public school, stick with it. Get involved with the PTA and do your part to keep it that way. (You probably already are doing this). Some private schools around here spend all their time whacking the kids over the head with the Bible and they don’t learn much else. When I moved here my public school was rated (SAT scores) in the top 5 in the state for over 10 years. But demographics shifted and it has deteriorated. The changes are subtle but gradually creap up on you until something horrible happens. Then it is too late and you wish you had done something different.

    My daughter claims that the “preppies” in the best expensive private schools have higher rates of sexual activity and drug use and their parents more naive. This may be self-serving since she doesn’t want to go there. A family with a girl in her senior year moved into our ward recently and they put her in an excellent private school but without any LDS students. She told my daughter that she has never met so many mean, snotty, stuck-up prissy girls in her life and is begging her parents to let her go with my daughter and her little “posse” of Mormon friends to a public school that is now obviously scary to sensible parents, but the tuition is already paid. She will eventually find a few good friends at that school.

    #23 Donaldson:
    Boy, I sure hope you are right about smaller not being that much worse because you are talking about my kids. Still, I would like to see some data, although with so many factors to control I agree it might be impossible to get meaningful data. Some of our local leaders have strongly disagreed with me in discussions similar to this, but I do believe in the concept of “critical mass’ and so does the Boy Scouts of America (not the local LDS winglet). They have more experience with youth than almost anybody else and more success. I have watched the BSA change the lives of several wayward boys, but our ward does not have the same record. I tend to trust the BSA perspective. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if President Monson was the source of this “BSA” perspective, he has been on the highest governing boards for years?) They recommend 5-8 boys in a patrol and at least 3 patrols in a troop for it to function properly. Those are volunteers. since the LDS church has a sort of conscription system, I would think it needs to be double those figures. That also is a good fit for my ideal Aaronic Priesthood with three quorums and about that many boys or more in each. I think about 40-60 in the troop is ideal. Our non-LDS troop is over 80 now and has some problems that we didn’t have before. But it could just as easily be attributed to the individuals involved.

    If we accept the premise that say 95% of the responsibility of youth retention is parental responsibility, then I wonder: why church? I can take my own kids camping on Sunday and do activities with them that build trust and enable me to teach them right and wrong. (I actually do camp with the non-LDS scouts and my son about once a month.) But then we automatically loose all the kids with significantly less-than-adequate parents, which might be the majority. And when I think about it, I am not all that great of a parent either. I have my strengths and weaknesses. I appreciate the influence of other parents with a different set of strengths and weaknesses. I learn from watching them. Perhaps my children will become some better combination of both than I can give them alone. The church youth programs ideally are designed to do this, in my opinion. Spouting “parental responsibility,” although technically correct, is a weak excuse for poor youth programs at church. We can do better than that.

    Good relationships with adult leaders might be the key. Since the better leaders tend to be the parents of the youth, more youth means more parents and a greater probability of that happening. In the past 10 years my boy scout son has had one such relationship, a young guy at Ga Tech from Wyoming (newly married without children) and it brought him back to church at least for the time. That was 2 years ago when the guy graduated and left and my son pretty much distains the rest of the LDS adult leaders, in stark contrast to the general admiration he has for his non-LDS scout leaders. I hate to say this, but the very worst ones are straight out of BYU and are holding so tightly to the iron rod that they have it right up their a**. They are so destructive to struggling youth. Whenever I hear some new couple say they just graduated from BYU, I start to retch; but I admit I should give them another chance, they can not all be that bad.

    The pie shaped wards in Denver sound like my stake, except they left the outer third of the pie in the suburbs. Or rather, as the donut I described above exploded, the outer third moved into the suburbs. I agree that it does not work very well. So when are they going to declare this experiment that jeopardized the eternal progress of our youth a colossal failure, appologize, retract all of their false prophecies and move the better half of my ward into a bigger ward that is already way too big for its building that they share with 4 other wards? The other half, we can just tell them to go to hell.

    Seriously, this is not a solution either. It is like we painted ourselves into a corner. And I can’t get out of my mind all the hyped up over-zealous blather over the pulpit that went into it. I think we need to consider way-outside-the box solutions. Like my private secondary education scheme which I admit (queno) has its flaws. Or building community centers like my Jewish friends. Or how about letting people pick the wards they want to attend instead of assigning them wards based solely on addresses and see if the invisible hand of the market (or the Spirit?) works. Or something. Maybe each community is different and the solution for each is different. But there goes Priesthood Correlation, the most important Mormon development in the last half of the 20th century.

    The problem of parents thinking the leaders should carry the ball with the youth is not confined to larger wards. In our small ward the ball is dropped 90% of the time. Frankly, none of the fathers of young men in the ward are fit to be a Young Men’s President. This past Friday night our most successful scout camping trip this year included 3 boys and 3 adult leaders, none were fathers of the boys. (I had to work or I would have been there.) We bought a huge 12 man tent last year with two rooms for the ward because some of the boys can’t afford camping equipment. My 15 year old son told the 3 adults they could not sleep in the big tent with the boys even if it was in a separate room. (BSA rules) He is bigger than they are so they didn’t argue. The 3 adults slept under the stars which was fine since it was dry. Then my son threw the other two boys out because they were giggling and acting like girls. So he had the big tent all to himself. Not that it was any advantage, just the principle of it. (You think he might need his father there?)

    #24 James. Yes, I think a qualified most. Depends on where and how you define most, which for me is 51% or more in a given locality. The fat part is pretty obvious, just look around; on public transportation for example, where I spend 2 hours every day. And I have seen newspaper articles quoting studies about how fat southerners are getting, both races. Here is one that didn’t quite make my 51% criteria. http://www.cdc.gov/od/oc/media/pressrel/r991026.htm. Obesity is doubling every 7 years in Georgia and we have had time for 1 and 1/2 doublings since 1998 when that article was published; 17% to 34% and another 17% makes maybe 51%? That study was everyone and I think the poor people are more obese than average for all of the factors the article mentions which are more common among them.

    The drug addiction is harder to measure. But there are neighborhoods here where most would not be an exaggeration. I have walked down streets where there are so many discarded little 1 cm square blue zip lock bags that once held cocaine or heroin that you can not avoid walking on them with every step. It is not uncommon for people of all ages, even on up into their 70′s and 80′s to still be using cocaine. Cocaine is not considered by many in this community to be a dangerous drug, based on more than a century of widespread abuse. It used to be in coca cola. (coca=cocaine, cola=African kola nut with huge amounts of caffeine and smaller amounts of some aphrodisiac, or so they say.)

    If you understand the mentality of the drug culture, it is a fundamental denial of reality, responsibility, authenticity and a seeking of a false world of immediate, intense gradification. It is the very opposite of integrity and building a real future. It is far worse than a few petty lies to avoid the police. It is an entirely dishonest life and spiritual suicide. And our modern welfare state has made it possible, even comfortable. What I think of as “personal problems” they think of as a life choices that they are happy with (but they want me to pay for it).

    A few of my daughter’s friends from the ‘hood are taking hard classes and trying to get into a good college and make for themselves a better life. I would do anything to help them. We have invited them into our home for sleep-overs and such (just like Barack and Joe). Most of their friends from the ‘hood think they are selling out. They ridicule them and call them “Oreo’s.” They are hateful and mean to them in every way. These others seem like they could be pretty nice kids on the surface; but they fight against those who desire and cleave unto excellence and eventually they get addicted to something and in a bad marriage or no marriage with unwanted children and hateful and violent and the cycle deepens. So I would concur after further consideration that there are places where what I say above is not exaggerated and the problem is growing worse with each generation. So if I am wrong today I will become right tomorrow. Unless we change it.

  26. DavidH on September 21, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    The only published study of which I am aware that evaluated Church youth programs and their effect on outcomes was published in th Ensign about 23 years ago.

    Among other things, it found: “Some factors have little effect on whether a young man marries in the temple or goes on a mission: the distance he lives away from the meetinghouse, the number of young people in his school who are LDS, whether his parents were converts, his father’s occupation, or whether his mother is employed. Characteristics of the ward’s activity program—whether the ward sponsors athletic teams and events, schedules “special” activities for youth, or implements Scout programs—while contributing to the general spirit of the ward, seem to have little effect in and of themselves.”

    “Key to Strong Young Men: Gospel Commitment in the Home,” Ensign, Dec. 1984, 66–68

  27. James McMurray on September 21, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    Mike, you make some good and insightful points. I wouldn’t diminish the seriousness of the many problems we’re discussing here, or that they aren’t widespread (I think my warning light went on with your “most” comments, as to me that normally suggests a sizable majority, not just a simple one. Hopefully this explains why I initially gave such pause). To tie some of the themes of the discussion together, perhaps one of the biggest ways in which many today are poor is in a lack of role models, and while I’m sure many wards struggle with their youth programs (with leaders and youth), the institution itself is pretty remarkable in many ways.

  28. queuno on September 29, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    A shorter commute time is not the sole advantage to living in the city on both a personal and a societal level. On the personal level, the perceived advantages are guided by both circumstance and preference. There are trade-offs between suburban and urban living in both directions, and to me, it’s largely a value-neutral proposition (from a personal standpoint). For example, you have better access to public amenities and services in the city, while further out, those amenities tend to become privatized or lacking altogether ( i.e. cultural venues or sports teams). Different strokes. The kicker, as Brigham points out in the original post, there is that pesky “tragedy of the commons” phenomenon that exposes the hidden, negative effects of our individual behaviors multiplied on wider scale.

    Sure, public amenities are better “in the city”. But I don’t have to pay for them with my taxes, only my attendance. Does my attitude scale? No, I never said it did. You all can live in the city and fund the infrastructure that I like to frequently periodically.

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