The Law of Conservation of Community Momentum

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”Disasters accelerate existing trends.” – Mayor Joe Riley (Charleston, SC)

”Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.” – Isaac Newton (translated from the Latin in wikipedia)

Remember back in high school physics when your teacher droned on about “a body in motion tends to stay in motion; a body at rest tends to stay at rest.” This past week as I was dealing with a family situation in Florida – far from my usual haunts – I found my mind wandering as I thought about community resilience (I know, I know; why can’t I think about something that really matters – like football?). At some point the idea struck me that a variation of Newton’s Law of Conservation of Momentum might help explain Mayor Riley’s “Law.” So how about a Law of Conservation of Community Momentum that generalizes Riley’s Law?

“A community’s trajectory will not change unless some force changes its path.”

This says that if a community has some sort of clear trend – whether the community is growing or declining, it will continue that trend unless or until something happens to alter the community’s path. This means that if the community is on a downward trend, then a negative force is likely to accelerate the trend. In this context, a “force” may be a natural event (e.g., a hurricane) or an intentional human action (e.g., investing in the community, making policy changes).

Let’s look at a few examples. The population of Detroit – and along with it the city’s delivery of public services – has been in decline since 1950. There has been little private investment in the city, and a series of ineffective political leaders. A clear case of unchanging trajectories. However, if the city is able to exit bankruptcy according to its plan, the city will shed $7 billion in debt, and have $1.4 billion to invest in improved delivery of public services. While this is unlikely to lead to population increases, it should be enough to halt the population decline.

The population of the parishes in the New Orleans metro area provide several examples – both positive and negative. The city itself (Orleans Parish) has seen declining populations since 1960. Katrina (a most negative force!) accelerated that trend. However, there appears to be an uptick since 2010 (according to the American Community Survey). If this constitutes a reversal of the previous trend, it probably reflects the positive policies instituted by Mayor Landrieu. Certainly his policies have turned around the decline in income and improved the performance of the educational system.

Tammany Parish has seen continuous growth in population over the last 15 years – Katrina affected this only slightly, bending the curve somewhat downward. The stats for St. Charles Parish tell a similar story. One of the hardest hit parishes – St. Bernard – also experienced a population decline during the 2000’s.  Katrina accelerated the trend and it now appears that the rate of decline has increased. The same holds true for Jefferson Parish.

Greensburg, KS, offers more examples. Its population had been declining since 1960 when it was hit by an EF-5 tornado in 2007. Housing prices and average income had also declined. The city’s population was immediately halved, and does not appear to be increasing. However, the large amount of external aid and investment in the community – and the persistence of its Mayor – have been positive forces boosting household incomes and strengthening the housing market.

One more example – Newark, NJ. It had experienced a population decline since the 1940’s, amid problems caused by “White flight” and ineffective and/or corrupt politicians. Its overall decline – especially in providing public services – mirrored that of Detroit.  Under then-Mayor Cory Booker (2006-13), the population decline has been turned around; public services have improved; investment is returning to the city.

All of these examples show that a community’s trajectory is not its destiny – while a disaster may accelerate negative trends, good leadership can help the community recover and perhaps even thrive. But without investment of time, money and thought, a community will not change its trajectory: resilience requires investment. The Law of Conservation of Community Momentum appears to be a useful way to look at a community’s evolution – and its resilience.

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