The price of progress

“Do not expect justice where might is right.” — Plato

Summer in this town sounds like jackhammers pulsing and backhoes scraping the asphalt. Towering cranes loom over my head on my walk to work, and I feel anxious.

I’m not an Iowan. I grew up 1,000 miles away, on the western side of the Catskills in Upstate New York. Now when I mention Upstate I feel the name may evoke bucolic images of organic farms and not the impoverished wilderness punctuated by slouching Rust Belt cities (Utica, Binghamton, Poughkeepsie, Troy) that it was for me most my life. I remember people talking longingly about the prosperity of the bygone days of IBM and Proctor and Gamble, the corporations that pulled up stakes, moved their operations south or overseas and left benzine in our rivers and freon in our dirt.

But now I’m a resident of Iowa City, and I can hear similar people talking at the lunch counter, proudly touting the progress, declaring, “There are more cranes in Johnson County than anywhere west of the Mississippi.” And though I doubt the validity of that claim, I have no doubts about the unease it makes me feel; why does all of this growth feel so much like decay?

Illustration by Tim Taranto
Illustration by Tim Taranto

Will a mixed-use development project that includes hotels, office and commercial retail spaces, condos and apartments offer you a space for quiet reflection? Will an Uber ride help you build a meaningful relationship to your landscape? Will a new tequila bar nourish your body, an athletic and yoga wear retailer bolster your self worth? Is there anything that we can purchase or consume that will increase our capacity to love? It is unclear what we actually expect to gain by this growth, but what has been made apparent by the Rose Oaks development project and now with the Forest View Mobile Home Courts is that this progress has a cost in the form of disrupted communities and upturned lives.

“We want them to be a part of the community going forward. We’re designing larger, newer, safer lots just south of where we’re standing right now,” said a partner in the investment company planning to develop the Forest View site, in KCRG news brief. But residents who have voiced their concern with this development, a project that directly impacts their lives, have been met with eviction notices. Does being legally in the right make it right? Because we cannot easily assign a monetary value to the notion of home, does that mean that it does not have value?

In the face of a thriving economy, it’s essential that we reflect upon the human cost of this form of growth. Do we measure the wealth of a community by its median household income or by the volume of the laughter that can be heard in that home? Is it the architecture of the building you work in or the relationships that you make there that help to make the work meaningful? Would you rather live in a booming city of cranes or a city that believes in the value of a peaceful nest?


  1. How much peace can one find in a nest where the surroundings do not provide sustenance for the inhabitants? Forget the architecture of the workplace – before a person can find meaning in an occupation, a person first needs to have a job!

    So yes, a growing economy can lead to greater potential happiness insofar as it allows people the opportunity to work and thrive where they did not have this opportunity before. If there is disruption to those already content, it would be prudent to find some accommodation so all can share in this new found prosperity.

    But let us not shun growth because it feels uncomfortable at times. “There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.”

    1. Tim,

      I agree. A city is like an ecosystem that needs energy and resources to support its organisms . Think of a baby bird, happy and warm, swaddled in its nest of twigs and grasses. Well, that baby bird would be cold and depressed if there weren’t landscaped office parks and golf courses nearby. Of course, I have seen some cases where birds have scavenged for alternative materials from the environment like plastics and synthetic fabrics, but those nests end up looking garish, and frankly, pretty crass.

      Surroundings matter. When that young turkey grows up to be someone’s thanksgiving dinner, it will be a much more vibrant and sustainable family meal if its served with other birds inside it, as Turducken technology has shown.

      To cultivate such an invincible core is in itself a victory. It is also the greatest benefit. The same true for an urban downtown — the chicken in the Turducken, if you will. Those who can succeed in this endeavor will savor unsurpassed happiness of a bird in its nest. I guess in that example the ‘baby bird’ is a dead chicken using other dead birds as a nest, but you know what I mean.

      In the immortal words of Zen master Ts’ai Ken T’an, “Water which is too pure has no fish.”

  2. I think people are happiest when development stops the exact second I consider myself a member of that community. If there are not enough places to live and rent goes up, that’s just the price of living in such a unique environment. It’s worked out great in San Francisco.

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