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Is Macon Really on the Move?

By Alan Wood

Editor of Georgia Watchdog

When I chose the title for this article, I thought I’d give my opinion, support it with some facts, and that’d be the end of it. But once I started thinking more deeply about the subject, I realized this is quite a complex topic, with lots of facets and nuances. You’d need to look at employment, population growth, shopping, attractions, education, culture, tourism, entertainment, crime, and dozens of other issues to really be able to fully delve into trying to answer this question.

So instead, this article will serve more as an introduction to the question of whether Macon is “on the move” or not. In this first edition of the series, I plan to talk first about some personal memories of Macon some decades ago, and a bit later about something called urban scaling — as well as what Macon can learn from some real historical antecedents, ancient cities.

This will be an ongoing series.  I welcome your feedback and thoughts. If you think Macon is on the move, or not, feel free to let me know by commenting on this article or through social media. I can be reached in the comments below the article or by Twitter or Facebook, if you prefer.  You can also reach me at alanwood@maconmonitor.com.

 

If You Grew Up in Macon, Do You Remember When…?

“If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, ‘What’s your business?’ In Macon they ask, ‘Where do you go to church?’ In Augusta they ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is ‘What would you like to drink?’” ― John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story

Macon certainly resembles that remark. It’s been said that we have more churches per capita than just about any other city in the country. Whether that’s true or not, no one can argue that churches do play a central part in the life of Macon-Bibb County. But in these articles, I want to discuss Macon beyond simply the number of churches, and try to give my own answer to the question of whether Macon is truly on the move or not, starting from my personal perspective. But I also realize I’m just one voice, and I’m open to others, including yours.

The answer to the question certainly depends on whom you ask, and which part of Macon you’re referencing. Talk to a dozen people and you’ll get twelve distinct answers.  Whichever side of this question you fall on, you could make a good case either way. After all, positive and negative news and examples aren’t hard to find.

The phrase “Macon is on the Move” is being bandied about by many in town, not least by Mayor Robert Reichert.

No doubt the phrase was chosen to infuse a sense of optimism and hope among the people in Macon-Bibb, given so much negativity that you tend to hear more frequently. I think everyone who lives in Macon-Bibb wants us to be on the right path, and I certainly do as well. I suppose I fall in the cautiously optimistic camp.

I have an interesting perspective. I was born and raised in Macon, but then spent a good chunk of my adulthood living in other cities.  I moved back to Macon again not so long ago. That gap and experience away from Macon allows me to view it both as a native, yet also as a bit of an outsider.

When I was growing up in Macon, I never felt a sense of fear from crime. Certainly there was crime back then as well, but the biggest difference was the lack of the internet and, especially, social media. I’m sure just growing older factors in to that as well, since youth gives you a sense of invulnerably. If a crime occurs now, you’ll quickly hear about it on Facebook or Twitter, but back then, about your only sources of news were from television stations and the newspaper.

Many people would probably be shocked to learn that violent crime is actually down to levels not seen since the 1970’s.  Macon and Georgia as a whole follow these national trends, as you can see on this link that shows data from 1960-2013. It’s also worth noting that our population in Georgia has more than doubled from what it was in 1960, but overall our crime rate is lower than it has been in decades.

The other major difference of growing up in Macon today versus in my childhood are things like school shootings like those that happened in Columbine and Sandy Hook. As a child, I remember taking an air pistol that resembled a German Luger to show and tell at Porter Elementary school. It wasn’t loaded with an air canister or any pellets, so it was relatively “safe,” but not a wise decision even back then. And before you ask, no, my parents had no idea I had taken it to show and tell.  I was called to the principal’s office at the end of the day — not because I was in trouble, but because he had heard about it, and wanted to see it for himself before I got on the bus to head home. If that had happened today, I’m confident the police would have been called immediately, and my life would have turned out differently.

In 2015, students can get expelled for even using their fingers to simulate a gun. My decision to take an air gun to school in the second grade was foolish, but I also think expelling a kid who uses his fingers as a gun during recess is equally preposterous. Surely there is some middle ground between safety and insanity, and I’m among those who think we’ve gone overboard when a kid playing cops and robbers with his fingers at recess can be expelled.

Another big change is the freedom we had to play outdoors. Even as a very young child, I would ride my bike to my friends’ houses a mile or even further away to play.  I’d frequently not return home till after dark. My Mom bought me a light for my bicycle that worked off of pedal power to make sure I could see and be seen. That’s almost unthinkable now, and a woman was charged for doing exactly what I did my entire childhood. So even as overall national violent crime rates may have fallen, there seems to be a general consensus that it’s a far more perilous world for our children.

Kids of my generation also just spent more time outside in the yard and with our friends. I had an Atari and later a Colecovision (I am really dating myself here) as a young child but I still preferred outdoor play to video games. But I also must admit that if I had a large HDTV and a PS4 back in my childhood, I might have been doing exactly what kids do today, so I can’t fault them entirely.

Macon City Hall

Macon City Hall

I’m not the only one that waxes nostalgic about the Macon of old. There is a very popular Facebook group called “If you grew up in Macon, Do you remember when…?” This group has over 8,000 members. Some of my more cherished memories include going down the water slide at Sandy Beach. I’m not sure how many years they had the water slides, but they were certainly a lot of fun while they lasted.  Cool to hear that even better ones may be coming back.

I also remember swimming at Kraftsman and Tama Lakes. Like the water slides at Tobesofkee, these places are also closed to the public now. Tama (also known as Bankston) lakes was especially fun as they blasted music over the speakers and had the best pizza and hot dogs in town at their concession stand. On a warm Saturday afternoon, there were easily a hundred or more people swimming, and I knew almost everyone there. It was also a great place to go fishing with my Dad.  I believe all of those places ended up closing over lawsuits from injuries and parents suing. Our litigious society is nothing new, and one reason why we see so many stupid warnings to the point we now have websites poking fun at them.

I also remember fishing for trout in the water fountain of Macon Mall. Back then, a few times a year, they’d stock a large water fountain in the mall with rainbow trout.  You could pay a few bucks to get a fishing pole baited with corn and fish right there in the fountain. You got to keep what you caught. If memory serves, they did this at both the Macon Mall and Westgate Mall, which closed not many years after the newer Macon Mall opened.

But that’s a long-enough journey down memory lane.  Let’s look at Macon in the year 2015. We may no longer have a Zayre’s, Hardees, or Del Taco in Macon anymore,  but we now have Target, and soon a Chipotle’s. So things are not all bad.

What Can Macon Learn about Urban Scaling From Ancient Cities

By living in larger and more densely populated settlements, the ancient peoples scattered all over the world were able to be far more productive. This still holds true today as people in densely packed urban centers continue to be more productive than people in cities with a greater urban sprawl and lower population density. This is according to some new research completed by scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Santa Fe Institute.

There are a few reasons for this higher productivity. When people live closer together, more services and also infrastructure are packed more tightly together. In ancient times, that might have meant more places to procure basic essentials like food, water, and clothing within a short walk on a paved road. Ancient people not living in a densely populated city would have needed to travel far and wide, often taking an entire day’s journey to collect similar wares that a city dweller might be able to buy within a stone’s throw of his or her house.

They also risked being robbed by highway bandits. That also applies to modern cities, but instead of traveling by foot, modern people would mostly be using a car, subway, or bus for longer distances, though, admittedly, many people in cities like New York (but not Macon) can buy most of their essentials within walking distance of their residences.

In modern cities just as was the case  in ancient cities, productivity increases along with population growth. Generally speaking, the population will always outpace the infrastructure. Anyone who has been stuck in Atlanta traffic will quickly agree and understand that principle. But unlike the infrastructure that never seems to keep up with demand, the availability of goods and services will generally outpace the population growth. Essentially that means that demand never exceeds supply, and these two principles are the foundation of what scientists call “Urban Scaling,” which is mathematically predictable.

The scientists behind this study published all their results here which includes a great deal more detail than I will be able to cover in this article. I did find one quote by Scott Ortman, anthropologist and a faculty member at the Anthropology Department, University of Colorado, Boulder, that I think is applicable to Macon.

“As the population of a community or settlement grows, the total production of that group grows even faster,” Ortman said. “Urban scaling theory makes the argument that the increase in productivity emerges from the increased rate of social interactions that occur. It’s cheaper for people to interact with each other because they are physically closer.”

In this scientific study they studied population growth in Mexico city from 2,000 years ago. Luckily for these scientists, surveyors back in the 1960’s in Mexico city had completed a number of detailed surveys in the Basin of Mexico which is the outskirts of modern day Mexico City which is among the largest cities in the world. They found artifacts spanning 2,000 years and from four eras before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. They discovered that the more populous the settlement, the more productive it became, which followed the same mathematically predictable pattern found in modern cities today.

“It was amazing and unbelievable,” says Ortman. “We’ve been raised on a steady diet telling us that, thanks to capitalism, industrialization, and democracy, the modern world is radically different from worlds of the past. What we found here is that the fundamental drivers of robust socioeconomic patterns in modern cities precede all that.”

One other reason densely packed cities are more productive is also the human and social element. Cities, at their core, are places that encourage social interaction. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at ancient or modern cities in Asia, Africa, Europe, or the America’s. You can find a lot of common elements including public monuments, housing, places to shop, eat, and work. Humans are social creatures by nature, and thrive in groups.

At the center of both ancient and many modern cities were plazas and squares. These are open areas that allow people to gather for events, or just to mingle and commune with each other. Our indoor malls can fulfill this to a degree, but the primary purpose of malls is to shop, so there’s less likelihood for casual interaction among patrons in comparison. Probably a closer model would be outdoor parks or beach boardwalks with large groups of people strolling without a purpose or on a mission to buy a birthday gift for someone.

The reason I wrote about urban scaling, ancient cities, and plazas is because I think there are lessons to be learned as Macon attempts our own revitalization efforts. When you think of some of the great cities of the worlds, nearly all of them have a city center or plaza. The Piazza del Campo in Sienna Italy, Plaza Hidalgo in Mexico City, Picadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square in London are but a few. Now, I realize Macon does not have the money or people to build anything to compete with these much larger rivals. But I think if Macon wants to really move forward, we need a better “gathering space” than we currently have.

The largest park in Macon is Central City Park. But there are a few problems with this space. Unlike typical plazas or parks which are very pedestrian friendly, Central City is a multi-purpose mess. There are lots of very unattractive buildings, softball fields, an old horse track now used by occasional walkers, a baseball field, and only a small portion of the space is anything resembling a park where people would want to spend time on a regular basis. Outside of events and festivals, it really is not a popular meeting spot. I think a great idea to bring more people and a sense of community downtown would be to either create an open space plaza and/or a real waterfront development complete with shops, restaurants, and entertainment that is also open at night.

I think the move towards making downtown Macon a more attractive living option could have some very positive benefits. A busy and thriving downtown is essential to the health and prosperity of all of Macon-Bibb County. There are certainly some difficult obstacles, but none are insurmountable. But in order to sustain an influx of people downtown, we would need to attract more business, and also address parking.

I want to hear from You

What are your thoughts about population density and urban sprawl in Macon-Bibb County? Do you think the current growth pattern is sustainable? Do you think changes need to be made? Would a plaza or more developed waterfront park along the river help bring more people downtown? Do we need more green zones and community input? Does Macon need a long-term strategic development plan like other cities our size?

Let me know your ideas and suggestions. As I wrote earlier, this is an on-going series, and I’ll try and share my ideas on new issues occasionally. I welcome your feedback, and may use your ideas in future articles to help answer the questions of whether Macon’s on the move — and if it’s not, why not.

 

 

 

 

Currently there are "4 comments" on this Article:

  1. Dave Oedel says:

    Looking forward to this series, Alan.

    As to the urban scaling data from urban prehistory, note that the scholars are looking at really tiny populations from our perspective in the modern world. It’s hard to see how that’s particularly relevant to the big populations we’re dealing with today.

    For instance, sprawling cities like Atlanta, Houston and LA have done much better than many of their more densely populated counterparts for most of the past 50 years. How does the urban scaling research relate to that?

    Sometimes with really high density and population overload, people prefer sprawl, and then are apparently more productive and happier in their sprawled, more private circumstances.

    On the other hand, Macon-Bibb has sprawled for the last 50 years or so with virtually no population gain — and probably not a lot of increased economic vitality or happiness, either.

    It’s an interesting set of questions.

  2. chip says:

    one thing that would help down @ central city park, along the heritage trail & @ tatnal square park. have water fountains & restrooms open. almost every time i go to central city park the bathroom is locked no water fountains, along the heritage trail i know of one water fountain near the spring street landing. @ tatnal square the restroom is locked everytime i have been up there. not sure what the answer is i know they have to deal with people tearing up stuff but something needs to be done.

    • Alan Wood says:

      I agree 100% Chip and I have experienced the exact same thing. Anytime I have needed to use a bathroom at Central City park it was locked and closed. I am not sure if it is ever open. Macon needs better bathrooms and access to water fountains. They don’t even necessarily need cooled fountains but at least some providing water.

      • chip says:

        i agree macon is on the move. one thing that needs to happen put more family related activities down town. they have enough bars & clubs. with all these lofts N fixing up the area around mercer now young families are moving into the area. have been attending the macon action plan activities lots of ideas of what people want to see. hoping a devoploper will come in & build something cool. would have really liked that water park going in @ lake tobo to be down town along the river front. what could have been. see someone has brought the hotel @ first street. why not use the bottom floors for hotel & top floors for lofts or a senior living place.

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