Law of Community Momentum Revisited

Disasters accelerate existing trends.

Joe Riley, former Mayor of 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 looking at some data relating to migration away from cities, I remembered an older post I wrote – about something I called the Law of Community Momentum. I developed the concept that a variation of Newton’s Law of Conservation of Momentum might help explain Mayor Riley’s “Law.”

I stated the Law as “A community’s trajectory will not change unless some force changes its path.” This says that if a community property has some sort of clear trend (e.g., loss of population, economic growth) that it will continue that trend unless or until some change occurs 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, and its converse. 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). Certainly the pandemic and the concomitant social unrest have exerted tremendous force on all of our lives. They are accelerating change across our communities.

Let’s look at a few examples of how a force can accelerate an existing trend. Over the last decade, videoconferencing had slowly matured and made some inroads in both business and education. In fact, when I started teaching in 2013, I had to learn how to teach online (as I’m sure my former students will attest, I was only sort of successful!). Over the last 15 years or so, governments and businesses have increasingly used some form of videoconferencing. Now, however, online interaction has virtually taken over education. Zoom and its siblings have not only changed how we do business but made drastic changes in our social interactions.

Over the last decade, the populations of New York and Illinois have been slowly decreasing. More recently, California has also begun to see a net outmigration. High taxes and arguably poor governance have “encouraged” those who can to leave, especially from urban areas. The pandemic and social unrest have changed this trickle to a stream – trucks are carrying people’s possessions out of these states at an accelerating rate – now at least twice what it was last year.

The parishes in the New Orleans metro area provide several examples. The city itself (Orleans Parish) has seen declining populations since 1960. Katrina (a most negative force!) accelerated that trend. 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 slowly 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 continues to shrink.

Newark, NJ 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 turned around; public services improved; investment began returning to the city. This shows that purposeful action aimed at overcoming existing trends can, in fact, change a community’s momentum.

One more example – Camden, NJ. When I was growing up in the Philadelphia area, Camden was a basket case. Unsafe to walk the streets; people fleeing to the suburbs; high unemployment and low quality of education. City leaders took some highly nontraditional steps (e.g., reconstituting the police force) to change the city’s trajectory. As a result, crime is at a 50-year low; unemployment (at least prior to Covid-19) was at its lowest in three decades; high school graduation rates were up 40%; billions of dollars were being invested in the city; its parks were providing social and recreational opportunities that would have been unimaginable two decades before.

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. Yet, in this time of the virus, I have to ask – what will become of those communities that do not or cannot arrest their trends? Whither Seattle, Portland, San Francisco? Recovery requires purposeful action – investment of money, people’s time and skills, and mobilization of the entire community. Will these communities be able to act purposefully to reverse their current trajectories?


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