Lancaster City (PA) -- Hard to believe, but not even 20 years ago, Queen Street was twice as wide -- twice as much asphalt! I almost didn't believe it myself, but the old satellite photos are not to be denied.
Now, as we all know, Queen Street is dominated by the verdant and beautiful -- and invaluable -- Queen Forest Corridor, which itself is part of the much larger Lancaster Urban Forest Reserve. Well, that's what the planners call it, anyway. To the rest of us, who've grown up with it, tended it, walked in it, ate from it, heated our homes from it and studied in it, it's just another part of our home, our beloved Lancaster.
This is the first in a series of retrospectives on the evolution of Lancaster since the Great Transition began nearly 20 years ago. In this inaugural report, we'll look at what many consider to be the foundation of Lancaster's Renaissance -- our very own Queen's Forest.
In the Spring of 2012, the second oil shock in four years hit hard. While, in 2008, the price of oil ran up to US$147 per barrel, the 2012 price was much more muted -- not even US$130. However, with the US economy still limping through a half-hearted -- and much disputed -- recovery from the "Great Recession," and many nations around the world experiencing cascading economic crises (what commentators today call "the death throes of the infinite growth paradigm"), even a muted oil shock was a big enough straw to finally break the camel's back. Economic activity came to a screeching halt nearly everywhere. Many were declaring it a second Great Depression.
Paradoxically, this moment proved a liberating one for many older American cities, particularly Lancaster, with its access to high-quality farmland, fresh water, and relative immunity (unlike the old coastal cities of New York, Miami and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia) from sea-level rise (though we have had our share of coastal refugees). Although the price of gasoline had dropped back below US$2, it turned out that most couldn't afford the gas at any price (and with hardly anyone buying gas, there was simply no incentive to invest in new oil infrastructure, exacerbating the problem). We were a city unemployed, and if what little money available wasn't going to food, it was going to housing and other necessities.
The boom in home gardening, which began after the 2008 financial collapse, really picked up in 2012, til it seemed like nearly everyone was growing food in any sunlit corner of the Earth they could find. Community gardens, such as at County Park and some School District property, really began to take off, particularly among renters.
Late in 2012, Mayor Gray took a decisive step when he imposed a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. Though decried by the banks, this action was very popular and has been credited with averting a new homeless crisis and preserving the burgeoning spirit of solidarity among the citizens of Lancaster.
Studies from that time show that many had less leisure time than before, yet since they were now working from home, they were reporting higher levels of satisfaction.
A brutal winter
The winter of 2012-'13 proved a devastating one. Though 2012 was, worldwide, the hottest year (yet) on record, one of the counter-intuitive effects of global climate change was that winter temperatures could be as extreme as summer temperatures. In the Northeast, the immediate cause was the disruption of Arctic weather patterns which resulted in occasional spikes of frigid Arctic air lashing southwards, coating the land in ice and snow for months on end. Compounding this was that many could no longer afford the natural gas or oil they needed to warm their homes. It was a crisis. Riots very nearly broke out at one point when, during one very cold morning after an even colder night, over a dozen sick and elderly people were found dead in their homes. The cause? Exposure.
The people were demanding action, but what could anyone do? It later came out that city staff, along with several non-profits worked feverishly throughout the winter months on a plan to save the city. "Those were some cold meetings," said one staffer, in an interview a decade later. "Even the city couldn't afford much heat and, besides, we all felt strongly we had to share the pain with the vast majority of Lancastrians, or live as hypocrites."
The Queen's Forest Working Group, or simply the Group, as they came to be known, had realized something many had yet come to accept: times had changed, and the traffic that was would never return. The city simply had too many miles of useless roadways. With most people now walking or bicycling, the streets were now eerily quiet -- and eerily empty. Recognizing the changed shape of the world, the Group hatched an ambitious plan: they would tear up half the city's roads.
And they'd begin with Queen Street.
Though brutal, the Winter of '12-'13 was mercifully short, with Spring coming a full two weeks early. This was the Group's cue. They quickly unleashed over three thousand residents in a massive public works project -- tearing up twenty feet of road down the entire length of Queen Street, from just north of the bridge over the Conestoga to the train station in the north. Many workers were paid in food, which the city and county had begun to accept in lieu of the old US dollars for property taxes. Many more, though, joined in for the sheer joy of tearing up the macadam, and the satisfaction of doing something with their hands for the greater good. The city then used a substantial portion of its ration of diesel fuel to haul in nearly 30,000 cubic yards of top soil, compost and mulch. And then they began to plant trees.
A forest born and a city reborn
Half-planned, half-wild, Queen's Forest became an icon for a city reborn. The plan was for the forest, stewarded by a corps of trained permaculturists, to provide food, fuel, stormwater management, cool air in the increasingly hot summers, wildlife habitat and a salve for a city in deep need of healing.
In just a few years' time, the planners and foresters expected the new Queen's Forest (the core of a planned city-wide system) to provide a substantial portion of the city's heating needs through a combination of a new centralized boiler system and the production of synthetic gas, or syngas, from sustainably charring biomass from the forest. The syngas would be a nearly 1:1 replacement for the now hard-to-get natural gas.
The next few years were tough, but the spirit of self-help and community action cultivated in those early days proved resilient.
Amazing how much a simple idea can change things, isn't it?