In her 2014 book A Crisis of Community, Mary Babson Fuhrer wrote about the “trials and transformation of a New England Town, 1815-1848,” and how big changes happen to small communities. At the heart of her research was a daily diary kept during the period of study by Mary White – a resident of Boylston, Massachusetts, which is the subject town. In the book, the author describes the external influences at the time, such as expanding markets and advances in technology, but also the choices and actions of individuals and their internal motivation to “improve the opportunity” through new ways of interacting and thinking about the world, including the impact of improvements in transportation, for example:
“At the turn of the 19th century, a trip from Boylston to Boston was a two-day ordeal over poor roads; by 1825, a regular stage delivered Boylstonians to the city in about six hours. Less than a decade later, locals could take the railway cars from neighboring Shrewsbury for a two-hour trip to Boston. During the same decade, the Blackstone Canal provided a water route south to Providence and the Atlantic.” [p. 7]
For better or worse, the biggest changes to transportation in the past 200 years have involved paved roads, gas-powered vehicles, and air travel. There has been far less change in train travel in New England, in terms of routes and travel time, than we might expect. Taking a daily train commute to Boston, I can attest to this situation — there were more train routes for passengers and freight in the early and mid-1900s than today. On a positive note, an increasing number of abandoned railways have been converted to bicycle and pedestrian thoroughfares. Nonetheless, traffic congestion on roadways continues to cause delays and increased Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, adversely impacting the economy, the environment, and an individual’s satisfaction when trying to get somewhere.
Regardless of the transportation mode — and regardless of whether it’s about people, ideas, investment capital, energy, food, or manufactured goods — much change in the world is due to movement. Depicting and understanding movement between places is part of applying the spatial perspective. By applying this perspective, we not only perhaps “see what others can’t” but we see what can be done to “improve the opportunity,” for towns and regions. Mary White didn’t have GIS in the 1800’s, but she had the power of observation, and could see and describe change.
Regional connectedness is an important factor in economic health and prosperity. It can influence how rural and proximate urban areas develop, how well they function as places to live, work, operate a business, preserve heritage, and more. Economic activities and cultural cohesion are benefited by proximity and connectedness. It takes effort and energy to overcome distance. Economic activities and people tend to agglomerate around urban and industrial centers where the means and materials for production are accessible. The questions that the spatial perspective can help answer in this context include:
- How do we measure and analyze local interactions between places?
- How do we describe the patterns of interactions that we observe?
- How do we depict these interactions, spatially?
- How do we best support optimal build-out?
- How do we best support policy-makers?
Every place has a degree of uniqueness due to its location relative to other places — but paraphrasing a poem by John Dunne from the 1600s, “No [town] is an island entire of itself; every [town] is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”