The Great Localizing
A required ‘stay at home’ period has led to another, post-COVID trend: moving back to familiar streets.
The global COVID-19 pandemic and shelter-at-home protocols forced a record number of people to stay at home all day, where they learned to live, work, and go to school—for better or for worse. People hungered for the simple human touch and intimacy of being out and about in their area, shopping, and gathering for meals in a shared space.
After restrictions were lifted, plenty of parking spaces disappeared, and more restaurants started serving dinners outside on their sidewalks. But life wasn’t perfect: Some people who had worked from home for the past two-plus years continued to work at home. Some moved out of big cities where their companies are headquartered to take advantage of remote work and live in a more-affordable community.
Years of working at home have millennials and Gen Z members moving to newer, rural neighborhoods, where they can still work remotely—much to the detriment of urban centers,
Commercial spaces emptied because of the pandemic. But now, after the pandemic’s conclusion, many buildings are still empty. Some are being converted to affordable housing. This makes it possible for those who can’t work remotely, such as workers in the service industries, to live closer to their jobs. Cue localization.
The Cambridge Dictionary offers this description of localization: “The process of organizing a business or industry so that its main activities happen in local areas rather than nationally or internationally.” An example is small breweries, which have increased close to 50-fold in the last 20 years, from about 50 to 2,000 nationwide. Local coffee houses have shown a similar rise.
There are many factors driving localization. Let’s take them one at a time.
The Millennial and Gen Z Generations
Millennials and Gen Z are known for living at home with their partners for years. (Some millennials are still engaging in this practice as they head into middle age.) They haven’t done this voluntarily but out of necessity due to the high cost of rentals and other housing. Localization here is hit or miss: They stay where they are, or they move and need to be convinced to return.
In the latter case, there’s an unusual driving force: The effects of global climate change.
During a recent symposium by Green Builder Media, “Sustainability Symposium 2023, The Great Conversion,” attorney and policy advisor Cheyenne Hunt proved that the two generations, those born roughly between 1981 and 2012, are mad about global warming and won’t be taking it anymore. “Much of the passion and effort we need to continue progress in creating a sustainable world will come from this group,” she notes.
Gen Z members are feeling more anxious about the environment than any other generation—to the point where they're worried about having kids.
Members of these generations are more aware of and passionate about fighting the worst effects of global climate change, Hunt notes. They know what happens when the problem is not adequately addressed, despite the work of previous generations. They see it every day in the news and where they live—droughts, flooding, rising sea level, more intense and frequent super storms and tornadoes, and an explosion of people around the world leaving their homes, villages and cities, looking for a better place to raise their families.
“These are the generations that are feeling the weight of climate anxiety so significantly,” Hunt points out, “to the point where 40 percent [of Millennials and Gen Z] have said they have significant fears about having children.” But these people also understand the importance of reevaluation, change, and experimenting with creating a more livable world.
“They aren’t looking to companies to be perfect. They’re looking to companies to be human and participatory in society,” she says. “They want to see that you have weaknesses, areas that you recognize, and you’re self-aware enough to want to fix them. And then, what are you doing about it, and how are you telling a story around that?”
Back to a Beginning
Localization can take many forms, even an effort to restore a suffering neighborhood to happier times. Real estate developer and urban revitalization specialist Majora Carter, who was also a presenter at Green Builder Media’s sustainability symposium, discussed her and others’ efforts to “make neighborhoods where black and Hispanic kids will want to stay in after college.” Carter, who is also a MacArthur Fellow and Peabody Award-winning broadcaster with a passionate focus rooted in her experience growing up in the Bronx, says she saw the community where she grew up “become a place to escape from.”
After getting her education, Hunt decided to return and try to make it a place where she and others want to live. She envisioned a neighborhood where moderate to high-income people would like to stay, with amenities like bars and restaurants and top-notch housing options.
Efforts to improve knowledge of sustainability has helped keep residents of The Bronx in their neighborhoods to teach others.
At the symposium, Carter identified the South Bronx as once being far more than it would be just a few years later. She pulled out a photo. “This is the street on Hunts Point in Seneca that I would take from my house to walk down to the subway that took me to one of the best high schools in the country, the Bronx High School of Science,” she said. “I was a smart little kid who would grow up and be somebody, which meant I needed the education to get my butt out of there.”
She would return, however, to help her old neighborhood through efforts such as helping to prevent a waste processing plant from being constructed in the Bronx; enabling residents to launch green startup companies; and offering consulting services for towns and cities interested in sustainability.
In 2022, Carter published a book that gathers the wisdom of her experience—so far: “Reclaiming Your Community: You Don’t Have to Move out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One.” In it, she advocates localization tactics such as:
- Building mixed-income instead of exclusively low-income housing to create a diverse and robust economic ecosystem.
- Showing homeowners how to maximize the long-term value of their property so they won’t succumb to quick-cash offers from speculators.
- Keeping people and dollars in the community by developing vibrant “third spaces”—restaurants, bookstores, and cafes
Being the “BEST”
One of Carter’s crown jewel accomplishments is establishing a training program (BEST) to prepare the neighborhood’s many unemployed for local green color jobs designed to improve the neighborhood. Through BEST job training, residents learned such ecofriendly skills as green roof installation and maintenance, urban forestry, brown field clean up, and the retrofitting of buildings to increase energy efficiency. When local jobs became available, BEST graduates were the first to be tapped.
Programs such as BEST are a key component to ensuring localization, Carter notes. “Retaining homegrown talent is a critical part of creating a strong local economy that can resist gentrification,” she writes. “But too many people born in low-status communities measure their success by how far away from them they can get.”
COVID-19, Localization, and Supply Chains
The influence of the pandemic on supply chains has been a mixed blessing. Entrepreneurs like Mark Cuban are making it easier for people to shop from local stores online by supporting the tech startups that make that possible, such as U.S.A. Strong and Nearby. This local shopping phenomenon is partly due to the desire that started during COVID-19—people wanted to shop closer to home and are less likely to have loyalty toward a big box store.
A recent article in the New York Times covered the progress China is making in creating batteries using sodium rather than lithium. This is not a surprise; China is far ahead of any other nation in researching and deploying new batteries. But the research-related implications here are huge: Sodium has significant advantages over lithium-ion batteries.
It’s more abundant than lithium, is less expensive to mine, and does not need scarce elements such as cobalt and nickel to function. And, sodium batteries operate at full power in well below-freezing temperatures, whereas lithium-ion batteries lose efficiency in cold weather.
However, two factors in battery production lean toward localization. The U.S. has about 90 percent of the easily processed salt globally. The salt is abundant and easily extracted from fly ash underground in Wyoming. Miners are protected from workplace misuse and exploitation, and sodium is much less environmentally harmful to extract from the Earth.
Also, cars have batteries that can charge at home or during the day on rooftops and parking garages at the local shopping center, powered by the sun. Batteries are produced locally; and they support distributed generation goals, making the grid more flexible, efficient, and responsive to local power fluctuations or shortages—meaning fewer power blackouts or rolling blackouts. A more-stable grid might even reduce the chance of forest fires.
The Federal Government’s Role
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) reveals that a big national government can use its power to support people in local communities outside of Washington, D.C. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, in the next 10 years or so, the IRA will result in:
- 2.4 million electrification upgrades for low- and moderate-income families.
- 1.2 million whole-house, performance-based energy retrofits of market-rate homes.
- 7.2 million heat pumps installed.
- 115 million square feet of retrofitted commercial space
IRA offers states and local governments much leeway in deciding what to do with the money and how to spend it. For example, $30 billion will go to state and city governments for greenhouse gas reduction programs for local communities.
Also, the Biden Administration, the EPA, and the U.S. Department of the Treasury recently announced changes in the incentives for electric vehicle (EV) adoption. There are now several requirements that help push a localization agenda.
- The Federal government is offering a tax credit of up to $7,500 for buying certain electric or hybrid vehicles. Only 11 cars made by Tesla, General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen will qualify for the full tax credit.
- Only domestic automakers will quality. Automakers must get a certain percentage of materials for batteries from the United States or its allies, but not China, to be included in the tax credit program.
- The number of eligible vehicles will gradually increase as more EVs are in domestic manufacturers’ lineups. There are income limits for buyers and sales price limits for cars. The Ford 150-Lightning (the electric version of the standard Ford 150, which in 2022 was the most popular vehicle in America) will qualify for the full credit. But the Ford Mustang electric version will be eligible for only half, or $3,750—sorry, Boomers.