Eugene’s Future Plans Must Be Deep and Wide

Readin’ in the Rain had a good run, encouraging us each February to read the same book to while away those last, drippy months of Oregon winter. Reading a book together offers a different satisfaction than we get from poring over seed catalogs, waiting for the weather to break.

The program ended in 2009 and no title has been offered for 2011, so I’ll suggest one: “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells. The book’s intrigue is especially relevant this year, because Eugene and Springfield are required to peer into their now separate futures and plan for the decades ahead.

Spoiler alert: If you intend to read the book and you don’t want it ruined for you, kindly skip to my final paragraph. If you’re easily offended by jokes, you may also want to follow that advice. (Consider yourself warned.)

Wells takes us with his Time Traveler far into the future: the year 802,701 A.D., to be precise. The Time Traveler first encounters the Eloi, round white descendants of humans who seem to have reached the bliss we all hope for. They bounce along, giggling and picking flowers, without a care in the world — until night falls. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

The Eloi are not alone on the planet. The Time Traveler sees smokestacks and hears the rumbling of machinery coming from underground. He then encounters his first Morlock, also a descendant of humans. Evolution has divided the genus into two separate species. Morlocks are nocturnal creatures with huge eyes, the night shift of humanity. They run the machinery that keeps the world going.

The Time Traveler assumes, as we do, that the Eloi have enslaved the Morlocks to do all the work required for survival.

Before I tell you what the Time Traveler discovers, let me bring things closer to home with two jokes, first one told in Springfield about Eugene, then one told in Eugene about Springfield.

About Eugene: “Do you know why so many hippies move to Eugene? Because they heard there are no jobs there.”

About Springfield: “Do you know why Eugene residents go to yard sales in Springfield? To buy their stuff back.”

Both those jokes could be construed as mean, but they survive because they wrap a tiny grain of truth around absurd exaggeration. Meanwhile, back to our story.

The Time Traveler is mystified why the Eloi are frightened — scared to death — of the dark. He slowly learns that the Morlocks hunt the Eloi at night, and that they eat them. Before the reader or the protagonist can absorb that horror, the darker revelation follows. It’s the Morlocks who have done the enslaving, and they forbid the Eloi from doing work because they prefer the taste of pudgy flesh. They’ve gained power and evolved separately over hundreds of millennia by their willingness and ability to do work.

Now let’s take our own time machine backwards. Less than a century ago, the common synonym for work was “industry.” Industrial land was space set aside by city planners where work would be done. Eugene now seems to be running out of it.

Some would prefer to see Eugene giggle and pick flowers, hoping for the best. They insist that Eugene has enough land for the work we like to do — namely thinking, shopping, dining, applauding. Those “dirtier” sectors of the economy are pushed east, where Springfield certainly will welcome them.

The trades attract workers with less education and (since the collapse of private sector unions) more transience. Higher crime rates follow. Lower property values in Springfield lessens Eugene’s need for affordable housing.

That may all be true, but what if we take a much longer view of things? Do we really want our conjoined cities evolving in such distinctly different directions?

“Envision Eugene” has deliberately taken the state mandate for 20-year land use planning and used it to launch a community conversation about Eugene’s future for at least a generation beyond that requirement. Planning broadly and deeply for our collective future is hard work, but it’s also essential work. Eugene’s future can be crafted only by Eugene. It’s not like we’ll be able to go to Springfield to buy it back.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs here. He has served as a member of the Community Resource Group, one component of the Envision Eugene project.