Shout out to Normal! – A reflection from the Urban Funnel

by Christine Skolnik

Last October I took the Amtrak to Bloomington-Normal.  The first amazing fact about that trip was that I had two separate reasons to be there on the same weekend: the Illinois Sustainable Universities and Colleges Symposium and parent’s weekend at Lincoln College.  There was much of interest in Normal, but that’s not quite my thesis.  My aim is to talk a little bit about the region to counteract the constant centripetal pull of the urban “center”. . .  just a little.

As I boarded the train in Union Station I was acutely aware of the fact that I had only been downstate on one previous occasion (in eleven years).  I still find it strange that many Chicagoans are far more likely to travel to Los Angeles or New York than Springfield or Normal.  And this isn’t just a function of cosmopolitanism and privilege.  Urban “creatives” on both coasts travel within their regions for business and pleasure by planes, trains, and automobiles.  Chicago may be more of an “urban funnel” than many other large U.S. cities.

The urban funnel model illustrates that cities draw all sorts of resources from their region to the detriment of outlying populations and ecosystems.  The human service demand of large urban centers strains regional ecoservices, and “extends the impact of human influence to remote ecosystems” (The Urban Funnel Model” 784).  For this reason I believe urban environmentalists are obliged to look beyond the city—not for “nature,” but for a broader ecological perspective.

Lack of local travel also impedes Chicagoan’s bioregional identity and obviously hurts local commerce.  No large-scale prairie restoration or urban farm can substitute for a direct experience of plains and farmland; a felt sense of place can only be gained by getting around the region.  And local commerce is certainly sustainable—as long as we apply fair trade principles at home.  That is to say, if urban dwellers strain regional resources they should at least be familiar with the region, populations, and resources on which they depend.

In that spirit, I offer a few more observations:

The Train. What’s not to love about regional train travel?  It’s logistically straightforward and pleasant.  For those accustomed to cramped airplanes, the amount of room in a business-class train seat is outrageous.  (Next time I will bring a pillow and blanket, having learned that the conductor will wake me up before my stop).  The choice is absolutely economical given the various externalized costs of fossil fuels.  But one doesn’t have to do that math or take a nap to appreciate the benefits.  The time savings and convenience are pay-back enough—ask any CPA working on the Metra train.

The State.  While Chicagoans generally believe their city-state is more powerful than the state-state, the State remains an important mechanism for economic and environmental policy making and implementation.  The state-sponsored Sustainable Universities and Colleges Symposium which I attended on the first day of my trip was rich, rewarding, and delicious (local food).  I met a delightful mix of urban and rural creatives from government, institutional, commercial, and not-for-profit organizations.  Kudos to our “very own” Barb Willard for bringing her students.  I learned about State programs in energy efficiency, green business development, and alternative energy.  Heartening too was the promotion of electric vehicles at the event.  Illinois is among the first states in the midwest to attract electric car inventory because of its infrastructure commitments, and Bloomington-Normal has been selected by Mitsubishi to become “EV town.”

Yes, there was something comforting about being in Normal.  It relaxed my “urban creative” compulsion (at times neurosis) to be special.  However, the events of the day—the change from my routine perhaps—also foregrounded how much city dwellers conform to their own cultural norms.  In Chicago, everyone commutes downtown at the same time for much the same reason.  Like monoculture, we repeatedly stress the same systems at the same times.  Public transportation systems, for example, would be much more efficient if used throughout the day by various people for various purposes.

The People. The next day my husband and I visited our son at Lincoln College, about 30 miles south-west of Bloomington-Normal.  There we met a number of very interesting faculty members, and among them a kindred spirit.  Dr. G. Dennis Campbell is building an environmental center on college property.  There’s this creek not too far from the school that called out to him.  In 2006 one of Campbell’s freshman, Judd McCullum discovered  a mammoth tusk on a biology fieldtrip—one of the largest in North America.  Three months later Campbell found a molar.  I paused to reflect on my own field trips.  At the Field Museum’s Ancient Americas exhibit I regularly say something like . . .  “Wait, this is so cool.  The mammoths [in the animated diorama] are going to charge any minute now!”



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2 responses to “Shout out to Normal! – A reflection from the Urban Funnel

  1. Fredell Campbell

    This post is very true amongst Chicagoans and even me. Leaving a cyclical urban pattern can be a shocking and enlightening experience, especially when you travel to a location that is more rural; this could give anyone a general sense of the types of resources that we use constantly. I also agree that following any cycle, whether urban or rural, deteriorates this proper sense of understanding and appreciation for the things used but not seen. I will definitely consider taking the train for trips in the near future as well.

  2. Christine Skolnik

    Correction: The mammoth tusk was discovered in 2005.

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