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the place; and these elements inevitably shape current attitudes and preferences, the ways in which people identify themselves, and the potential for economic successes. Although many important aspects of the natural environment are very slow to change, some natural features can change quickly. Air and water quality can deteriorate or improve relatively rapidly because pollution loads can change quickly and their accumulated stocks can have relatively quick effects.
While there is a sharp difference in degree, the built environment— buildings and infrastructure—is also relatively durable. The costs of change are lower than the costs of changes in the natural environment, but they are not trivial. These costs often inhibit change by making it economically impractical, even when possible in principle. Oftentimes, adding a new component requires substantial capital and produces returns only over a substantial period, thus inhibiting additions. If demolition of existing buildings or infrastructure is also required, there is even greater inhibition because the old capital has some productivity.
It is not only the durability of individual buildings, highways, streets, and other pieces of infrastructure that is relevant, but also the durability of entire assemblages. The durability of the built environment is a significant barrier to changes in the urban form of metropolitan areas that would make mass transportation economically viable. It is hard to change existing low-density, highway-oriented urban areas into more compact, high-density urban forms that would benefit from such transportation systems. Anthony Downs (1992, 1994, 2001) has discussed the various possibilities.
Structure, Institutions, and Agency
Economic, social, and political structures, on many scales influence economic production and consumption, flows of goods, and movement of populations between places. Public, private, and nonprofit institutions that mediate between social structures and individuals wield power in shaping allocation, distribution, investment, trade, and resource extraction decisions—decisions that can dramatically transform places. Large-scale structures can influence even the smallest places, something most places have become aware of when faced with economic changes lumped together under the rubric of “globalization.” In turn, specific place-based agents—in business, government, and civic associations—influence institutional performance, policy, and direction and ultimately can affect even larger-scale structures. Thus, we have again a mutual feedback process in connection with the natural and the built environments.
Traditions, conventions, and norms also affect places, as emphasized in the recent literature on “social capital” (Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 1993, 2000; Becker, 1996). It is generally recognized that local social capital often