When Growth Isn’t Good

Here follows a lament. My neighborhood grocer, Linden Hills Co-op, recently announced that it’s relocating from the center of a vibrant urban village to the site of a failed supermarket on a busy thoroughfare nearly a mile away. I think the people who initiated the move, driven in large part by the co-op’s inability to negotiate a new lease with its current landlord, are well meaning. However, their overall approach depends on accepting the misguided maxim that growth is always good.

Linden Hills Co-op, one of the most successful natural foods stores in North America, is the heart and soul of its southwest Minneapolis neighborhood. It’s doing over $9.2 million a year in sales, has more than 5,200 member-owners, and every day brings through its doors more than a thousand customers, many of whom go on to shop at other local businesses. It was founded 34 years ago to serve as a neighborhood crossroads where high-quality food and amity converge, and it has fulfilled that mission profitably and sustainably.

The irony is that the controversy brewing around the move is a direct result of the co-op’s success. Once a labor of love and commitment, the community market thrived because of its modest size and generous character. Now most of the co-op’s managers, board, and staff live outside the immediate neighborhood, which helps explain why member-owners and neighbors were never consulted nor given an opportunity to vote on the proposed relocation. Many of us didn’t even know the move was being contemplated until after the board announced it had signed a lease.

In explaining the relocation, the member services manager wrote in the co-op’s bimonthly newsletter that the new site’s larger footprint will allow for “an expanded deli, new options in sustainable and local meat and seafood, and more offerings in grocery, fresh bakery, and frozen foods.” There’s also the promise of “10 to 12 new staff positions.”

It’s an alluring upgrade, especially in times of high unemployment, but in my estimation the benefits of growth are offset by the damage that will likely be done to surrounding merchants and Linden Hills’ storied spirit of camaraderie. The co-op’s slogan, proudly hanging in front of the store, declares that the space is “large enough to meet your needs and small enough to meet your neighbors.”

Like many natural foods stores across the United States, Linden Hills Co-op serves as the community’s “Home Tree” (a name given to the gigantic tree in James Cameron’s recent film, Avatar, where the protagonists commune and stand against hostile interests). Moving nearly a mile away from the small commercial district that it anchors may or may not be good for the tree, but displacement risks disrupting the local ecosystem from which it is being uprooted.

I’m reminded of E.F. Schumacher’s idea of “enoughness” as described in his classic Small Is Beautiful. Schumacher blasted the notion that bigger is always better. He urged people instead to consider the most appropriate scale for any activity.

The new book The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly, by Alan Briskin, Sheryl Erickson, John Ott, and Tom Callanan, points out how often bad decisions are made when leaders don’t involve the people who will be affected by the decision-making process. “Groups have potential for being sources of extraordinary creative power, incubators of innovative ideas, and vehicles for social healing.” But, the authors write, we need open, public discussions, without predetermined outcomes, in order to give collective wisdom a chance to emerge.

In his work Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (recently revised and updated), Duane Elgin says it best: “To live sustainably, it is vital that we each decide how much is ‘enough.’ . . . To find this in our everyday lives requires that we understand the difference between our needs and wants. ‘Needs’ are those things that are essential to our survival and growth. ‘Wants’ are those things that are extra.”

My vision for a sustainable food system, and sustainable neighborhoods, includes more urban gardens, farmers markets, community-supported agriculture arrangements, community grocers, bodegas, and green convenience stores and co-ops within walking distance of every neighborhood. In other words, I believe we all need more local businesses like the current Linden Hills Co-op–places that are large enough to meet your needs, and small enough to meet your neighbors.

Eric Utne lives in Linden Hills and has been a member of Linden Hills Co-op since 1980.

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