5 ways for today's civic leaders to get your minds right
I’ve had the good fortune to work with some terrific people while working in the planning and development world. In every community where I’ve worked, I’ve run across very dedicated, earnest people that are truly working to make their communities better. Whether they are elected officials, appointed commissioners, professional staff, business leaders or community advocates, it’s clear to me that most people that end up as leaders really are trying to do what’s best.
Of course, the world also has no shortage of nihilists, greedy opportunists and some downright nasty people. Fortunately most of them are confined to the ranks of Internet comment sections and Twitter. The people who bother to show up or get involved and work to improve a place generally are good stock.
But over the years I’ve also noticed that even the most well-intentioned people find themselves tripped up on old ideas or their own personal experience. I get it – the same thing happens to me as well. It’s hard to escape the inertia of life or our own biases. It takes tremendous discipline and energy to step back and be able to question your own views. Even when the evidence is clear, sometimes we just don’t want to believe it, because “that’s not how it is in my world.”
The thing is: leadership requires just that kind of longer view and the ability to understand changes that are taking place. When times and circumstances produce sweeping change, we’re given a choice. We can try and do the impossible, which is to resist the change. Or, we can look at new circumstances as an opportunity to reboot our thinking. You can probably guess which choice I prefer.
If you’ve read this blog at all, you probably know by now that I like the description that Chris Leinberger often uses of the two basic types of ways to build cities: walkable urban or drivable suburban. For about seventy years now nearly everything we’ve built has been the latter. In spite of the fact that we built only walkable places for thousands of years, the reality today is that the collective memory of that experience is basically gone. Very few people are alive that can remember a time when the norm was to build urban communities in the United States.
Since the early 1990’s, we’ve seen a remarkable revival of interest in walkable urban. Often we’ve called it New Urbanism, because today’s version has inherent differences from what we routinely built 100 years ago. And since real estate is full of big, expensive, long-term products (you might call them buildings), the market swings tend to happen much more slowly than say, in smart phones. But if you pay attention, you can indeed see them happening. The market share for urbanism might still be small in your city or town, but the growing enthusiasm everywhere is real.
So here then is the crux of the issue, to restate: virtually no one is left alive from a time period when urbanism was the norm. From top to bottom of all of our various systems, whether that's economic development, policing, land use regulations, infrastructure, education, food and goods distribution and so much more, we’ve lost the knowledge of how to truly build walkable cities and towns. Yes, we have excellent designers who can draw what it should look like, but we have very few roadmaps for how to implement it quickly, affordably and in a way that pleases the market. Essentially all of our systems today are geared to build sprawl, for which they’re very efficient, but unfortunately those systems and mindsets don’t adapt well for urbanism. Now that the first wave of revival of interest in urbanism is over (it effectively ran from the early 1990's - 2008), we can look back and see the follies of trying to adapt suburban methods to urban communities. To be blunt: it just doesn’t work. We need new thinking and new models.
So as a leader in your community, either in the business or civic realm, now is the time to pay attention and reconsider some deeply held opinions. Human society has rediscovered urbanism and walking again, and I’m here to say that there’s no turning back. It's important to note that not everything can or will be urban, and your first task is to make sure you make sense of the possibilities in your own community. As we head into the next phase of change, I’d like to offer some observations on how to get your mind right and push that reset key for successful urbanism. Below are five over-arching thoughts to keep in mind, regardless of what plans you are undertaking, what rules you’re considering and what people you are talking with. These are the areas where I've seen good people get the most off-track.
- It's not all about cars. Yes, first and foremost this basic reality needs to sink in. If you’re planning and developing your urban neighborhoods and downtowns, stop obsessing about cars, traffic and parking. Even if, like me, you grew up with cars and parking and traffic, it’s time to shove that aside. These issues are much farther down the food chain than you realize. Don’t worry so much about what to do with people driving in from the outside. Your energy needs to be spent on creating the best possible walking environment for that segment of the population that really, really wants it. If you focus on that reality with your streets, public spaces and regulations, the market will respond. I’m not suggesting it will respond overnight or without bumps, but it will respond. Every parking lot you build and every lane that gives priority to fast-moving cars takes away from what fundamentally appeals to the residents of urban communities. Give this market your best chance, and you’ll see. But mostly, absolve yourself of worrying about parking!
- Let life happen. In many respects, urban living is the antithesis of the suburban lifestyle that many of us have known throughout our lives. In very successful suburbs, everything is highly controlled. The zoning and regulations are clear, precise and limiting. Life is segregated into discreet units – houses here, apartments there, shopping over yonder and workplaces even further away. It’s all very ordered and logical. Urban life is different, and we need to approach it with a different mindset. We need to learn to allow for human beings to make life happen. Our regulatory approach needs to be far, far different, and to learn not to be as stifling as it can be in suburbia. In fact, we should take the opposite approach: instead of wondering if we should allow something, we should say, why shouldn’t we? Planning was not meant to evolve into meddling into the daily affairs of every property owner, or the minutia of each person’s desires. It’s terribly damaging of urban communities when every every single project requires a board or commission approval (maybe even two or three), in addition to staff-level critique. Far too many cities of all sizes have fallen into this trap. We don’t have a commission review every approval for a building permit, nor should we. It’s time to put our trust back in simple, fair rules and let the professional staff interpret them. Perhaps then our planning and development commissions can think big-picture again, which is what they were intended for. Cities thrive on constant change and evolution, and we need to loosen up our minds to embrace that change. It’s what works for people that want urban living; not an urban-looking but fundamentally suburban-attitude approach.
- Don't wait for the big thing; act today. Look, I’m a planner by nature. Even if I hadn’t gone into urban planning, I’m sure I would have been a believer in the process. Long-term thinking is very important; in fact it is central to good governing. I firmly believe in the Iroquois principle of looking ahead and asking if what we’re doing will work for people and communities several generations from now. But I also believe in asking, “what can I do today?” And when the day is over, “what can I do tomorrow?” We will need to continue to do big and difficult things, but mostly we need to shift our minds to figure out how we can move ideas ahead now, instead of waiting for the big plan that may or may not be coming down the road. Life passes all-too-quickly; why should we suffer crappy streets and public spaces day after day after day because some magical change might be coming in a few years? Get tactical, use the scrum method; do it now.
- Size matters, but not in the way you think. Sure, it’s a cliché that small is the new big. People love tiny homes, tiny art studios and micro apartments. But mostly, we need to value small increments of development. Some call it fine-grained. Others say small-scale. But the key is really about all of us remembering where we came from, and how we created great cities and prosperity to begin with. Smaller units of development are fundamental to making a great city, not the big, flashy, headline-grabbing projects. Small units enhance affordability, create wealth, and create life. Build enough of it, and you’ll be a prosperous place; much more so than the current big project that you’re considering. There’s no under-stating just how much work we all have to do in order to make incremental development easy, but it’s the most important work on your community’s “to-do” list.
- Human pleasure is not a frill. Here’s the thing – really great suburbs are all about enhancing the privacy that we crave at some point in the day or our lives. Done well, they are green, quiet, safe and a retreat from the busy world. But cities have a different focus. The good ones touch our senses, and encourage us to get out more in public. The great ones touch our basic humanity – our emotions, our love of beauty, how we revel in simple whimsy and yes, perhaps, even a little debauchery. It’s the whole point of making great, walkable places – not to save the planet or reduce energy costs. Those may be by-products, and good ones. But the point is human pleasure in our daily routines. The 20th century was obsessed with rational planning methods and efficiency. Let that all go, and imagine what it means to find beauty and wonder in the everyday.
Of course, every successful city absolutely has to do the basics well, such as law and order, cleanliness and transparency. These are essential, and in a certain sense go without saying. But if you really want your place to move beyond the basics and achieve long-lasting success, you’ll need to seriously consider where your own head needs to be. So take a step back, think about your own biases, and then start planning for tomorrow’s world today.