Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Urbanism is Complex

I’m often frustrated when writing this blog.  I’m disappointed that I can’t offer clear and simple solutions.  That it’s not possible to peel the onion until I get to the fundamental truth that will make everything clear.

After all, drivable suburban offers that clarity of vision.  Build one more road.  Permit one more shopping center.  Approve the next big subdivision and the future will be rosy.

But that’s really the problem isn’t it?  Those drivable suburban solutions don’t work.  If anything, they push us further from healthy, functioning communities.

And it hasn’t been that long since “visionaries” such as Robert Moses promised similar grand solutions to urban problems.  Replace that row of businesses with an expressway.  Add another parking lot.  Tear down that working class neighborhood and replace it with a residential tower.  Those solutions didn’t work either.

And so today, we’re left with the grinding, step-by-step process of moving slowly, but steadily toward building better urban communities.  While hoping that we avoid missteps.

I was reminded of these truths by a recent exchange on Twitter.  Brent Toderian, an urbanism consultant in Vancouver, B.C., was moved to tweet “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  It’s a quote from H.L. Mencken, American journalist and thinker.  In response, someone else tweeted “Very true, the need to believe in silver bullets is one of the great failures of modernism.  Time to love city complexity.”

Even if someone appeared before me with a gift, the perfect solution to the urban problems of 2012, I really should turn it down.  Because it wouldn’t be the perfect solution to the urban problems of 2030.  And we’re better served by honing our problem-solving skills than by falling in love with a solution that time will pass by.

Our task is not only to pursue successful urbanism in small, incremental, and hopefully helpful steps, but also to resist those who promise big and perfect solutions.  It’s not an easy task, but it’s our task.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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