Monday, November 11, 2013

City Repair: Who Are These People and Why Am I Hanging Out with Them?

In my last three posts, I wrote about the concept of City Repair, a Petaluma effort at City Repair, and possible types of City Repair projects.  All of this was a build-up to an approaching joint meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat and City Repair Petaluma.  (Final reminder: Tomorrow, Tuesday November 12, 5:30pm, Petaluma Arts Center, 230 Lakeville.  All are welcome.)

In this final post before the meeting, I’ll ponder the breadth of the City Repair tent.  Who fits under it and why?  With all the online photos of happy neighbors holding hands in a circle around a newly painted intersection and singing “Kumbaya”, is City Repair really for everyone?

I’ll use myself as a test case.  I may not be a typical civil engineer, but I remain a civil engineer.  How and where do I fit into the City Repair ethos?

Many years ago, I walked a developer around a large project site.  As we walked the site, small rodents frequently scampered across our path.  The developer referred to them as “chipmunks”.

I’d been recently educated about the difference between the local chipmunks and ground squirrels.  I’m not a biology wonk, but the distinguishing characteristic, which had to do with the length of the stripes that ran from shoulder to flank, had stayed with me.

So I told the developer that the rodents were ground squirrels and I explained how they differed from chipmunks.

She pursed her lips, put her hands on her hips, and told me, “You’re unlike any engineer I’ve ever met.”  I took it as a compliment.

In every office I worked, I became known as the grammar and syntax guy.  Administrative assistants would come to me for help in making the words of their engineers readable, while still preserving the meaning.  (Those who regularly read my posts may dispute my standing as a grammar expert, but my office standing perhaps says more about other engineers than about me.)

Every once in awhile, one of the administrative assistants would purse her lips, put her hands on her hips, and tell me, “You’re unlike any engineer I’ve ever met.”  Once again, I took it as a compliment.

Despite being a couple of standard deviations away from the average engineer, it was still the appropriate career choice for me.  Whatever other character traits or personal skills I may have, I still look at the world through the eyes of an engineer.

I like data.  I like arguments based on data.  And I like data-based conclusions.  And that is the world view of an engineer.

I understand that not every element of a good life can be data-based.  Love of family, music, arts, and sports must be emotion-based rather than data-based.  (I know there is not one shred of data that supports following the Cal football team this fall and yet I still watch every down.)  And that’s fine.  Without those emotion-based attachments, life would be pale and bland.

But if there is data to support a conclusion, that’s all I want or need.  I wouldn’t think of using emotion to supplement a conclusion that can be reached on data alone.  I think people who use emotional arguments to buttress data-based conclusions are undermining their own efforts.

Let’s look at urbanism.  I can fully justify my commitment to urbanism by the facts that it would slow the pace of climate change, improve municipal budgets, meet the walkable urban market preferences of a growing number of people, and lead to economic growth by attracting the millennials who possess the creative energy on which much of the economy is based.  That argument is sound and conclusive.  Nothing need be added to it.

To supplement those urbanist justifications with concepts such as “social capital” or “deepen relationship with place” seems unnecessary.  Even worse, it implies that the data by itself isn’t enough.

And yet, when I espouse City Repair, I find myself collaborating with people who fully embrace those latter arguments.  Indeed, they start with them.  Sometimes I wonder how I found myself in league with them.  I know they’re good people, but can I really make common cause with people who see the world through such very different glasses?

But every time I ask that question of myself, the answer is a resounding “yes”.  Urbanism isn’t a rigid theology in which we must agree on every bit of dogma.  There are many routes to the conclusion that we need many more walkable urban places.  And the good of the world demands of us that we work shoulder-to-shoulder with those who might reach that conclusion by a different path.

The fact that I want a neighborhood meeting place where I can talk with a a friend about the upcoming NL West race or a new microbrewery while the folks across street might want a meeting place where they can chat about organic kohlrabi or the coming cosmic convergence isn’t relevant.  What matters is that we all want a walkable meeting place.

And so I find myself facilitating a City Repair meeting with folks who argue for a “community-centric art and people-loving city”.  It’s all good.

I’m not alone in sometimes feeling out-of-step with my nominal allies.  About a year ago, I attended a local counter-culture fair.  Based on some urbanist connections, I felt I should drop by, but it really wasn’t my comfort zone.  While wandering, I bumped into an old friend who joined me in looking and feeling out-of-place.

We stood there chatting in our khakis and polo shirts, surrounded by folks in tie-dyed t-shirts, striped djellebas, and fedoras.  Although we agreed that we felt awkward, we also agreed that there was no venue in the community where our thoughts on urbanism, climate change, etc. were more consistently shared.  And that made a more than sufficient reason to be there.

A downtown property owner was approached about a possible City Repair project at intersection adjoining his land.  He listened to the proposal and demurred.  In his words, intersection painting might be too “hippy-dippy” for him.

If you’re thinking you might pass on the City Repair meeting tomorrow evening for the same reason, thinking that you believe in the concept of neighborhood betterment but that City Repair might be too “hippy-dippy”, please come anyway.  What matters isn’t the path to good actions, but the actions themselves.

Besides, you can always chat with me.  I’ll be wearing khakis and a polo shirt.

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


  1. You're killing me, Dave — Did you got to the widely famous annual Petaluma Progressive Festival? I have felt just as out-of-place there — among "my" people — as I have felt at home with you and yours at the Urban Chat. I hasten to add that I have felt very much at home in smaller meetings of some of the groups who participate in Progressive Festival, which are more like the urban chat meetings. The Progressive Festival is a mass event and brings together many folks who do not have personal relationships like the smaller groups.

    Regarding emotion and logic, we need on them both. I have learned from my study of human development and brain research that, although both logic and intuition/emotion can make mistakes, our unconscious/emotional brain is based in experienced/perceived reality and is not irrational. Its associations and computations are far more deep-seated and complex than is the cognition we can do consciously. Emotions are indicators to which we can profitably apply conscious examination for the underlying truths. And they make possible the social brain which not only has more ways of learning than the analytical brain but also connects us to the social brains of other people (and organisms) to make social organization possible.

    To paraphrase Ronald Mah, one of my mentors in early childhood education, "When someone's mind is made up, the facts don't matter." But emotion can — especially in a relationship of mutual trust.

    1. Barry, thanks for the comment. The meeting to which I referred was earlier, perhaps late summer 2012.

      And yes, I'm well aware that emotion can reflect data integrated at a subconscious level. (I've been intrigued by recent findings that manners may be little more than codified summaries of the behaviors we adopted subconsciously to get along with others.) It's even possible that people who refer to "social capital" are more intellectually evolved that those of us who need to refer back to the data. But I'm sure that the world needs both.

  2. from Maria Montessori: “Free choice is one of the highest of all the mental processes.” Nice article, unlike any civil engineer's I've ever read. nathan

    1. Nate, thanks for the comment. You always have a quote ready to go, don't you?

  3. I like the efforts you have put in this, thanks for all the great blog posts.