Monday, November 25, 2013

Urbanism Needs Both Passion and Worldliness

This week, as most readers are preparing for Thanksgiving Day, will conclude year two of this blog.  On Friday, I’ll publish my 309th post.  A short-lived partner wrote another six, so there will be a total of 315 posts on-line, or three posts per week for 105 weeks.

I never would have guessed that I had 309 posts in me.  But once I began, the ideas just kept coming.  Some I executed better than others, but I don’t have a single one that I would retract.  I sometimes reread older posts.  I may find ideas that I could have conveyed more effectively or phrases that lack gracefulness, I haven’t yet found a single idea that I’d disown.  And that pleases me.

Nor do I have any plans to stop.  I may do something a little different in December to give myself a short respite, but I already have a publication schedule into January and beyond.

To mark the end of year two, I’ll offer some bigger thoughts.  I won’t go so far as to say profound.  That judgment must come from others.  But thoughts that deal with the bigger picture of moving urbanism forward rather than the details of a particular project or issue.

Two short vignettes form the backdrop for today’s post.

Earlier this year, Petaluma Urban Chat took a field trip.  On a sunny Saturday in February, eight of us met at a bus stop near downtown to take Petaluma Transit to lunch on the eastside.  In the course of our daily lives, we have little reason to use Petaluma Transit, although we’re all pleased that it exists.  The field trip was an opportunity to become more familiar with the system.

As we gathered at the bus stop, we double-checked that we had the appropriate fare.  To my surprise, all but one of us qualified for the senior citizens fare.  Of the eight bus riders, I was the only one under 65.  It was a revelation.

I love the Urban Chat group, but it was disconcerting to realize how many of the bus riders were nearing retirement age.  Nor are the regular Urban Chat meetings much younger.  There may be a few younger folks, but it’s still an older crowd.

With age often comes a change in worldly perspective.  However much they believe in urbanism, most Urban Chat participants have multiple life obligations, from jobs to family issues to parental care, and can’t spend eight hours a day pushing urbanism.

Plus, with age comes an understanding of how things work, a knowledge that continually beating on the door with fists rarely works, a comprehension that finding the key to the door and the right moment to turn the key is usually more effective.

If those comments sound like criticisms, know that, although a small handful of years younger, I include myself among those for whom age has brought both multiple life obligations and the wisdom to know that shouting is rarely a good approach.

Compare that to a recent discussion on my front porch.  In the early evening hours, a tall, lean young man with wild hair and an untrimmed beard knocked on my door.  He wanted to talk about fracking, the pressurized injection of water and chemicals into oil fields to increase well production.

It was a conversation that interested me.  I knew fracking had a long history, but also knew that the rising price of petroleum was likely to bring new approaches to the endeavor and that the state seemed hesitant to engage in regulation.  I was eager to learn what this young man had to offer in the way of common sense solutions.

I was disappointed.  His fracking philosophy boiled down to two points.  “Fracking is evil.”  And “Fracking should be banned.”  No nuance.  No transitional strategy.  Nothing.

I tried to engage him.  I suggested that certain chemicals or higher pressures were likely to be more harmful than other practices.  Nope.  Fracking is evil.  Fracking should be banned.

I noted that if fracking supplemented oil production by only ten percent, which seemed low based on my limited knowledge, ending fracking combined with the inelastic demand for gasoline might double pump prices.  Didn’t make a difference.  Fracking is evil.  Fracking should be banned.

I suggested that doubling pump prices would put severe stress on lower middle class families, families who were barely holding onto homes from where they commuted an hour or more to jobs.  And that an action that greatly increased family bankruptcies could never secure political support.  Didn’t matter.  Fracking is evil.  Fracking should be banned.

The young man eventually left, dissatisfied that I couldn’t or wouldn’t share his black-and-white world.  I was equally dissatisfied that I couldn’t engage him in my world that was filled with greys.

And between those two vignettes lays the challenge for urbanism.  To successfully advocate for urbanism requires the passion of youth, the wisdom of age, and the ability to combine the two effectively.

Of course, the two often don’t blend well.  Passion tires of the slow and tactical pace of worldliness.  Worldliness wearies of the shrill and uncompromising demands of passion.  Merging the two isn’t trivial.  But that only makes it more essential.  Urbanism is sufficiently important to the future of our communities that we can’t allow personal styles to impede the progress.

I’m six weeks early for a New Year’s resolutions.  But I expect those resolutions to be (1) attract more young, whose natural domain is passion, to participate in the land use decisions of their communities, (2) incite more passion among those who already believe in urbanism, and (3) find ways to leaven the passion with the wisdom of experience.

I should close with an acknowledgment that passion isn’t the sole province of the young nor is worldliness the exclusive property of the old.  But the truth frequently enough falls along those lines that I trust you’ll forgive my generalization.

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


  1. Aside: I suspect this anti-fracking person is the same one who knocked on our door, and when the prominent "No Soliciting" sign was pointed out, said loudly "But I'm a canvasser! There's a difference! Look it up!"

    Dude needs to figure out when he's not gonna make the sale and move on quickly...

  2. Dave: Your post and Dan's response invite two admissions.

    1. I recall with gratitude the older folks who responded to my youthful political passion with straightforward substance, not with dismissal, even though I was not then ready and able to recognize the ones of gray and nuance without despair.

    2. And Dan, when I regularly take up my self-designated civic duty and proceed door-to-door in my town and 'hood with campaign literature for issues and candidates whom I determine to be in the better interests of our community, I knock on doors that have signs like yours. I do not ask for sales or money, and I take "No" for a response that does not call for discussion. I have studied the meaning/s of solicit many times and will not lawyer it, being unqualified to do so. The sum total of unpleasant interactions in my experience has been at residences with no such warnings. And I know where you live, Dan! :>

    1. Yeah, Barry, I'm having trouble figuring out how to make the sign say what I really want it to: I welcome discussions with informed locals about issues that they are personally passionate about.

      That doesn't include "Ugh. All fracking bad!" paid canvassers for whichever 90% on executive salaries 10% on canvasser costs "advocacy" group is currently harassing us for signatures on their petition as a pretext to ask for dollars.

      And I wish I'd had more good informed political discussion when I was younger. Specifically, I was something of an Ayn Rand Objectivist, and it would have been good to have discussions with people who actually read and understood her, but then rejected her work, rather than people who stalled out on the Cliff Notes version of Fountainhead and fell back on "but greed bad!". But then it'd still be nice to have those discussions...