Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Public Officials Offer Hint of Urbanist Progress

Despite my roles of civic participant, consultant, and blogger, I don’t spend a lot of time chatting with public officials.  However, occasional opportunities come my way.  I had a couple of recent conversations that are worth sharing.

One conversation was explicitly off-record.  The same restriction wasn’t placed on the other conversation, but I understood an implicit expectation that I wouldn’t share the information with too much specificity.  Luckily, I needn’t offer names or quote exact words to highlight the key observation.

In the first conversation, a public official expressed frustration that some of his colleagues aren’t more willing to accept the environmental tradeoffs that come with more dense, urban-type development.

In the second conversation, a different public official acknowledged that he believed in induced traffic (the theory that traffic will expand to fill new roads, making traffic relief an impossible goal) and that the only fair and reasonable response to induced traffic was to offer development incentives for walkable settings.  The public official also cautioned that the general public would neither accept the first point nor acquiesce to the logic of the second.

Both positions, of course, are straight from the urbanist playbook and were welcome to my ears.

Knowing only what I’ve written above, one might assume that the two public officials are closely aligned in their political positions.  But that assumption would be wrong.  When there is a split vote, the two are often on opposing sides.  And there is a rumor of antipathy between the two.  They’re not political allies.

And that’s the point that opened my eyes.  Public officials from across the political spectrum are coming around to urbanism.  The game is far from won, but movement toward the goal line is a good sign.

There isn’t always a good feedback loop for bloggers.  I can see readership tallies, but I don’t know to what extent readers are agreeing with what I’ve written.  It’s exciting to have a couple of public officials indicate that they’re listening to the arguments and coming around to an urbanist way of thinking.

I’m not claiming that I’m personally responsible for their evolving attitudes.  There are many who write about urbanism with more clarity and élan.   I’m just happy to be on the team that is gradually gaining ground.

Before closing, I should comment on what the second public official said about the public not being ready to accept urbanism realities.  When I repeated the words to my wife, she was distressed, asking “So nothing is going to change?”

I appreciate her concern, but I also understand the position of the public official.  Grasping an emerging truth is difficult for public officials.  They can publicly espouse their new beliefs and risk not being re-elected, relegating their new convictions to the sidelines, or they can keep their comments off-record and work for small incremental changes in their public actions.  I understand the logic of the latter and intellectually concur with it, but it’s an approach I’d struggle to follow.  (It’s a good thing that I’m not a public official.)

The underlying problem is that we elect public officials who we expect to act in lockstep with our under-informed but firmly held opinions.  I’ve argued that we should elect public officials whose thought processes we respect and that we should value their decisions when they use the depth of information available to them to move in new and unexpected directions.  But my opinion on this point is underrepresented within the electorate.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t support democracy.  It has its shortcomings, most of which are the result of our own shortcomings, but it’s still the best option we have.  As Winston Churchill said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  (Just to make sure that everyone understood his perspective, Churchill also said “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”)

And so we muddle along in our democracy, moving slowly toward urbanism.  And being heartened when public officials with disparate belief systems find common ground in urbanist logic.

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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