Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Urbanism Shouldn’t be a Forbidden Topic

The upcoming elections have been a recent emphasis of this blog.  Within the past couple of weeks, I’ve written about looking for traces of urbanism among the candidates, about the tax measures that Petaluma and other cities have put forth to address their financial malaise, about the objections from urbanists to the tax measures , and about the misconceptions about government inefficiency that may affect voting on the ballot measures and perhaps also undermine the future of urbanism.

In keeping with my personal philosophy, I was looking at public policy from an urbanist perspective.  But to what extent is that perspective a factor in the general public discourse on these subjects?  Not the discourse in the obscure corners of the internet such as this blog, but the everyday discourse of average citizen?  To put it another way, how often is urbanism discussed at dinner parties, family picnics, or church socials?  And does it receive as much attention as the reigning suburban paradigm?

The answer, at least in my observation, is that urbanism is rarely a factor in the public forum.  And I’m troubled by that answer.  As I wrote a few weeks back, urbanism is the study of strategies for municipal success and the advocacy of the best practices.  How could such a key subject not have found its way into daily discourse?  Especially when we regularly talk about how to perpetuate the current suburban paradigm in our discussions about the need to widen streets, to approve a new big box, or to endorse a new subdivision for the jobs it would create?

It’s a question about which I’ve often thought.  I have a working hypothesis about why urbanism remains in the shadows while suburbanism is well-established in the public forum.  However, it’s only a hypothesis.  Readers are encouraged to respond with concurrence or disagreement.

Under my hypothesis, I suspect that the suburban discussion is considered economic development, which has always been considered suitable table talk.  But urbanism is considered politics, which falls under the American interdict about religion and politics not being suitable topics for public conversation.

Nor is that dichotomy limited to our land-use paradigm.  The hypothesis can also be applied to many aspects of American life, from education to emergency services to banking regulations.  Talking about how to support the current paradigm is considered acceptable conversation, but talking about changing the paradigm is considered politics and earns a quick “Shsssh.”

I’ve never understood the prohibition against discussion of politics or religion.  Yes, I understand that conversations on these topics have sometimes devolved into shouting matches that have ruined holiday dinners.   But I suggest that some of us are unable to discuss the topics in a civilized manner because we haven’t learned how to do so because we were prohibited from doing so in our formative years.

It’s become a viscous circle that now bars us from having the meaningful conversations that we need to improve our communities and our world.

With that said, I still believe strongly in the Latin maxim "De gustibus non est disputandum", which means that that matters of taste aren’t subject to argument.  But there’s a bright line between having productive, non-judgmental conversations and arguing over matters of taste.

“What do you find compelling about Judaism?” seems a fine and reasonable question.  “How can you not be a Christian?” isn’t.

“Why you think big boxes are ultimately harmful for the community?” is a fine question.  “Why do urbanists want everyone to live in six-story concrete boxes?” isn’t.

To sum up, I believe that many of us view continuing suburbanism as economic development, which makes it a topic fit for general consumption, while viewing urbanism as politics.  I find that assignment of categories to be unfortunate.  Even worse, we then put politics, along with religion, outside the range of genteel conversation.  And that is the wall that we must break down, for the sake of urbanism and many other areas in which sacred cows are being given a free pass.

As I said, this is only my hypothesis.  But it’s a hypothesis on which I’ll build in the coming weeks.  Feedback will be welcomed.

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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