Monday, October 27, 2014

Balancing Vision with Incremental Steps

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about two alternative paths to strategize the transition from suburbia to urbanism.  The dichotomy I suggested was a grand vision versus incremental steps, between motivating the public with the big vision of where urbanism will eventually lead and motivating them with the next incremental step on the path toward the long-term goal.

Although I acknowledged the appeal of a big vision, I feared the disillusionment of proponents when the vision seems always to recede toward the horizon.  Therefore, I described myself as an incrementalist.  That doesn’t mean that I abjure the grand vision, indeed this blog regularly touches upon grand visions, but means that I believe progress is made more effectively when we focus on the next step, not the destination.

As often happens, I had barely published the post when a quote arrived in my email that caused me to further ponder the question.

“If you don't like the way the world is, you change it.  You have an obligation to change it.  You just do it one step at a time." - Marian Wright Edelman

Edelman’s words provide a fine counterpoint to a quote of which all urban planners are aware. 

“Make no little plans.  They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” - Daniel Burnham

Who of the two is correct?  Both of them are.  But to my way of thinking Edelman’s truth is the more effective truth.

It’s informative to compare the careers of the two.

Burnham is likely the more familiar name.  He designed one of the first steel frame buildings, The Rookery (pictured above), one of the first skyscrapers, the Monadnock Building, and the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which changed the course of architecture and urban design, and is often considered the standard against which all future world fairs should be measured.  (In an example of how urban planning can change lives, cases can also be made that the Columbian Exposition led to “The Wizard of Oz” and Disneyland.)

After the Columbian Exposition, Burnham turned with enthusiasm toward urban planning, triggering the City Beautiful campaign, an international movement toward improving the aesthetics of cities.  The goal of City Beautiful was to enhance municipal function and to cultivate civic virtue.  It was about the City Beautiful ideal that Burnham offered his thoughts about “no little plans”.

The problem is that, while the City Beautiful movement had successes such as the National Mall in Washington, D.C, the vast extent of most of the City Beautiful visions made their execution impossible.  In a typical story, Burnham had delivered a City Beautiful plan to the City of San Francisco when the 1906 earthquake struck.  Despite having an unexpectedly blank slate on which to work, the City focused on rebuilding rather than vision and Burnham’s plan remained on the shelf.

By the time of Burnham’s death in 1912, the City Beautiful movement was already fading.

In comparison, Edelman, an American activist for disadvantaged and disabled children, particularly those who are minorities, remained focused on incremental improvement.   As the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, she had a vision, but her daily life was about making the incremental steps needed to make children’s lives better.  Nearing her 80th birthday, she continues to be productive.

When running a race, or trying to reach a base safely in baseball, there is a temptation to take an extra long leap for the final stride.  Despite studies conclusively showing that the better strategy is to maintain stride through the tape, the intuition to leap is hard to overcome.   Burnham leaped for the tape, while Edelman has maintained stride.

Both Burnham and Edelman lived exemplary lives.  We could use more of each.  But as urbanists, I think we do better to emulate Edelman, never forgetting the ultimate goal, but focused on maintaining stride.

Although not immediately, I’ll soon look at a couple of Petaluma situations from the incremental step versus grand vision perspective.

Meanwhile, my next post will touch upon my old grievance about “infrastructure investment”.

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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