Wednesday, October 22, 2014

From Incremental Steps to Grand Visions

The Petaluma Urban Chat meeting last week was nicely successful.  Thanks go to City Council candidate Dave King for responding to occasionally hard-edged questions with good humor and cogent responses.  Perhaps not everyone agreed with his perspectives, but he presented his thinking well.

To attend a prior obligation, King departed before the end of the Urban Chat meeting.  In the general conversation after his departure, there was a spirited discussion about the long-term vision for urbanism and the incremental steps that are often taken toward that solution.

Some found that incremental steps, local examples of which were freely tossed about but needn’t be re-enumerated here, were so inadequate as to represent little real progress.

Others felt that incremental steps were a necessary evil while markets and regulatory standards adjust to a more walkable urban future.  Those folks felt that supporting urbanism required accepting incrementalism as a necessary phase, while also trying to make the incremental steps as bold as possible.

I’m securely in the latter camp.  As many advantages as I see in a more walkable urban future and as urgently as I think we need to reach that future, I recognize that we can’t jump from today to that future.  The disruption would be significant and, more importantly, too many of our friends and neighbors don’t yet comprehend the need for the change.

And so, as urbanists, we must try to make the world a little more urban all the time and to encourage developments that can transition as we move toward urbanism.  I remain a big fan of surface parking lots that can be built upon as parking demands ease and of sidewalk cafes that can serve as personal homes until sidewalk traffic increases sufficiently to support the café.

But even a belief in incremental steps leads to the next question.  How do we increase the rate of change so we can reach an urbanist future sooner, limiting the climate change impacts and municipal finance distress of our current drivable suburban paradigm?

I’ll try to answer that question in three parts, market, financial, and regulatory.

 For the market, availing ourselves of new urban living opportunities and asking our friends to considering doing the same is the best step.  Few things incentivize the next urban project as much as the financial success of the last one.

However, it’s likely that little effort is needed as the market is already leading the charge toward urbanism, with polls showing up to half the population is eager for opportunities to live in more walkable settings.  (I recently chatted with a North Bay politician who took pride in the fact that his community was building up to 20 percent of its new housing in walkable places.  I suggested that, in a world where half of all people want to live in a more walkable world, his 20 percent number shouldn’t be a source of pride.  Yeah, being an urbanist can sometimes mean bursting balloons.)

On the financial side, continued hesitancy by lenders toward urbanist projects is a lingering concern, but market successes and time will be the remedy.  Unfortunately, urbanists can’t attend lending committee meeting for banks to push the change along, so our efforts must go elsewhere.

This leaves the regulatory side, where outdated zoning codes and obsolete ideas about where to spend public moneys continue to repress urbanism.  Luckily, the public arena is also a place where urbanists can make their voices heard.  I fantasize about 300 urbanists filling the chamber for a city council hearing on an issue bearing on urbanism.  (I love Urban Chat, but a dozen folks in a café discoursing on urbanism doesn’t move the needle at city hall.)

And that gets us to the crux of the matter.  How to rally more folks to the urbanist banner?  There are plenty of folks who are sympathetic to the goals of urbanism, but the daily demands of life, securing a paycheck, raising children, planning for retirement, etc., interfere with active commitment.  How do we convince folks to dedicate a chunk of their limited free time to support the cause?

Unfortunately, I think the only solution to that question is persistent effort.  It’s finding opportunities to chat with friends and neighbors about the issues and slowly motivating them to put forth time and effort.  It’s not an easy task nor will it be readily accomplished.  But it’s essential.

Before closing, I’ll share a recent story that illustrates the difficulty of collecting supporters for urbanism. 

I’ve worked diligently to build the readership of this blog.  Perhaps my prose isn’t perfect, but I’ve maintained a regular publishing schedule for nearly three years.  And others tell me that I occasionally find words that make a post halfway memorable.

As a result, I’ve built a sustained readership of perhaps 5,000 site visits per month.  Not every site where I publish provides numeric feedback, so the number is a little fuzzy, but I’m comfortable with its accuracy.  And if it’s wrong, the actual number is likely a bit higher.

I’m proud of the readership.  I continue to work for more, but I’m still proud of the number.

But I recently had a glimpse of the other side.  After a football game won by my alma mater, the opposing coach made an odd and peevish comment after the game, blaming bloggers for conspiring to hide an new offensive strategy that my college deployed.

The comment struck a discordant note with me.  But I wasn’t sure if my response was valid, so I began a chat room thread asking for the thoughts of others.  Within 24 hours, over 3,000 people had viewed the thread and more than 30 had commented on it.

There’s difference between reading a thousand-word blog post and checking a three-sentence chat room thread.  But still, that was as many readers in one day on a quirky point about college football as in two weeks on a subject that is pertinent to the financial and environmental viability of our communities.

It was indicative of the mountain that urbanists still must climb, whether our goal is the ultimate vision or bolder incremental steps.

Next time, I’ll write further about Petaluma Urban Chat.  After several months of talking about the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds, we broke away this month to talk about Measure Q with Dave King.  The consensus for next month is to return to the fairgrounds topic.  But I have some thoughts about how to make the conversation most effective and to build our participation toward that 300 people.  I’ll offer those thoughts in my next post.

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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