Friday, July 10, 2015

Joan Rivers May Be Dead, But Can We Talk Anyway?

The Washington Post recently ran a story about an Iraqi village south of Baghdad.  To keep the village sociable and productive, all political conversations had been banned.  (Other strictures had also been imposed, such as bans on religious conversations, cigarettes, and sodas, but my only focus here is the political discussion ban.)

I don’t have the knowledge to argue about the need for ban on political debate in Albunahidh.  I certainly know that Iraq has continued unrest and that the traditions of that part of the world include regular political discussion in cafes and meeting places.  It may be that the ban was the best way to keep the village productive and at peace.

But the ban reminded me of similar bans, informal but nonetheless effective, that exist throughout much of American family life, with the most obvious example being the ban on discussions of politics or religion over Thanksgiving dinner.  (Personally, I remember the debates at the Thanksgivings of my youth being about the relative roles of mass transit and private cars, but my childhood may not have been typical.)

I’ve long argued that the American bans are a bandage on the real problem, which is that we don’t teach our children how to have respectful conversations about personal beliefs.  And when they grow up without the skills that we’ve declined to provide them, we forbid the conversations that might become difficult and the cycle continues.

You may ask why this should matter to urbanism.  The answer is that if we don’t talk about things, the status quo remains the status quo.  If we don’t educate children about the comparative beliefs of different religions, they tend to adopt the same religion as their parents.  If we don’t explain the differing political philosophies, our children tend to follow in their parents political footprints.  And if we don’t talk about the pros and cons of different land-use approaches, then we tend to keep building drivable suburbia.

Recently, as I sat on an outside deck in Petaluma awaiting a friend, I listened in as the man at the next table chatted with his eight-year-old daughter about land-use topics.  He talked about the solid, imposing architecture that once upon a time defined banks, pointing to a former bank building in the nearby downtown.  He noted the value of streetfront retail, comparing it to on-line shopping.  And he commented on the number of pedestrians enjoying the sunny morning.

I realized how infrequently I’d heard parents have conversations like that with their children.  The daughter may not have understood every nuance, but she offered responses that showed she was grasping at least a few elements of her father’s thinking.  He was planting seeds that would hopefully grow.  And he was teaching his daughter to be aware of her surroundings and the ways they could be configured.

(However, two minutes later, the father was arguing with a traffic officer about whether his illegally parked Mercedes should get a ticket, so not all his lessons were good.)

If the ban on political chat in an Iraqi village has kept the peace, that’s great.  But in the U.S., frank and open conversation, at least about land use, is the path to a better future.

Speaking of frank and open conversation, the next meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat will be Tuesday, July 14, 5:30pm at the Aqus Café, 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma.  There is no planned speaker or topic this month, just a chance to talk about whatever subjects interest the folks who attend, from the Rainier Connector to water conservation.

In my next post, I’ll tell of a recent breakthrough observed by the folks at StrongTowns.

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