Friday, February 5, 2016

Reconciling Urbanist Road Maps

Homes a walkable distance from downtown Buffalo
In news that will likely come as a surprise to many, the name of this blog is “Where Do We Go from Here?”  Seriously, it is.  If you’re looking at my home blog site, you’ll see the name at the top of page.  Blue letters on a black background.

Over the years, it seems that many folks have either never noted the name or long forgotten it.

The most recent reminder came during a conversation at a downtown grocery store with a long-time reader and a friend of his to whom he introduced me.  He recommended my blog to his friend and asked me to provide a web address.  When I started with “Where Do We Go from Here?”, he looked at me in puzzlement.  The name was unknown to him.

Nor is he a casual reader.  For about a year, I co-published my posts on an environmental collaboration website developed by him and his wife.  But the name of the blog had never made an impression.

I suppose I could take perverse pride in being among the wrong brand-builders ever.  But, to the extent I think about it at all, I assume that regular readers have become more connected to me than to the title I selected, which doesn’t seem a bad thing.

Because I remain hopeful of finding others to write posts for “Where Do We Go from Here?”, I should probably put more effort into branding the name, but there have always been higher tasks on my priority list.

Regardless, I remain comfortable with the name because it conveys my concern about extricating ourselves from the drivable suburban mess.  Indeed, I also remain committed to my even more forgotten secondary title of “Tomorrow, Next Month, and a Hundred Years from Now” because it highlights that urbanism must progress on multiple fronts, from riding transit tomorrow to voting for urbanist candidates next month to thinking critically about what our communities could look like in 2116.

I mention the mostly-invisible name of my blog because it has a point of intersection with something said by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns during his recent visit to the North Bay.

As reconstructed from my sketchy notes, his comment was “People ask me what city planning we should be doing to address the problems of sprawl.  I tell them that I don’t know what to do.  No civilization has ever gotten into this spot.”

Well, that’s awkward.  Marohn, who has built a nation-wide following of folks who listen eagerly to his thinking on building stronger towns, admits that he lacks a road map.  At the same time, I’ve been busily advising folks thrice-weekly for years on what steps to take.

But when I look deeper, I don’t think that what Marohn and I are saying is that different.

I think Marohn’s message is that neither he nor anyone else can map out every step between where we are now and the complete remediation of the failed drivable suburban experiment.  We’re in an unprecedented situation and anyone who thinks they can present a detailed path to recovery is talking nonsense.

But at the same time, as evidenced by his call for incremental action, he believes that we should start moving, even if we’re working with a close horizon in terms of knowing future steps.

Although I put the emphasis slightly differently, I believe much the same thing.  Although I’m not as fully wedded to incrementalism as Marohn, finding that bigger, more comprehensive steps are sometimes unavoidable, I also believe that we need to start moving, which is the primary message of “Where Do We Go from Here?”

At the same time, I know that we can’t possibly predict where the recovery from drivable suburbia will end up.  Just to pick one example, there are at least six different paths along which autonomous cars might take us, starting with the dichotomy between continued private ownership of car versus shared utility, each of which will have an impact on future land-use configurations.  But I still think there is value is having a best guess about what the future will be, as a rough double-check on the validity of our smaller steps.

Ultimately, I don’t think that what Marohn and I are saying is that much different.  We just choose to focus on different aspects of the challenge before us.  And given the unprecedented nature of the challenge, it’s not surprising that we find alternative words to express the same perspective.

I expect that we’d both admit ignorance to exactly where we’ll end up, but believe absolutely that we need to start moving that direction, as inconsistent as that may sound.

For my next post, I’ll stay with StrongTowns.  In a recent webinar, I submitted an imperfectly worded question to Marohn, with the flaw allowing him to deflect the issue I was trying to raise.  When I next write, I’ll correct my inexact wording and more fully explore the question I was trying to pose.

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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