Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Sherlock Holmes Weighs in on Urbanism

I last read any of the Sherlock Holmes stories in 1973.  I borrowed an omnibus edition from one of my girlfriend’s elderly aunts and quickly reconsumed the tales, many of which I’d read in earlier years.

Despite the four decades since that most recent reading, some of the phrases have stayed fresh in my memory.  Foremost among those is something Holmes said to Watson many times.  As written by Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes’ words were “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Holmes was repackaging a logical argument first struck upon by William of Ockham, a 14th century friar, philosopher, and theologian.  The argument is generally known today as Occam’s Razor, a spelling that illustrates the idiosyncrasies of English.  English philosopher Bertrand Russell phrased Occam’s Razor as “One should always opt for an explanation in terms of the fewest possible causes, factors, or variables.” 

I’ve invoked Sherlock Holmes and a 14th century logician because they have an insight to offer on a key argument for urbanism.

The central tenet of the StrongTowns argument for urbanism is that the drivable suburbia is financially flawed and is driving our communities into deep and unsustainable debt.  But many choose to look elsewhere for the causes of municipal financial malaise.  In a recent post, I recounted that story of a Petaluma citizen who argued that problem is instead the result of corruption in City Hall.

Nor is he alone in his argument.  I’ve yet to find a U.S. city in which the comments following an article on municipal finances don’t often degrade into accusations of corruption within the local elected officials, coupled with the suggestion that the corruption should be evident to all.

That’s the point on which both William of Ockham and Sherlock Holmes would bring Occam’s Razor to bear.

We have two competing propositions.  We can believe that there is something systemically wrong in the drivable suburban model with the result than many, if not virtually all, communities are experiencing financial distress.  Or we can believe that virtually every city has elected politicians who are skimming from the till.

To use Holmes’ formulation, which proposition seems further from impossible and is therefore more likely to be true?

Or to use Russell’s formulation of William of Ockham’s work, which proposition has fewer variables and is therefore more likely to be true?

It should be clear that a systemic failure of drivable suburbia is the correct answer to both questions.  It is a single fact that would explain much of the financial distress we see.  To argue for the crooked politician theory, one would need to believe that tens of thousands of politicians are stealing.  One data point versus tens of thousands of data points.  It’s not close.

I won’t deny that there are politicians who behave inappropriately.  There have been too many convictions to argue otherwise.  But to argue that virtually all politicians are crooked just isn’t credible.

So, if seven centuries of the theory of logic, buttressed by the leading fictional detective of all time, leads us to the conclusion that drivable suburbia is flawed, why are so many people willing to point fingers at elected officials?  Upton Sinclair answered that question for us when he wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

If we substitute “lifestyle” for “salary”, the quote provides a perfect explanation for a general unwillingness to acknowledge the flaws of suburbia.  Many of us like the suburban lifestyle, the quarter acre of grass with the backyard pool, the two or perhaps three cars parked in the driveway because the garage is too filled with toys for cars to be parked there, the ability to live life without being aware of neighbors.

It isn’t a lifestyle to which I aspire, but I know many who do and I can appreciate the attraction.  And Sinclair, with the word substitution, points out how attraction can quickly translate into grasping at straws, ignoring the otherwise evident logic that the lifestyle is financially flawed.

Is there a solution to our collective willingness to ignore logic to retain our unsustainable lifestyle?  Not any easy ones.

The only real solution is a continual commitment to look deeper into the facts, not to default to convenient but illogical answers.

When I make this point, I’m not only talking to readers but also to myself.  On a daily basis, I must challenge aspects of urbanism that I wish were true but likely aren’t.  Like many, I prefer trains as my mode of public transit, but must admit that buses are preferable for many situations.  I love streetfront retail, but acknowledge that the world won’t support as many storefronts as in my grandparents’ time.  I’d like to believe that pedestrian malls can work, but must accept the fact that they’ve failed in many places.

In every case, I’d like to believe in what feels comfortable to me, whether rail transit, sidewalk storefronts, or pedestrian malls.  But I can’t do that.  I need to be wary of the trap pointed out by Sinclair and to follow the logical structure of William of Ockham and Sherlock Holmes to seek simple answers in place of complicated answers based on wishful thinking.

Seven hundred years ago, William of Ockham told us that the best answers are the simplest ones.  If we wish to leave the best possible world for the next generations, we should listen and follow where the simple answers lead us.

When I next write, I’ll look at bag fees, the rules in many communities that, for example, mandate charging a dime for a paper bag in which to carry groceries home.  In general, I agree with bag fees.  But, while buried in a pile of cardboard in which Christmas gifts had been delivered, I realized that the bag fees have an element of anti-urbanism.  I’ll dig deeper 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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