Monday, March 7, 2016

Keeping the Civic Debate Civil

I promised to write today about urbanism and affordable housing.  It’s a promise I’ll keep, but not today.

Instead, I have a need to discourse upon a final point in my recent foray into urbanism and politics.  Having opined about how some who profess to abhor socialism might take a deeper look at their own lifestyles and how urbanists might take hints from the national stage about displaying more passion, I’ll complete the triad with a discussion about effecting change while also maintaining the peace.

Although not in the sense Oscar Wilde intended, our challenge as urbanists, who history is gradually showing to be right, is how to display enough passion to move efficiently toward history’s verdict without scaring the horses.

I was reminded of the need to make this point by something recently written by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns.

In the reintroduction to a blog post he wrote a year ago, Marohn wrote the following about the results of recent presidential primaries.

“We talk about the unwinding of the suburban Ponzi scheme -- this is what it is going to look like.  It's not going to be people moving to the cities and starting to love the train.  It is going to be a whole bunch of people, used to a certain life, seeing it slip away from them and then resisting.

“Our job is not to defeat those people.  It is to bring them with us on this change.  Never forget that.”

(Although not strongly linked to my topic of today, the remainder of Marohn’s post, in which he considers how the perception of the power of state and federal governments over local affairs differs depending on the size of the town, contains much truth and is worth your attention.)

Although urbanism is rarely mentioned in the presidential campaign rhetoric, Marohn is correct that it seems to lie beneath many of the unexpected elements of the race.

Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” contains a whiff of yearning for the days when the American dream was a ranch-style home on a generous lot with a two-car garage and a backyard pool.  Trump is connecting with those who had that life and lost it.  Even more, he’s connecting with those who never reached the dream, wonder who kept them from it, and are unsure if it’s even a valid dream anymore.

Meanwhile, Sanders is connecting with those who have been trampled in the side effects of the race to the dream and with those who fear further trampling yet to come.

It’s good that urbanism has a role, if implicit, in the election.  I could wish that the role be more explicit.  But what deeply concerns me is the anger being shown by many voters participating in the election and the possibility of further anger that might erupt as decisions are made and candidates eliminated.

Trump is doing more to fan the flames of antagonism.  Sanders is being more careful and temperate in his comments and demeanor.  But there is resentment among the folks who like Sanders’ message and that resentment could grow beyond Sanders’ ability to maintain.  (Being of a certain age, I can draw parallels to the Eugene McCarthy candidacy of 1968.)

However, concern and the occasional calming comment is about all I can offer about the national political scene.  I’d like to think I have a better opportunity to affect local politics, where I’m concerned by the possibility of extremist candidates, emboldened by the national models, grabbing Council seats and impeding the progress to more urbanist, climate change moderating, financially sustainable communities.

After more than three decades of observing and participating in local politics, I know that extremist candidates can arise and win elections.  In my time, I’ve watched city councilmembers who brought to the dais perspectives so focused on single issues that they undermined the running of government.

Their issues, which were all over the board from bicycle infrastructure to better financial management to improved land-use application processing, were relatively benign.  Imagine a Donald Trump at a local level, demanding an aggressive return to the single-family home American dream and insisting on hiring the best people to make it happen.

And I’m particularly concerned that this election cycle, at a time when we particularly need calming coalition-building hands on the tiller as we manage a gradual transition to a more urbanist world, is more vulnerable than ever to fringe candidates grabbing an office and impeding the work of local government.

But what should be the strategy for preventing this co-option of the local government?  My best thought is that we need moderate, conciliatory urbanists to run for office and to win.  Not urbanists who shout without end from the rooftops, but urbanists who understand the pain of citizens uncomfortable with the changing world and who will, in Marohn’s words, “bring them with us on this change. “

But the problem I have with this strategy is finding those candidates to promote.  I know people with the skills I’d like to see in public office, but I have a hard time getting them to public meetings, much less making the commitment to run for office.

In past election years, I’ve suggested the readers look for urbanist leanings among the folks who chose to run for public office.  It was sound advice, but may not have accomplished much.

This time around, I propose that readers do more to encourage urbanists to move more into the public arena, preferably as candidates, but failing that at least as planning commissioners or members of other bodies.  And not just any urbanists, but urbanists capable of leading change peaceably.

In my last post, I suggested that urbanists might need to resort to more righteous indignation.  I still believe that.  But I also believe that what we most need is urbanists in public positions who can effectively combine indignation with conciliation and leadership.

How tough can that be?

Next time, I’ll truly offer some thoughts on affordable housing, unless some great urbanist candidates quickly come to the fore and I must solicit volunteers for election committees.

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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