Friday, March 4, 2016

Should Urbanists Make More Use of Indignation?

Typical walkable urban downtown
I met an architect client for beers a couple of weeks back.  It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon, too pleasant for a drought-stricken February, and we enjoyed the air at a sidewalk café a short walk from my home.  Other than wishing for a reservoir-filling rain, it was a near perfect setting.

Our first topic was the January StrongTowns/Urban3 visit to Santa Rosa.  We used different words to express our thoughts, but seemed to settle on three points of concurrence.  First, that Marohn and Minicozzi presented compelling data on the failure of the drivable suburban model.  Second, that we could have wished for more effort to collaborate on next steps.  And third, that passion was notably and regrettably absent from the presentations.

I’ve often covered the first point in this blog (one example), so hopefully needn’t offer a refresher here.  Although it’s always good to get reassurance from folks like Marohn and Minicozzi.

I covered the second point in a post I wrote shortly after the January visit, in which I gave Marohn partial absolution for his apparent diffidence.

It’s the third point into which I want to dig today, the quiet, calm, business-like demeanor often used adopted by Marohn, Minicozzi, and other urbanists.

I’m not being critical of their quiet manner.  Sharing a civil engineering pedigree with Marohn, I understand that it’s not a profession that attracts those characterized by outbursts of emotion.  It’s hard to become agitated by the tensile strength of steel or the friction factor of a corroded ductile iron waterline.

My experience with economists is more limited, with the only one I know well prone to explosive pronouncements, but assume that not all economists are like her and note that Minicozzi seems to have followed Marohn into an unruffled speaking style.

Nor are Marohn and Minicozzi alone in the ranks of urbanists with their calmness.  With the exception of James Howard Kunstler, I can’t think of a single urbanist capable of taking off a shoe, pounding it on the table, and giving a good Paddy Chayefsky “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Which is a shame because our reticence might be doing harm to our cause.

We’re in the midst of a presidential campaign defined by anger and indignation.  The candidates on the both ends of the political spectrum, as best as anyone can define the spectrum in this election cycle, have succeeded beyond the expectations of most, apparently aided by the regular deployment of anger and indignation.

(For my use here, I’m considering indignation to be fact-driven anger.   So anger is a manufactured but ultimately false emotion, at least during political speeches, calculated only to fire up supporters, while indignation is an animated response to a legitimate grievance.  Your homework, which you needn’t submit, is to determine which presidential candidates display anger, which display indignation, and which seem out-of-place by being emotionally stable.)

Using the primary and caucus voting thus far, it seems that the American voters respond to anger and indignation, more than they respond to quiet logic and persuasion.

I’m not happy with this, because, while I may sometimes brush against indignation, I’m not comfortable with arm-flailing, spittle-spluttering anger and because I don’t think a democracy is well served by arguments that verge on irrationality.

But at the same time, I wonder if urbanists are missing a trick by leaving anger and indignation stored in the armory.  Might there be there pivotal moments when a bit of exuberant gesticulation can make a difference?  And are urbanists ill serving the public by being too fastidious in their choice of weapons of persuasion?

I don’t have answers.  Today, all I’m doing is posing questions, hoping that others can help me find clarity.

Until that clarity comes, I may become more willing to wave my arms once in a while, but I’ll continue combing my hair as I always have, forgoing both the frizzy white halo and the towering orange comb-over.  One must have some dignity.

In my next post, I’ll stick my toes into the question of affordable housing.  I have ideas that may be unconventional on the subject and might also be wrong, so have generally avoided getting too far into the question.  But I recently inadvertently found myself in the midst of an affordable housing rally, which I’ll take a sign to dig in more deeply.

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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