Wednesday, July 6, 2016

An Urbanist Learns about Electoral Politics, Part 2

In the last post, I wrote about finding myself leading an effort to recruit an urbanist candidate for the city council in my town.  It wasn’t a task I’d planned, but I noted a vacuum, suggested that someone should fill it, and suddenly found myself leading a growing parade.

It’s not a story that yet has a conclusion.  There will likely be a Part 3 and maybe even a Part 4 or more in the weeks and months to come.   For now, the committee is awaiting a decision from our top possible candidate while also working on a platform.

But even at this stage, there have been lessons learned, some that I already knew, although this experience caused them to crystallize, and others that were new to me.

The top three lessons are described below.

Why the City Council Has a Schism: In the last post, I noted the schism between the council factions that I described as centrist and progressive, a schism that greatly affects the function of the city.  I have a theory about how the rift came to be, a theory that has come into greater focus in the past few weeks.  It’s a story that long-time readers have heard many times, but I’ll recount this time from a different perspective and to make a different point.

Before World War II, land use in the U.S. was predominantly walkable urban.  Even if one lived at a distance from work or shopping, public transit was the most common conveyance.  Private automobiles and trucks existed, but weren’t yet the dominant paradigm.  Indeed, they were still replacing horse-drawn wagons for many tasks.  Few would have considered a twenty-mile daily commute in a single-passenger car.

In the heady years after World War II, convinced that the Allied victory had established that the U.S was all powerful, we changed paradigms.  Although there were also market forces behind the change, the primary driver was planning theory.

We had decided that we could safely consign walkable urbanism to the scrap heap of history.  We began to separate uses, residential in certain districts of our communities, retail, commercial, and industrial in others.  We created a world in which cars were no longer optional, but essential.

And then we doubled down, committing to an interstate freeway system that was initially proposed for the movement of goods and military materiel, but was soon clogged with people driving private cars to and from work.

We wrote rules, such as zoning codes and environmental policies, that either promoted the drivable suburban model or were so attuned to it that they might as well have been promoting it.  And we adopted pricing policies, such as low gas taxes, that further supported the drivable suburban paradigm.

Developers, doing what they always must to stay in business, learned to navigate the new regulatory world and delivered the land uses that we had effectively mandated.

As Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns likes to say, drivable suburbia was an experiment and, contrary to all rules of good experimentation, we rolled it out nationwide, not just in a single place like New Jersey.

And, like many experiments, it failed.

Local governments couldn’t afford to maintain the extensive infrastructure required.  Streets were congested by induced traffic.  People who didn’t own cars were marginalized.  Children too.  And, to add a final indignity, the climate began to suffer from the tailpipe emissions we’d made essential.

But, in the best tradition of human nature, Americans couldn’t admit that they’d followed a false god, instead looking for someone to blame.  Government couldn’t maintain the infrastructure because bureaucrats were inefficient and/or corrupt, leading to tax revolts that brought financial collapse even closer.  Developers had cheated us, taking as profit the funds that could have made suburbia work.

And from the fringes came the thinking that the United Nations was trying to take our cars away through Agenda 21 and that climate scientists were in a vast collusion to change the American way of life.

We engaged in this scapegoating because we couldn’t look in the mirror and acknowledge that our parents and grandparents had accepted the false vision of drivable suburbia and that we should have been more alert to the early signs of unraveling.  Even as newer generations of planners realized the errors of decades ago, but we had no interest in their recanting.  We wouldn’t let go of the suburban ideal.

So, how does this tie back to the factions on the city council in my town?  The two factions have followed different paths of blame assignment.

The centrists still believe that suburbia can be made to work if we just tweak it a bit, maybe through giving developers more free rein.  Although they’re a part of government, they still manage to attract the voters who blame the failure of suburbia on government.

On the other side, progressives believe that the failure of suburbia is the fault of developers, that developers somehow deluded us into drivable suburbia so they could maximize profits.  And they attract the voters happy to buy that story.

Those are two deeply different world views that can’t be reconciled.  And with roots that go back seventy years, it’s a schism that won’t go away easily.

Why Urbanist and Not Progressive: Given the gap between centrists and progressives and the current centrist majority on the council, it would have been easy to look for a strong progressive candidate to balance the council with the goal of getting good urbanist policy from compromises at the interface.

But that wasn’t a route that appealed to me.  I wanted someone with true urbanist credentials on the council, someone who could ally with centrists to encourage walkable urban development and with progressives to slow drivable suburban development.  It was time to turn the council away from an outdated focus on the failed suburban experiment and toward the future.

But it was a complex argument to make.  And I wasn’t sure if I could sell complexity.

Sure enough, progressives were attracted to the committee I’d founded, seeing a window to weaken the centrist majority.  At various times during the young life of the committee, I thought I would lose control as the progressives began to push their agenda.

I was reconciled to the possibility.  I wouldn’t have been the first person to lose control of a committee they’d founded.  And the progressives were passionate folks with whom I had much in common and liked, even as they were threatening to subvert my effort.

But I decided not to surrender easily, so continued to advocate for an urbanist perspective.  With the failure of drivable suburbia obvious to all who would look, I argued that we needed an urbanist to stand up for the right kind of development.

To my surprise, folks rallied to my words.  I hadn’t realized it, but my message had been gaining adherents.  The progressives have stayed involved and remain welcome at the table.  But if the committee is successful, it’s likely that any candidates we put forth will start as urbanists.  They’ll likely also have some progressive credentials and that’s okay.   Whether they call themselves urbanist progressives or progressive urbanists doesn’t matter to me, as long as urbanist is in there somewhere.

Attracting Voters to the Urbanist Banner: A community organizer joined us for a recent meeting.  She offered some powerful words of wisdom about winning elections, words that made me see the difficulty of selling urbanism to voters.

The organizer spoke about how most voters look for immediate changes for the better from the candidates and ballot measures they support.  Long-term improvements may seem nice, but don’t pull in check marks.  People may nod about the nutritional value of vegetables, but order a cheeseburger when no one is watching.

It was solid, credible wisdom that I couldn’t dispute, but it worried me became urbanism doesn’t always have a good story to tell about short-term turnarounds.

Centrists can ask for votes based on the promise to support a broad range of development, bringing good paying jobs to local citizens and more funds into the city coffers for emergency services.

Progressives can ask for votes based on redressing the inequities of the current system.

Urbanists can ask for votes by saying that it we all take our medicine for the next fifteen years as we unwind the worst elements of drivable suburbia and gradually return to a more sustainable walkable urban model, our lives will all be better.

That’s the right message to be pushing, but it’s a tough sell.  The committee is still looking for how to tie a bow on it.

So that’s my story.  It’s been a great six weeks, as an effort to find an urbanist candidate has gained more traction than I thought possible, as I came to have a deeper, more visceral understanding of the governance schism that affects my town and likely many others, as I found myself successfully able to defend the need for an urbanist candidate, and as I came to understand the difficulty of selling urbanism to the electorate.

But time is running short on candidate filing date with the group still needing a candidate and a sellable message.  The next few weeks promise to be eventful.  I’ll keep you updated.

When I next write, I’ll offer my weekly summary of opportunities to get publicly involved in urbanist advocacy.  Hopefully, that summary will soon include debates and campaign functions for an urbanist candidate in my town.

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


  1. Your analysis of the blame game is right on. I admire your efforts, Dave. Keep on keeping on!

    1. Cheryl, thanks for the comment. And thanks for being a long-standing reader.