Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Where’s the Urgency?

Mixed-use building in downtown Tacoma
Over the years that I’ve advocated for urbanism, I’ve consistently written that I needn’t argue for eventual return of walkable urbanism as the dominant paradigm because the forces of history will make urbanism inevitable.  Instead, I advocated for a quicker return to urbanism to reduce the pain as the transition progressed.

I may have been entirely too sanguine about anyone listening to the forces of history.

We’ve reached the time when it seems the paradigm shift should be underway.  After three years of deep California drought, strongly tied to climate change, we’re finishing a barely average water year despite indicators pointing toward a wet winter.  With forests stressed by low precipitation, wildfires are rampant.

Cities everywhere, stressed by the costs of suburbia, are teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy.

There is so much dissatisfaction among the electorate that populist uprisings took hold on both ends of the political spectrum during the presidential campaign, one of which has apparently secured a major party nomination.  (Admittedly, many of the surface causes cited as the reasons for the resurgence of populism don’t tie immediately to urbanism, but the roots of lingering segregation, income inequality, the housing crisis, the inability of government to provide services, etc. are entwined with the experiment and subsequent failure of drivable suburbia.)

By any measure, we should be in the drivable suburban end-of-times.  But that seems not to be the case.

A few evenings ago, I bumped into a former Councilmember in my town while we were both browsing in the downtown bookstore.  In the course of our conversation, I expressed my surprise at the lack of concern within the electorate over the climate change and municipal finances, two of many issues that should be pushing us toward urbanism.  He responded that many folks don’t care “as long as they can afford a tank of gas for their new SUV.”  It was a bleak assessment, but seemingly true.

It was same message given by the community organizer to the local group that has been seeking an urbanist candidate for the council.  As she described it, voters are still heading to the polls asking “What’s in it for me tomorrow?”  I understand that many are too focused on putting food on the table and assembling money for rent to think much about the longer term, but it was still a distressing message.

I continue to believe that the return to urbanism is inevitable as the collapse of the suburban model becomes so obvious that even the most otherwise preoccupied can’t miss it.  But it seems that the bankruptcy courts and Mother Nature must swing a larger piece of lumber before we listen.

Which is a shame because it’d be easier for all if we’d listen now.

My next post will be the weekly summary of urbanist public advocacy opportunities.

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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