A city is an organism, not a machine. While machines need mechanics to watch over and maintain all the systems in working order, organisms only need sustenance and they will grow, grow, grow. The gatekeepers in our cities -- both formal and informal -- should not fear what will happen if they give up power. In fact, if they want to make theirs a strong town, they should be doing everything possible to give power to the people living in the communities they serve.

Strong Towns is a 501(c) non profit organization supporting a model of growth that allows America's towns to become financially strong and resilient. We need your help. If you are not yet a supporter of Strong Towns, please consider making a contribution or signing up for a modest monthly donation. Even $5 each month makes a huge difference for our efforts. Thank you, everyone.

Last week I was called down to the principal's office. In fact, that was exactly how one city council member described my summons to the Brainerd city hall to meet with council members following the announcement of our A Better Brainerd initiative, a project we are undertaking to do low cost, experimental improvements (Tactical Urbanism) in one of the city's depressed neighborhoods. We are trying to identify high return investments in a neighborhood that is starving for any affection at all.

Their concerns were straightforward. Why didn't you coordinate your grant request with us? Don't you want the city as a partner? What are you up to? Why are you doing this? Will this have policy implications for us? What do we tell constituents when they ask what you are doing?

After forty five minutes of conversation, we parted amicably, the staff and elected officials seemingly satisfied that our private initiative was not going to harm them and it might just provide the city with some benefit in the long run. At one point in our conversation, however, I did have to remark:

If everyone who wants to step up and do something to make this city better has to go through this, not many people are going to step up.

Of course, there is a process for "stepping up". One can volunteer to be on one of the city's committees or commissions. Another way is to attend city council meetings or any one of the many special meetings that are called for one topic or another. The city accepts written comments for any meeting and will include those in the public record. One council member -- to his credit -- even holds regular listening sessions to talk directly to constituents.

The gatekeepers of process within the city are comfortable with these avenues of engagement. They are safe, controllable and so routine that they generally escape vigorous scrutiny. Only when things get really critical -- such as the final approval for a big project or controversial initiative -- do the masses engage. Otherwise, it is the modest rumblings of a few predictable characters.

In any city, those characters can often be gatekeepers as well. They often feel that, because they have shown up and been part of the official process, their opinion should carry more weight. Or, more pointedly, that the new voice should not carry any weight. At the kickoff event for A Better Brainerd, one of the unelected gatekeepers let me know he was "not impressed" with us and that he's "never seen me at any meetings."

And, of course, there is this blast from the past (unedited by me):

Despite what your lovely ego tells you…..posting a blog doesn’t mean your opinion has been heard. SHOW UP! Seriously, you are not an “insider in this debate, what you are....... is an after the fact uneducated opinion that thankfully means nothing to the people of this community, region or state/federal funding agencies.

Now, granted, I've afflicted the comfortable in my hometown the many times my writings have used this place as the foundation of a narrative. Since starting this blog, I've not tried to endear myself to the local gatekeepers and don't expect them to embrace me warmly. That having been said, before starting this blog my experience was much the same. Unless you are willing to show up and endure the process as it has been established, you're not likely to influence the outcome in any substantive way.

This is very common in cities across the country. As we have evolved from a society of individuals that build, maintain and operate our cities to one that pays others to build, maintain and operate our cities, there is a growing disconnect between the people living in a home and what is going on in the street in front of it.

If we want to build strong towns, we have to reconnect people to their block in a substantive way. We have to give them ownership once again over the public realm. We need to invite people to be problem solvers, not simply complainers or fellow gatekeepers.

Yesterday, Tactical Urbanism guru Mike Lydon shared with me a NY Times piece on Cairo and the changes that are taking place at the street level in the post-Mubarak Egypt. Here is a people whose existence for decades was subject to the bureaucratic whims of an unaccountable, top down government but now find themselves liberated (to a degree) and empowered to, somewhat out of necessity, take ownership of their built environment. From the article: 

Egyptians are figuring out anew how they relate to one another and to the city they have always occupied without quite fully owning — figuring out how to create that city for themselves, politically and socially, as well as with bricks and mortar. Headlines have naturally focused on the macro-battles, but the bird’s-eye view does not always reveal what is happening at street level, on corners and in neighborhoods, where daily life today means navigating new relationships with fellow citizens and the spaces they share.

The article quoted an Omar Nagati, a young Egyptian architect and planner, who said:

People now realize they have the right to determine what happens on their own streets, to their own neighborhoods.

Do we in America realize that we have that right too?

The latest issue of The Economist has an article about cities that are going to great lengths to make as much of their data public as possible. While many governments (bizarrely) continue to horde and protect their information, others are realizing that this public good should be used for the public good (even if someone, somewhere, finds a way to make a -- gasp -- profit from it). From The Economist:

Another way of doing it is simply to publish the raw data and hope that others will figure out how to use them. This has been particularly successful in Chicago, where computer nerds have used open data to create many entirely new services. Applications are now available that show which streets have been cleared after a snowfall, what time a bus or train will arrive and how requests to fix potholes are progressing.

What a different America it would be if the gatekeepers became obsessed with tearing down the gates instead of guarding them. How much could we accomplish together if everyone felt they had an ownership stake in the city they live in and felt free to act on that feeling? What if public information was truly public, from security camera feeds to pothole location data to budget information?

A city is an organism, not a machine. While machines need mechanics to watch over and maintain all the systems in working order, organisms only need sustenance and they will grow, grow, grow. The gatekeepers in our cities -- both formal and informal -- should not fear what will happen if they give up power. In fact, if they want to make theirs a strong town, they should be doing everything possible to give power to the people living in the communities they serve.

 

You can get more of Chuck Marohn's insights by reading his book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

You can also chat with Chuck, Nate Hood, Andrew Burleson, Justin Burslie and many others over at the Strong Towns Network. Join the ongoing conversation on how to make yours a strong town.