One of the key parts of the Curbside Chat presentation is where we draw a distinction between "solutions" and "rational responses." As a society, we tend to seek the former -- especially in the silver bullet variety -- when we really need to focus on the latter. The complex set of problems we've created for ourselves in this Suburban Experiment defy a single solution -- or even a cadre of solutions -- and so we need to change our thinking to embrace a broader approach.
For context, solutions are actually what we have been doing for decades. I would actually call them "distractions". We have congestion so let's widen the road. We need jobs so let's pay a business to move to our community. We lack community spirit so lets build a community center out on the edge of town. There is a long list of things that we believe we've seen work in other places that are just the right approach that will put our place on the right track. Most just deal with symptoms or provide a cultural anaesthetic to make us feel better.
We've long held that there is no solution, that the Suburban Experiment has put all of our cities into a difficult position where we are going to be forced to make some very difficult choices. While we've been criticized for not having "solutions" to the problems we've identified, we've been very clear to that there is no way to fix things and make them better. We've got some tough times ahead.
Does that mean there is nothing to do? Absolutely not!
Our cities are going through a transition forced by the underlying insolvency of our development pattern. There will be a beginning (where we're at now) a middle and an end in that transition. We don't pretend to know what that will bring about -- what the future will look like at the end of this transition -- but we do have a lot of ideas for how we can strengthen the balance sheets of our local governments and, in the process, ease the transition and make life better for people.
This last spring we had an internal discussion about how to put an emphasis on the actual changes we can make in our communities. As part of that discussion, I brought up four areas of action:
- Building Cultural Awareness. We need to help the general public understand the Ponzi scheme nature of Suburban Experiment finance so that we eliminate cultural misunderstandings about growth and development and break down resistance to a different approach.
- Local Government Reorientation. We need to change the systems and approach of our local governments so they function differently. In a big picture sense, they need to actually become more risk adverse, focusing on many small, high return investments instead of subsidies and large infrastructure gambles. Simultaneously, they must nurture fine-grained experiments and embrace citizen as part of their routine governance structure.
- Economic Restructuring. We actually need to do triage on many of the systems we have developed during the Suburban Experiment, downscaling many and letting others go completely. In other places, we need to make strategic investments in support of existing, productive places. We need to broaden out our local economies with things like local agriculture as a first step to reestablishing the complex relationships of local artisans, retailers and professionals that will give our places resiliency.
- Citizen Activism. We need to move beyond meetings and visioning sessions and actually free people up to do things. This means we need to tolerate chaos and failure so that organically smart and beneficial approaches can emerge. There should ultimately be a cultural expectation that we are all responsible for the places in which we live.
In discussing this internally and will friends at the Strong Towns Network, we came to understand that a complexity we face is that this conversation needs to be directed at everyone -- public officials, professionals, residents, business owners -- while being approachable and actionable for everyone. If we recommend consideration of a form-based code as a rational response, that may mean something to the planner but not to the resident. If we recommend throwing a block party to meet your neighbors, that is going to be irrelevant to the federal policy official but very applicable on your block.
But all of these things are important and need to be happening. That is why we're going to turn Thursdays on the blog into Rational Response Thursday. Each week we intend to write about one, two or more different things we can do to start to rationally respond to the current complex set of circumstances. Ultimately, we're going to connect these responses into a platform we are putting together, something that would be searchable by strong towns advocates working all the way from local resident to legislator.
This is a big undertaking and it is going to take some time (we've been working on it for a while now behind the scenes). If you'd like to contribute to the effort with your own recommendations for Rational Responses, please post them over at the Strong Towns Network. Include "Rational Response" in your subject line. We'll include any good ideas/responses in our buffet of options for people to consider.
Thanks everyone, and keep doing what you can to build strong towns.