MMBR: New Year's Resolutions for Strong Citizens

Making a strong start to 2015.

Making a strong start to 2015.

Hello all you Strong Citizens out there, I hope that you have a had a warm and jolly solstice/christmas season. Welcome to your friendly Monday Member Blog Roll. Traffic on the blogs is a little light at this time of year, so I’ve put together some of my own thoughts on New Years resolutions and how we can use them to be come stronger citizens in 2015 (whoa, I kinda thought we’d all be dead by now or have flying cars on Mars…).

Speaking of the virtues of a strong citizen and resolutions for the new year, over at Granola Shotgun we get a post on doom preparation. I went through a period of real peak oil + climate change are coming for us tomorrow doom--the good news, and the bad news is that our system has proven more resilient than we gave it credit for. One the one hand, I don't wish suffering on anyone (well, pretty much); but on the other hand, it's not clear that we're going to be able to change our systems enough without some kind of break... Regardless of which way the world goes, personal and community resilience seem like good virtues. 

I never ever want to find myself in a similar position as my parents so I organize my affairs as if Peak Oil is a legitimate possibility, regardless of the particulars. Listed below are some of my personal rules. Notice, this isn’t a conservative or a liberal list. There’s no mention of bomb shelters or gas masks or firearms to defend against zombies. Nothing on this list will make anyone poorer or less happy. If life continues to be endlessly prosperous and bountiful no one will be missing out on anything. And by the way, these are all things that our great-grandparents did as a matter of course.

At rational urbanism, we get some reflections close to my heart: both that in New England, we don't believe in growth; and that universities can often be leaders in placemaking, but town/gown relationships often drive them to be insular, to the detriment of the town... and eventually to the university.

This is not a bold place. People here do not believe in growth. In preparation for “The Curbside Chat” we removed a bullet point about faith in exponential growth because we knew that it was not a problem with which we had to deal. On the positive side, very few investors in this region assume amazing rates of return, and so there is less volatility and less sensitivity to the boom and bust cycle of the economy at large. As I read the analysis of experts who write about the inevitably higher cost of energy in the future they comment on the difficulties we will face societally dealing with a “no growth” paradigm, I often think that the industrial Northeast has been living with the realities of stagnation and decline for three generations; we’re ready!

Tracking this attitude, check out this latest dust up between motorists (God's own citizens) and pedestrians ("a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure." M. Thatcher) in Worcester, MA. Particularly striking in light of our recent discussion about design-for-death city streets in Springfield, MA. Does this sound familiar: 

"There are numerous factors that contribute to motor vehicle and pedestrian accidents," he said. "Both the operator of the motor vehicle and the pedestrian have an obligation to obey traffic-related laws and ordinances. It is not possible to reduce the number of motor vehicle accidents in the city through enforcement and physical changes to roadways and intersections, because it would be cost prohibitive. So if we are going to have a reduction in accidents, there needs to be a change in the behavior of many of the pedestrians crossing our roads and the operators who are driving them."

As my friend, and local super-planner, George Proakis, likes to point out in his presentations: 

We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. - A. Einstein

I predict that a big theme of the coming year(s) will be how CNU stays relevant/progressive in the face of gentrification in cities and the suburbanization of poverty. Here's a great article from Planetizen on how New Urbanists can work in a strongtowns like way to retrofit existing weak-places; think of it as the residential version of "good enough urbanism." I found this quite hopeful!

When UDA began their work on the troubled housing project it quickly became apparent that the budget was inadequate for a complete neighbourhood redevelopment. (The more extensive demolition and rebuilding of entire projects become common later under HUD’s Hope VI Program, which was heavily influenced by Gindroz’ work.)  In addition, David Rice, the executive director of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Assoiation (NRHA), insisted that interior renovation work (where most HUD revitalization dollars had been spent in the past) was at best a band-aid solution. To make a real difference, the site-design and image needed to be completely transformed.

As a result, Gindroz and his team had to zero-in on what really mattered—what would have the greatest impact for the least cost. Working very closely with the residents through a comprehensive charrette process, the participants identified the key problems and offered excellent suggestions about how to fix them. One key theme identified during the public consultation was the desire to live in a "regular neighbourhood" not in a "segregated project." Another theme was to gain control over the dangerous "no-man's" land between the buildings and, finally, the desire to create outdoor places where neighbours could get to know one another.

The design team and the residents came up with a plan that employed three key urban design principles, all tried-and-true tenets of traditional urbanism, tested in cities around the world over millennia: 1) create a connected street network lined with houses, 2) provide a clear distinction between public and private space, and 3) create "houses" not "housing."

Lastly, the end of the year and the beginning of a new one is often a time for reflection. I know that as I look to my new year's resolutions for 2015, I want to find was to ask myself to be a Stronger Citizen. In that spirit, I want to share a few ideas about New Years Resolutions that my wife and I have found make them stickier

  • Top ten lists are great--we find it's actually better to have more resolutions than fewer. With more resolutions (like a top ten list) you have space for the little stuff, more on that below, as well as the bigger items.

  • Reflect on the good and bad of last year--Before you start writing out your resolutions, take some time for a personal check in (i.e. go for a walk); think about what you're proud of about the previous year and where you would like to have done better, and why. The more mindful of your own experiences you can be, the better you will be able to craft resolutions that are really yours and not just "things that you should do."

  • Limited and specific--keep your resolutions (or the majority of them) limited and specific. Instead of "be healthier" or "have a better community" include items like "get a dentist appointment" or "have the neighbors over for tea." It's okay to include ones you can knock off in an afternoon (clean the microwave is a favorite of mine), boom you'll have crossed one off by January 2nd. 

  • Have a buddy--it's always easier to step up to hard things as part of a team (where you exercise social pressure on each other to keep up, or to help your team-mates); look for friends who you see often, and see if you can have shared resolutions. Check in with each other regularly through the year. It will help keep you honest, and you will have the pleasure of helping them out as well!

  • Count-down/up--Our latest innovation: rather than resolve to "go to the gym more often", write down something like "go to the gym 50 times," or "bike to work five days in a row" or "meditated 30 days in a row" then put a check box on your resolution page and keep track of your progress. Once you've done your thing X times, you may find that you've figured out how to make it more of a habit and easier to keep going. This system also helps guard against "oops, I slipped, now I'll just abandon that one" syndrome; if you slip once, you can still get back on the horse and try again for that year.

  • Stretch goals and rewards--it's okay to have some hard to achieve, big goals on the list too. These are the things that may really stretch you and inform your whole year. Examples include saving more money or losing weight or writing a book. These ones are harder because they are more complicated and diffuse than "go to the dentist," so look for ways to make them more concrete with numbers or specific activities that point toward that big goal. Think about ways that you can reward yourself, without compromising your goal (which is tough for money and weight, because a nice meal is the easiest gift! look for other ways to give yourself a special treat).

  • Visible and public--life is busy and it's easy to be distracted, post your resolutions in a place that you will regularly see them to be reminded, like on the fridge, in the bathroom, or next to your dresser. It can also be helpful if they are public; for one, your guests may be impressed by how much you've already ticked off this year... and you will feel added social pressure to stay on course!

Share your strong citizen resolution ideas in the comments, and if you're a member of Strong Towns, don't forget to add your blog to the blogroll.