As a longtime Strong Towns member and volunteer, I'm thrilled to have been invited to contribute a guest post today. Unlike Chuck, I am not a professional planner (yet—working on that part) or engineer. And some of our other regular contributors have already got the wonky, visually rich urban design posts down to an art form. I come to Strong Towns from an activist background, however, and the longer I've read this blog, the more focused I've become on the question, "Okay, now what?"
Strong Towns has developed a cogent, powerful critique of the dysfunctional way in which cities in North America have pursued growth—a ruinous, Ponzi-scheme model of growth—for the last 70 years. And this blog and its comments have played host to much discussion of promising alternative models based on incremental development, building on a community's existing strengths, focusing on productive human-scale places, and eschewing "too-big-to-fail" investments in favor of small-scale trial and error.
And yet, I know many of us feel frustrated that the existing system just keeps barreling full-throttle toward the cliff of insolvency. It's easy to win small policy victories here and there. But even with increasing evidence that there is nationwide momentum toward walkable urbanism and away from low-returning auto-oriented development, there are few signs of the kind of fundamental, transformative change that this blog has consistently argued is needed. This is particularly true when it comes to how we develop (and finance development), not just what we develop.
So how do we, as Strong Towns advocates, tip the scales? I'd like to offer some thoughts, aimed not at providing a satisfying answer to that question (not sure I have one) and more at opening up some discussion about how this movement can grow into a transformative force.
The Overton Window
In the ever-thrilling world of punditry and armchair political science, there's a concept called the Overton Window, which has attracted some attention and analysis in recent years. (This is not to be confused with the universally and entertainingly panned Glenn Beck novel based on said concept.) Coined in the 1990s by Joseph Overton of the Mackinac Center, a libertarian-leaning think tank, the Overton Window represents the range of policy positions on a given issue that are broadly considered acceptable, mainstream, and nonthreatening. The Overton Window usually corresponds to the set of policies that elected officials will be willing to advocate and go to bat for—which is inevitably much smaller than the set of all possible policy solutions to a given problem. To either side of the window are views that, while they may have significant popular support, a politician seeking reelection is likely to deem too "extreme" to stake his or her career on.
If the conceivable policy options on an issue can be expressed on some sort of continuum (which can take many forms, not just left vs. right), there is likely an identifiable Overton Window.
For example, here's a possible urbanism-related Overton Window, in this case placing policies related to bike infrastructure on a continuum of extremely pro-cycling vs. extremely anti-cycling:
Now, let's say that for one reason or another, the city or metro region depicted above sees a massive increase over the span of a few years in public support for cycling as a transportation option, and for infrastructure to make cycling safe and comfortable. Perhaps the window shifts in the pro-biking direction, like this:
If, as Otto von Bismarck once said, politics is "the art of the possible," the Overton Window represents the limits of the—currently—possible. Shifting that window, then, becomes the task of the activist. An important point is that politicians themselves are rarely the ones to do it, as the Mackinac Center's own Joseph Lehman observes:
"In our understanding, politicians typically don’t determine what is politically acceptable; more often, they react to it and validate it. Generally speaking, policy change follows political change, which itself follows social change. The most durable policy changes are those that are undergirded by strong social movements."
There is an important implication here: if you want to create massive change, don't necessarily focus on convincing elected officials. They're hamstrung by what they perceive as the acceptable center of public opinion, because, like all of us, they would prefer to keep their jobs.
The Perceived Center
"People here will never give up their cars." How many times have you heard that assertion, or some close relative of it?
Aside from the obnoxious straw-man aspect—nobody, not the most diehard urbanist, is actually out to forcibly take away anyone's car—statements like that are really expressions of where the speaker perceives the limits of the local urbanism Overton Window to be. Sure, maybe cycling is huge in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, and maybe even the rich use transit in Tokyo or London. But that's there. This is here. We couldn't ever do that here.
Urbanists like to get indignant at the irrationality of policymakers who don't do what we want them to. We spend our time reading about best practices, and we know how much more pleasant—and how much more fiscally productive—urban environments can be when built at the human scale instead of the automobile scale. We know this. We have empirical evidence, dammit. Plus, have you ever been to Europe? Hell, even New Orleans, Savannah, or Quebec City? And besides, urbanism is trendy nowadays. Every city that matters is in an arms race to attract "creative class" millennials with bike lanes, parklets, coffee and craft beer. How can they not get it? Sarcasm aside, I know I often feel this way.
If you communicate with your elected officials, they probably use at least some of the right buzzwords. The planning staff, at least the younger ones, probably have their hearts in the right place. And then they go and disregard everything that we know, they know, they should be doing, doubling down on stroad design and touting their new, shiny diverging diamond freeway interchanges.
The key is that the "art of the possible" is not a matter of which policies are rational. It's not even a matter of which policies are actually "moderate" in their ultimate impact. It's simply which policies are perceived to be acceptably mainstream in the local context, rightly or wrongly.
This perception can result from all sorts of illogical ideas. Human Transit's Jarrett Walker recently shared a video of a fantastic presentation he did in Portland. Starting at 18:05, he talks about our tendency to underestimate the rationality of other people's actions—attributing them to culture or highly subjective preferences instead. "We've all heard that Los Angeles has a car culture," he says, but LA doesn't have a "car culture." LA has an urban form and infrastructure in which most people are making the rational choice to meet their travel needs by driving.
And yet the perception of a car culture does limit the Overton Window for LA urban policymakers. Not intractably—in fact, LA has made impressive progress in some places toward a more productive and human-scale development model, more so in recent years than some American cities far more renowned for their urbanism and walkability.
What matters for policy is that a significant number of Angelenos believe that LA has a car culture. A significant number of LA elected officials may be hesitant to endorse policies perceived as a direct challenge to that "car culture." The status quo becomes self-reinforcing.
Moving the Window From Outside
One key insight about the Overton Window is that it's most readily moved from outside it. No one is very threatened by tinkering within the mainstream, so such tinkering doesn't provoke a dramatic response. It takes an effective, radical critique to shake up the public discourse on a subject. And when such a critique is successful, change is often breathtakingly rapid.
It's why gay rights organizations consciously decided to push for full same-sex marriage and not settle for civil unions or some other legal arrangement. Staking out a position that could have been accommodated without upending then-mainstream conceptions of the state's role in marriage offered limited returns. Staking out an inherently transformative position, one that fundamentally had to change the public discourse to be successful—well, we've now seen how that worked out. The Overton Window of gay rights has lurched to a new position, and it's not going back.
The Overton Window exists in part because of a widespread cognitive bias people have toward triangulating "moderate" as the average of two positions they perceive as "extreme." Our brains love mental shortcuts when it comes to evaluating new ideas, and this is an easy one to take. This means that public exposure for a radical position on an issue can shift the window by creating room for other views to appear moderate by comparison. If you grab one end of the window and stretch it, the center moves too.
This is why mainstream Republican politicians (the GOP has always been more aware of the Overton Window than the Democrats, and better at using it to their advantage) love it when these guys
say shocking things that rile up the base, so they can reap the benefits both of the riled-up base and of appearing composed and reasonable in contrast.
Radicalism as a means of moving the window has been the approach of the National Rifle Association to its advocacy against gun control—and any opinions on its actual policy positions aside, it's indisputable that the NRA is one of the most astonishingly successful advocacy organizations of all time. With a nationwide member base millions strong, the NRA has established a lock on one end of the gun control discourse, and it dictates where that end is. On the left side of the spectrum, the recent viral success of the Black Lives Matter movement seems to be a case of moving the Overton window on issues involving law enforcement accountability and institutional racism. (Note: I am not in any way suggesting that the idea itself—that black lives matter, or that racism is endemic in institutions including the police—is radical or "extreme." I am just observing that the window seems to have shifted in response to a social movement, to the point where mainstream politicians can say things they would not have said even a decade ago.)
So, Strong Towns advocates, who would like to see not merely a bike lane here and a traffic-calming project there, but a full-blown end to the Suburban Experiment and a return to tried-and-true methods of building fiscally sustainable, resilient cities: what do you think a successful viral campaign or social movement with this goal will look like?
The Fallacy of "Work Within the System We Have" Politics
I am all for the #NoNewRoads hashtag that Strong Towns has been pushing. And yet, I don't actually believe that there should not, anywhere, under any circumstances, be new roads built. And I absolutely don't think that's a politically viable outcome. That's not the point.
The point is doing what we can to spark a transformative change in the public discourse.
For this, I've seen Strong Towns, and often Chuck Marohn personally, called "angry," "off-putting," "strident," "negative," "not constructive," and many other things of that sort. This criticism misses the point.
One of the most acrimonious debates I've seen in urbanist circles of late has been over whether to support or oppose massive infrastructure spending campaigns in order to reap the transit / multimodal benefits. One such proposal, from the MoveMN coalition in Minnesota, inspired this point and subsequent Strong Towns counterpoint on Streets.mn. I won't delve into it again in any depth, but the crux of the issue is that transit, bike, and pedestrian project funding is often tied to these proposals, and for those who want to see such projects move forward, it can become a matter of begging for table scraps because it's scraps or nothing.
And yet, if you work within the dysfunctional political process and funding mechanisms we have to get what you want this time, what about next time? What about the time after that?
There may be valid reasons to ultimately support something like MoveMN. It's a difficult issue and one on which I'm conflicted. But let's not pretend it's a stepping stone to real change. It will do nothing to move the Overton Window in the direction of saner infrastructure policy. And sooner or later, if we keep doing what we've been doing, we will run out of money.
Let the politicians practice the art of the possible. As advocates, our job is to talk about what should be possible—and to make a compelling case for it until it catches on and spreads.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't be pragmatic in our coalition-building, or on specific issues where there's a near-term chance to get something done. It does mean we shouldn't let the pragmatic be the enemy of the transformative.
Where To Now?
Online organizer Josh Bolotsky at Beautiful Trouble puts it nicely:
"Not all radical positions are effective in shifting the Overton window, so don’t just reach for any old radical idea. Ideally, the position you promote should carry logical and moral force, and must include some common ground with your own position — it needs to be along the same continuum of belief if it is to be effective. It also must not be so far out of the mainstream that it becomes toxic for anyone vaguely associated with it, or the backlash will in fact push the Window in the opposite of the desired direction."
Are we seeing this backlash against urbanism in certain political contexts? In the allegations of a "War on Cars" that seem to spring up whenever any city makes steps toward reclaiming public space from the automobile? Personally, I doubt it—especially given the remarkably innocuous / inconsequential nature of some of the policies that seem to be enough to trigger "War on cars!" hysteria. I suspect this is better read as a sign that the old guard is losing and we're—not quickly enough, but surely—gaining ground.
How can Strong Towns be effective in transforming the discourse about how we build cities?
What positions should we stake out that are outside the current mainstream but backed by compelling evidence and moral reasoning?
How should we frame them to have the best chance of gaining viral momentum?
Where, on an issue you care about, are there signs of a shift in the window already complete or in progress?
What positions are tenable or even totally uncontroversial now that would have been seen as radical or untenable 20 years ago?
For example, I'd suggest the fact that New York City's pedestrianization of Times Square has been a smashing success, yet nobody could have envisioned it as recently as the 1990s. And just this summer, Minneapolis did away with some—sadly not all—of its mandatory parking minimums. Small steps, but signs of change.
Progress in concrete form—a given community, a given project—may be one step forward, two steps back. But the pace of social change is nonlinear—the stunning snowball effect of the gay marriage movement is proof of that. If we can help shift the Overton Window and open up new avenues for policymakers, it's a different ballgame.
How do you see the long-term game plan? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.