3 On-Going Thoughts Since Strong Towns Visited

It's always great when members share their thoughts after Strong Towns has visited their area. Dave Alden, a member from Petaluma, CA, highlights three takeaways following a recent series of events in Santa Rosa. 

View from plaza in downtown Healdsburg

View from plaza in downtown Healdsburg

After a productive series of North Bay meetings, the principals from Strong Towns and Urban3 have gone home, but not before seeding the North Bay with ideas about further steps toward an urbanist, financially sustainable, climate change moderating future.

Below, I offer a few thoughts about what happened and what can happen next.

Thought #1 – Who Was Missing from the Room

About 18 months ago, I attended a meeting of the Petaluma City Council.  My reason for attending that particular night was the discussion about an upcoming ballot measure for an infrastructure-funding sales tax bump.

Of course, that wasn’t the only agenda item of the evening.  To begin the meeting were several proclamations, including one for a youth sports team.

So I found myself in the Council Chambers before the meeting began, a few seats away from a group of parents eager for their children to be honored by the Mayor and Council.  One father seemed particularly energized by the recognition to be given to his child and her teammates.

One of the other parents asked the father if he intended to stay for the remainder of the meeting.  He asked what was on the agenda.  The sales tax discussion was noted.  He huffed, “I don’t need to listen to that crap.  We all know that the City has plenty of money to fix the streets and doesn’t do it only because the corrupt Council has their hands in the till.”

True to his words, he proudly took pictures of his child and teammates with the Mayor and Council and then departed.

Even after setting aside the mental aberration of finding pleasure in your child being honored by the Mayor while also considering a Mayor a crook, this was clearly a voter who needed to listen to the StrongTowns/Urban3 material with an open mind.

I know that if every North Bay voter who has described their city council as corrupt would have come to the Bike Monkey in Santa Rosa last week, the capacity of the building would have been burst many times over.  But I’m still frustrated that there are citizens who vote from positions of ignorance and yet would never have considered attending last week.

I’m not setting up myself as a paragon of education and enlightenment.  But I’ll acknowledge the gaps in my knowledge and work toward filling those, whether by meeting attendance, reading, or inquiry, before voting or participating in the public arena.  I wish others would strive for the same standard.

(For those few readers who might have wandered into this post through a side door, I should explain that StrongTowns and Urban3 argue that a major source of municipal budget distress is the result of how we’ve financed growth starting after World War II.  One may quibble with some of the details of their thinking, but what they offer is a lot more believable than the alternative proposition that the council in every city experiencing financial distress, which is the great majority, is dishonest.)

For another example of the lack of public knowledge, check out this article in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat written before the meetings of last week.  The article itself is fine, but the comments will make you weep.

There are no easy answers for raising the level of the public discourse.  But for those who have developed informed opinions on the questions of municipal finance, an essential step is sharing their thinking with friends and neighbors.  And encouraging those friends and neighbors to attend if StrongTowns returns to the North Bay.

Thought #2 – Meeting the Burden of Proof

In casual conversation after the first meeting last week, several folks who were largely new to the Strong Towns thinking expressed to me their general support for the philosophy, but noted that several points in the logic were underdeveloped or glossed over.  I generally agreed with them.  And when I attended sessions later in the week, I grimaced a bit when I noted logical omissions or glosses.  My concerns were first cousins to the quibbles about which I wrote last week.

It’s reasonable to wish for a theory in which one believes to be proved as rigorously as possible.  Nonetheless, I was wrong to be discontent.

For one, it must be remembered that the StrongTowns Curbside Chat, which Chuck Marohn used as his script last week, is presenting a perspective on land use that is at complete variance with the only perspective to which many listeners have ever been exposed.  That’s a significant challenge for a presentation that typically runs only ninety minutes.

To expect every last logical point to be nailed down within the Curbside Chat is parallel to expecting a lecturer to explain the nuances of the theory of relativity in an introduction to physics course.  Leaving a few points underdeveloped is completely understandable.

Even more important is to remember which side of the discussion should be responsible for the burden of proof.  Walkable urbanism has millennia of real world testing that went into its form.  Even if we have looked elsewhere for seventy years, urbanism remains the established paradigm.

Drivable suburbia is an invention based on suppositions about what land-use pattern could best accommodate the car while also being financially sustainable.  They were suppositions, nothing more.  And there has never been any real proof the drivable suburbia would work in the long-term, a point about which I wrote in this post about zealotry.

The burden of proof must therefore be the responsibility of the drivable suburban proponents.  All that Strong Towns and Urban3 should have been required to do was to establish that the suburban paradigm was failing, a proof that is trivial and already evident to all but the most selectively blind observers.

Hoping for the walkable urbanists to meet the highest possible level of proof is an understandable emotion, but if we allow that wish to let the drivable suburbanists duck their responsibility, we’re only hurting ourselves.

Thought #3 – Next Steps

By coincidence, even as the Strong Towns/Urban3 week was proceeding, I had several conversations that helped identify new paths along which progress can be made on urbanist opportunities in Petaluma.

As a rule, I try to be as transparent as possible in laying out my real world urbanist goals.  But some of the new information presented such startling possibilities about new alliances and possible outcomes that I’m still sorting through the ramifications.

If this sounds interesting to you, if your city of interest is Petaluma, and if you’re not now on the Petaluma Urban Chat mailing list, this is a good time to get on that list.  Send me an email and we’ll get you into the loop.

Find the original post on Alden's blog, North Bay Design Kit. Bookmark our Member Blogroll for more great local conversations by our members.