Earlier this month, we invited Strong Towns members to respond to a series of questions on Nassim Taleb's book, AntifragileYou should really read the book (it's a big inspiration for Strong Towns thinking), but if you haven't, you'll still find it easy to jump in on this topic. Strong Towns member, Greg McPherson lives in the town of Wollongong in Australia. He chose to respond to the following question: 

Taleb is particularly harsh on those who do not experience the downside risk of their own overconfidence, especially when the effects are transferred to others. List some examples for cities. In these circumstances, how do we help the weak?

Narrow streets and small houses in Sydney in the early 1900s

Narrow streets and small houses in Sydney in the early 1900s

It was 1908. These were progressive times. Progress is not easy and there was much to me done. Perhaps moreso, there was much to be ‘undone’. Clarence was certainly happy. He had a job to do. There was a problem and Clarence was to be part of the solution. Clarence would be compensated  and Clarence had a purpose! This was a big project. A very big project.

As is often the case, it was America’s idea. Years earlier, officials in several US cities had decided that their wide streets were not wide enough. The solution? Just create a new philosophy, name it the ‘city beautiful movement’, have an exposition in Chicago, then forcibly evict everyone from the most vibrant urban places, demolish most of the buildings, move others, widen the roads and erect some monuments in the name of civic virtue — job done. Who could complain?

Sydney, Australia followed suit. A few planners and city engineers who had found themselves in official positions with authority attached decided that ‘narrow’ streets and ‘small’ houses were the cause of all things bad. In an astonishing act, thousands of houses and decades of organic urban growth would be bulldozed into the ground, the displaced people would be sent to the new ‘suburbs’ where they belonged and new boulevards 100ft wide would be built in the name of the ‘Beautiful City’ to replace the network of laneways. No street would exist less than 66ft wide, and warehouses would replace the houses.

Clarence was a professional photographer. His job was to photograph the existing deplorable state of the place so as to record and justify the demolition. Fast forward 108 years later and his photographs have survived. They are heartbreaking to look at. They show small streets and ‘laneways’ full of people talking together, kids playing together, men in business attire seemingly doing business together. They show urban density with dignity. They show how people naturally chose to build and how they chose to live. Hardly a building setback to be seen.

Our urban landscape is almost never a result of free people making free choices. In this case the ‘planners’ were exceedingly confident in their decision to annihilate everything that had come before them. To destroy the proud work of countless architects, builders and residents, and to displace thousands of people. In part, there was no downside for them. The very act of the destruction meant a job for the planners and engineers. They would be paid regardless. If the project was fraught with delays, obstructions and unexpected events, they might even be paid more.

While some compensation was paid to landowners, displaced business owners and tenants would not receive one cent in compensation. The planners and engineers on the other hand had nothing to lose. They had no ‘skin in the game’. Did they even believe in what they were doing? 

Little has changed in the the last 108 years. Intervention has its own motivation. Even worse than Nassim’s ‘no skin in the game’ is the fact that disasters can sometimes be a boon. It’s actually profitable for certain groups of individuals employed in government when things go ‘wrong’. Sydney recently spent $AUD 38 million on a minor usage pedestrian overpass over (the Anzac Parade) roadway, $AUD 13 million more than the original already absurd $AUD 25 million budget. Who suffered any personal consequence for the obscene waste of money? Absolutely no one. Who profited? Everyone involved! No one that walks anywhere seems to have even wanted this bridge in the first place. It’s hardly used.

A different example: Shared space. There is compelling evidence, ‘very compelling’ as Nassim Taleb would say, that shared space in urban areas is a resounding success.  The local economy does better, motorized vehicles get from A to point B in less time, and carnage and collateral damage is almost eliminated. Everyone benefits! Well... actually not quite everyone. The installation of traffic lights can cost $2 million for a single intersection. There is a lot of vested interest in intersection intervention. Large sums of public money are reallocated for what is often a negative outcome.

How can skin be put into the intervention game? It’s a perplexing question with no easy answer.

Earlier this month, parts of Australia were experiencing their biggest storm event in 42 years.  Gigantic swells were washing away coastal buildings. Floods were inundating Australia’s eastern seaboard for more than a thousand miles North to South. Sydney was being drenched by torrential rain and battered by wind. My unlikely mission that day was to drive with my family to my niece's 7th birthday party some 70 odd miles away on the far side of Sydney. I love a good storm!

After aquaplaning most of the way into western Sydney we approached the notoriously clogged intersection of Stacey Street on which we were driving and the Hume Hwy in the suburb of Bankstown. On any normal day it’s typical to have to wait several cycles of lights to get across the Hume Hwy. This was not, however, a normal day. The traffic lights were not working. The ongoing storm had apparently killed them. There was no traffic control of any type in operation. The result? With no less volume of cars on the road we sailed straight through the free flowing intersection without even stopping, without any delay whatsoever. Drivers from all approaches were working together cooperatively.

Finding a way of putting ‘skin into the game’ for the interventionists is doubtlessly problematic. The interventionists are assisted by general public hysteria borne of ignorance to any suggestion of such a thing as shared space. The interventionists greatest fear may well be the fear of the truth of their own irrelevence. I invite you to film any intersections you encounter with the lights out. We need to start collectively collecting the evidence. I’ll be happy to organize it.  Here's my first video recording of this in action.

Challenging engineers with factors of human psychology goes against their own psychology. For the time being, embarrassment might be the best option. 

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About the Author

Greg McPherson is a philosophizer of engineering, pursuing creative destruction through storytelling. He's also a project manager. Greg lives in Wollongong, Australia.