What should a city be? (Pt. 2)

This week, we've invited Strong Towns members to respond to a series of questions on Nassim Taleb's book, Antifragile. You 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 these topics and conversations, based on the second section of Antifragile.

The following is Strong Towns member, Marielle Brown's answer to this question:

When considering a project or policy approach, local decision makers often want to know who else has done it and what happened there. Taleb suggests that we should look less at past examples -- good or bad -- and more at the potential for harm if we are wrong. For cities considering capital investments, how would we practically apply Taleb’s approach?

This is Part 2 of an essay on addressing antifragility in decisions about capital improvement projects. The first part of the essay looks at addressing antifragility within our existing planning framework).

Less is more; move the discourse to (anti)fragility
— Nassim Taleb
Photo courtesy of WOCinTech

Photo courtesy of WOCinTech

When our cities make decisions about projects, they are usually presupposing a single, big solution to a problem. That's an inherently fragile methodology. This approach also betrays our view of cities as a set of problems that need to be fixed, instead of as a complex organism generated by a community of people living together and grounded in a place. To build antifragile communities, we need to start by talking about what kind of place we want our cities to be.

For planners, deciding on shared values means hiring a consultant that forms committees and hosts visioning sessions to create an orderly list of community values. But residents usually don't feel ownership over this single, immutable list since they were not all there for the meetings and everyone suspects that the consultant just wrote what the mayor would approve of anyway.

A community has to create a sense of broadly shared values by talking them through. Elected officials, staff, and residents should ask about how each city decision impacts their community and if it contributes to the kind of city they want to be. This needs to become a civic tic, where it is a natural part of a every conversation about the city, and it would be strange not to ask the city engineer if widening a street is really building the type of city we want to live in.

When a city is aware of its values, it can examine the impacts of its actions and decide what does or does not fit with those values and priorities. This line of questioning respects the city as a complex organism that we cannot fully understand, while helping us think about how we can tinker to improve outcomes. By focusing first on impacts and figuring out contributing factors and emergent solutions, a city starts with bottom-up actions and move towards more expensive and top-down solutions like capital improvement projects only if the impacts persist. This slow process helps the city to build knowledge of the issue and redundancy in solutions.

Asking what the impacts are and why they matter are open-ended questions that require city staff and officials to talk to residents, do research, and consult experts in other fields. In other words, it takes time and it goes outside of the neat, linear planning process diagrams. Planners and engineers often diagnosis problems in ways that suggest solutions, rather than defining issues through impacts and why they matter.

An engineer might say traffic congestion is a problem as drivers are required to wait through two red-light phases during rush hour. A city that is defining problems based on its shared value of nurturing the next generation might see the same situation and define the problem instead as children suffering from asthma due to air pollution. The engineering view of the problem suggests solutions that try to make it easier for drivers during rush hour; the community values view suggests a wider set of potential solutions, including finding ways to reduce driving at all times of the day or even looking at other sources of air pollution. It also allows the city to acknowledge that congestion is also part of how the city functions; residents are traveling between home, jobs, schools, stores, and social events, which is an essential part of city life.

Having defined an issue through impacts, a community can look for potential solutions by examining how people or businesses are contributing to the impact(s) and how people are coping. The goal should be to find as many small solutions as possible, in order to build redundancy. That way, when a solution fails or the problem gets worse due to events outside of the city’s control, there will be a variety of fallbacks.

The process of looking at what contributes to the problems and how people are coping with them needs to involve, not just city planners and engineers, but also residents, elected officials, and city staff from other departments. The city needs to ask people in many ways — not just at an open house or through a survey.

After looking at the causes of a problem, it is likely the city will end up with a list of existing policies and practices that are contributing to that problem. A city should focus on these first in order to make sure it is not spending public money to solve problems created by its own bad policy.

After looking at the causes of a problem, it is likely the city will end up with a list of existing policies and practices that are contributing to that problem. A city should focus on these first in order to make sure it is not spending public money to solve problems created by its own bad policy. For a city concerned with congestion, there will probably be many policies that are contributing to the problem, including minimum parking requirements, minimum lane widths, narrow sidewalks, lack of bike lanes, zoning codes that separate land uses, and budgets that prioritize repaving roads instead of convenient transit. The city should consider what the policy was intended to do, and if there other ways to achieve that goal.

After looking at what contributes to the problem, a city then needs to look at how people are coping with the problem currently. Coping mechanisms that fit within the city’s values should be considered as potential solutions. For example, a city might find that people are choosing to walk to local restaurants instead of driving to restaurants in different neighborhoods because of congestion. If the city values reducing air pollution and asthma above subsidizing restaurants in poorly chosen locations, they might look at how to support this coping mechanism and make it part of the way they are addressing congestion.

For coping mechanisms that do not fit within the city’s values, the city should look at how to stop the behavior and how to offer alternatives.  People driving might be coping with the boredom of congestion by texting or watching videos on their phone which increases danger for everyone and does not fit with the city’s values. The city could look at immediate solutions like designing streets to require drivers to pay more attention while also looking at longer term solutions, like building mixed-use neighborhoods connected by transit to let people safely send text messages while taking the bus to work.

Each potential solution should be vetted first and foremost based on whether it fits within the city’s values. This process should also involve asking if the solution will make the city stronger or weaker when things go wrong, or when a black swan event occurs. Finally, the initial vetting should ask who should be responsible for the action. Not all solutions will be appropriate for the city to act on; some might be better decided at an individual or neighborhood level, some might be better decided at a higher level.

Not every problem will be solved with small levels of tinkering either, but by looking at small solutions first, the city and residents will learn more about the problem and what does or does not work. The process might be tedious and recursive, and fraught with disagreement, but it will also help cities learn more about the issues they face, how to solve these issues, and how to live together. When a city faces a large problem that does rise to the level of needing a capital improvement project, the community will already be thinking in terms of risk and antifragility, instead of relying on projections of traffic or revenues from a consultant.

Read all our antifragile essays.

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Marielle Brown, AICP, is passionate about helping communities create lovable places that work for people of all ages and abilities. She lives in St. Louis, where she works as the Director of Policy and Strategy at Trailnet, a bicycling and walking advocacy organization. In addition to her advocacy and planning work, she has first-hand experience with multi-modal transportation planning around the world through her experiences living in Beijing, Hiroshima, Paris, and Seoul. Marielle received her Master's in Urban and Regional Planning from Portland State University.