I received this email the other day (not going to share the name because I don't have permission):

In skimming your mission page, I spotted this:

"[A Strong Town] relies on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects."

This would make tremendous sense in a world starting from scratch. However, the country put trillions into sunk investments in unsustainability over the past 70 years. We are in big trouble as a result. Incremental change just perpetuates the dysfunction.

I see this aspect of the Strong Towns approach as fundamentally unsuited to a time calling for paradigm change. I can’t see how incremental change can possibly be appropriate in a time where we are marching rapidly towards the tipping point of climate change. (I nonetheless recognize the importance of this stance in combatting planner hubris.)

I appreciate a lot of your analyses, Chuck. You’ve got a lot to offer. I choked, however, on your density writing that implicitly or explicitly criticized transit-oriented development. I now see this incrementalist theme as the heart of what I was reacting to.

Whose new paradigm do we choose? Where do we implement this new paradigm?

I think I was in a crabby mood — it was a week when I got a lot of this kind of email — but I'm going to share my response because I think this entire dialogue is one worth examination. Here's what I wrote:

Whose new paradigm do we choose? Where do we implement this new paradigm?

Were these not the words spoken by the highway builders running roads through neighborhoods? The urban renewal advocates tearing down cities? The people building the malls and the big box stores? What makes us so much more confident that we have things figured out, that we won't make the same mistakes of hubris?

By my estimation, we will retain between 20% and 50% of the currently developed land area. The rest will be abandoned or salvaged once the current generation of stuff fails (it is not financially viable). How do we decide where those places are? How do we decide what should happen to those people?

What are the consequences of a new paradigm? Where will those be felt and how will they be managed?

You wrote:

This would make tremendous sense in a world starting from scratch. However, the country put trillions into sunk investments in unsustainability over the past 70 years. We are in big trouble as a result. Incremental change just perpetuates the dysfunction.

When looking at the past, I’m outraged by the hubris of our recent ancestors in that regard — despite their genuine intentions — and am humbled by wisdom derived from thousands of years of incremental development.

I would contend the opposite: Incremental changes ends the dysfunction while a sudden, large-scale shift to the next popular fad is simply repeating the mindset that got us to this point.

Someone sent me a similar lament a few weeks ago and I responded to her here.  I'd also recommend my series on incremental development, starting with this post.  And then, of course, the essential reading of Nassim Taleb:  Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragile.

I lack your confidence in my ability to discern the future. When looking at the past, I'm outraged by the hubris of our recent ancestors in that regard — despite their genuine intentions — and am humbled by wisdom derived from thousands of years of incremental development.

I agree: we are in big trouble. Nobody has ever confronted the predicament we have created for ourselves. That is why we need to try many different things in many different places, working incrementally and diligently to identify what will truly work in this new reality -- consequences and all -- so we can grow into a stronger place.

Respectfully,

Chuck

Now I'm turning this to you, our Strong Towns members and readers. Is this our fundamental fallacy? How do we best communicate a message to those who want transformational change now?

A Note: My apologies to those of you that have emailed me and are waiting for a response. I'm trying to keep up. My priority for communication each day is generally (1) Slack, (2) Facebook, (3) Twitter, (4) email and then (5) voicemail. I try to give myself an hour total and it's never enough so my apologies to those of you waiting for a response.

(Top photo source: Johnny Sanphillippo)


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