The Hitchhiker's Guide to Strong Towns

Today we're taking a little diversion away from our hard-hitting commentary and data analysis to bring you some excerpts from one of my favorite books, the science fiction novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I'm sharing them today because, believe it or not, they're actually quite relevant to Strong Towns.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy begins with two parallel scenarios: In the first, a man named Arthur Dent wakes up in his rural English home only to find that a bulldozer outside is about to demolish his house in order to build a highway bypass through it.

After deciding to lay in front of the bulldozer to prevent his home from being destroyed, his conversation with the bulldozer driver goes like this:

"Come off it, Mr. Dent," [the driver] said, "you can't win, you know. You can't lie in front of the bulldozer indefinitely [...] I'm afraid you're going to have to accept it. This bypass has got to be built and it's going to be built!"

"First I've heard of it," said Arthur, "why's it got to be built?"

"What do you mean, why's it got to be built?" he said. "It's a bypass. You've got to build bypasses."

In the second scenario, which quickly unfolds after the first, the entire planet Earth is informed by a voice emitting from an enormous spaceship that their world needs to be demolished to make way for a highway. You can watch the clip from the film version in the video on the right. 

Protetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council explains:

As you are probably aware, plans for the development of the outlying regions of the galaxy invoke the building of a hyperspace express route through your star system. And your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition.

(Shouts of terror emit around the globe.)

There's no point acting all surprised about it; the plans and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your earth years. If you can't be bothered to take an interest in local affairs, that's your own lookout.

There are some important Strong Towns issues explored here in just the first few pages of the book. First, how many people throughout history have been told "We need to bulldoze your house to build a highway"? And, when they ask why, are provided with little more answer than Arthur Dent receives: "It's a highway. You've got to build highways." Take a look at our work on the I-49 inner city connector highway in Shreveport, Louisiana to see this destructive logic in action.

Furthermore, when the issue is pressed, how often do we hear, "Well these plans have been around for months. If you were more educated/informed/able to access our archaic filing system, you could have protested this but now it's too late"? 

Perhaps it's feasible to look at one individual like Arthur Dent (or one neighborhood, like the Allendale neighborhood in Shreveport) and say that he needs to sacrifice his home for the greater good of the transportation system, but when presented on the scale of galaxies and planets, the preposterousness becomes apparent. In this case, a modern day Earth which has yet to send a human much beyond Earth's orbit has, of course, never heard of the "local planning department in Alpha Centauri," let alone had the capacity to visit it and protest its aims.

In the same way, so many communities have been and continue to be destroyed for the sake of highways (and stadiums and malls and so on) with little warning and certainly without any real opportunity to fight back because of the power and money aligned against them. Sure there are public input sessions, but in the end, the big guys usually win and the little guys are left to pick up the pieces.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy contains some other subtle critiques of the suburban development pattern and obsession with cars. For example, one of the main characters in the book is an alien named Ford Prefect, which is a type of car once commonly sold in the UK. In order to blend in on Earth, he has chosen this name because he initially thought that cars were Earth's dominant life form. It likely comes as no surprise to him, then, that the desire to construct an express route also leads to the death of this planet.

Unfortunately for us, we don't have the ability to manufacture a new Earth (as is proposed in the book after the first Earth is eliminated). So we need to focus our efforts on preventing destructive actions like the construction of more highways and big box stores before they happen. That's how you begin to build strong towns.

Kudos to Josh McCarty for inspiring this article.

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