How Relevant is Localism in an Age of Urgency?


This is our seventh dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

In this episode, recorded in front of a smaller-than-usual crowd (it turns out that’s what happens when you’re competing with Jan Gehl), Chuck and his three guests discuss the question, “How Relevant is Localism in an Age of Urgency?” The guests for this conversation were Scott Doyon and Ben Brown, both of Placemakers, and Susana Dancy, partner with Rockwood Development in Chapel Hill, NC, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Incremental Development Alliance.

“We are constantly told how the world is becoming a flaming dumpster fire,” says Chuck, introducing the day’s topic, “and that amid all these disasters, the only rational response is to do something really big. In fact, if we’re not doing that, we’re really not serious about things.” But is this sort of go big or go home mindset the right one?

The paradox of our era is that taking large-scale action to tackle national and global problems can feel simultaneously more imperative and less achievable than it did in the past. Doyon suggests that localism is what’s left to us, because any attempt to unite many people behind an ambitious, huge project will end up riddled with distractions and divisions. The community solidarity that we once might have called on to “do great things together,” in the words of Thomas Friedman, has now broken down.

One reason why? Our communities are less homogenous than they used to be, and we have to adjust to having people at the table who don’t think like us and haven’t had the same experiences we have had. Another factor is a shift that has occurred in how we think about citizenship. Says Dancy, “We’ve trained our public that they are consumers of community, as opposed to members, or builders, of community.” This gets to why there is often intense local opposition to any sort of change at all in a place’s built form or zoning code or community culture: “Because this is what they bought.” Community, says Doyon, used to be a survival mechanism. Now, it’s a “purchased amenity.”

In that context, how do you build momentum to address even local problems, let alone the kind of national or global concerns that manifest themselves locally in place after place after place? Our panelists’ answers suggest that local relationship building is crucial—and there is simply no way around working at the local level. Then, once you have a few local success stories and models under your belt, you'll be able to scale up and replicate what you’ve achieved.

National nonprofit the Incremental Development Alliance is reaching the point in its growth where it can work directly with cities on changing regulations that are in the way of small-scale infill development. But the credibility required to do this starts within communities, not with a national organization. In Columbus, Georgia, for example, a local property owner went person by person through the city council to persuade them of the value of adding on-street parking as part of a traffic calming exercise.

“That happened because of that trust that existed within that community,” says Dancy, but once it had happened, it became a model. Dancy was able to go back to Chapel Hill, where she lives, and say, to people with whom she had local credibility, “They’re doing it in Georgia. Can we do it here?”

Localism may be a necessary response to the paralysis of national and global institutions and levers of change. But that doesn’t mean that we should reject the goal of having a large, scalable impact on the world through our actions, says Brown. Instead, localism needs to be a means to producing solutions that can be replicated and that are informed by an awareness of global problems. “See if you can find the biggest little thing you can do,” he advises. It must be small enough to succeed, but big enough to have an influence. In an age of polarization and tribalism, Browns suggests, “the only way you can get big done is to demonstrate how the little works. Then scale up.”

Listen to the podcast for these and many more thoughts on the value, urgency, and limitations of localism in an age of big, desperate problems.