An interesting discussion has been taking place at Strong Towns about whether or not the public wants drastic change; for me there are a tremendous number of right answers to this question, all of which contain some truth and many of which seem contradictory. Do people in suburbia want to change the way they live? No. They want to keep doing what they’ve been doing but with different outcomes be they financial, social, or environmental.
A long time ago Chuck Marohn used the hot dog versus lobster example to elucidate the preference for suburban living. While I experience urbanity as the crustacean and the suburbs as the frankfurter in my own gastro-urban aesthetic what he goes on to say is that the suburban subsidies present in the build out phase of suburbia gave people the option of choosing between lobster and hot dogs without accurate information regarding their relative costs and so people have become accustomed to getting the high cost option without regard to its expense.
Now that the costs are becoming harder and harder to hide with further growth within the Suburban Ponzi scheme, asking if that public wants drastic change is, perhaps, a question which is too easily, if willfully, misinterpreted: Drastic change? Yes, in that they want a drastic change in the reality which doesn’t allow them to consume lobster at hot dog prices indefinitely.
As a resident of a city where the entirety of the preceding is nearly meaningless, my experiences with the public have been starkly different and in many ways inverse. Here we’ve been paying a different price for a development pattern which, while a bit more on the hot dog end of the expense continuum, has managed to leave us impoverished in many ways and in the here and now. Many people here, especially those who haven’t been exposed to places where the traditional development pattern has continued to function without the baleful impacts of suburban vampirism (i.e. continental Europe), still see auto oriented development as the road to prosperity even as its first adopters fall into decline.
What this means is that much of “the public” wants buildings razed and the space devoted to parking increased, among other things. As with cargo cults, what they have witnessed is that certain behaviors have brought sought after results but they do not know that the circumstances under which that relationship obtained were provisional. What makes it even harder is that in the case of auto oriented development the benefits of acting out the cultic rituals still bring immediate benefits; if I am the only retailer on a strip of traditional Main Street with an exclusive parking lot the harm to walkability accrues to all, but all the benefits belong to me. This more or less invisible externality gives the public not just erroneous but inverted market signals.
It’s not surprising then that the public often begs to have its throat cut on the altar of sprawl.
In my experience the planners and the experts in economic development HERE have been just as ignorant as the general public on all of these issues until very, very recently and so asking about whether “great men” should contrive to “push through” their grand plans in contravention to the public’s ignorance isn’t a thing I’ve contemplated. I have learned from reading and listening to people whose opinions I respect that other places are very different in this regard; in some the leaders are enlightened and the populace is benighted, in others the reverse is true, yet still in others minorities of the enlightened, or not, hold sway over their adversaries disproportionately. In some areas meetings last into the wee hours with multitudes wishing to have their say, in others, no one gets involved.
Finding a “one size fits all” process which can be trusted to give a desirable outcome is the procedural equivalent of a mega-structure or silver bullet. The processes by which to create the drastic change we need from a system in which the momentum of even the desire for drastic change often flows in opposition to the change that’s needed will have to be as emergent as the change itself.