“Raise your hand if you think cars should be prioritized over pedestrians downtown” I asked the crowd of 70. One person raised their hand. “Raise your hand if you think pedestrians should be prioritized over cars downtown” all 70 people raised their hands this time. Apparently one attendee had a bit of a struggle picking a side.
Houma, Louisiana is home to around 33,000 people and sits 60 miles to the Southwest of New Orleans towards the Gulf Coast. I was in town conducting a Civic Pride Workshop in conjunction with the the tourism bureau and the downtown revitalization organization. I explained to the audience that I was here to help, but in order to help, they would have to tell me what’s wrong. One of the biggest problems they explained, was downtown felt very unsafe for people to walk. Cars traveled far too fast, there were too many trucks, it was loud and scary. Having been in Houma for just a couple of hours, this issue was easy to witness.
The streets had been made too wide, the sidewalks too narrow, there weren’t enough traffic calming measures. Cars had been handed the keys to downtown, and as downtown wasn’t designed for people, people used it less. Less people means less business, less productive real estate, more vacancy, more decline, more apathy, and so on. The decision to prioritize the car downtown was a disastrous one and it was having a ripple effect throughout the entire community.
I decide if I want to shop in a store based on its appearance. I decide if I want to eat a restaurant based on its appearance and I would decide if I want to move to a town based on its appearance. The condition of the downtown is the appearance of the city as a whole. This is your outfit, these are your storefront windows, this is your city’s facade. Everyone that sees your city, assesses it based on the appearance of the downtown. That is why this matters to every institution in the city. If the hospital wants to retain and attract talented people, this matters, if the college wants to retain and attract talented faculty and students, it matters. If the bank wants to retain and attract smart bankers, it matters. The appearance of the downtown affects 100% of the people in town.
Cars had clearly been giving priority over humans in downtown Houma, yet 69 or 70 out of 70 people in the audience publicly stated that was not what thy wanted. And I was not speaking to the after school detention crowd. These were the community leaders. The 70 people in the audience that were willing and able to take a full day off of work to attend a civic pride workshop were the same people that run the town. These were the stakeholder and owners. These were the decision makers. How can it be that what these 70 people wanted had no bearing on what was actually happening? Who is in charge then? Who is making all these decisions that no one wants?
Later in the workshop, a middle aged gentleman expressed his frustration with downtown buildings being used as storage. This trashy phenomena is sadly not relegated to Houma, but a universal use of downtown buildings. Again I asked the audience for a show of hands. “Who here thinks that there should be legislation banning the use of downtown buildings as storage?” This time, I got the full 70. 100% of the audience agreed that this is not a proper use of a downtown building and that something should be done. But aren’t these the people that are most capable of getting something done?
I asked a city councilwoman at the front table if she had enough information to propose such legislation at her next meeting. She said the unanimous vote was eye opening, but pointed out that knowing what people want and having the support to get it done are two very different things- which is an excellent point. If the councilwoman goes to her next meeting and suggests implementing increased restrictions on downtown buildings and the only people that show up are the 4 deadbeats that use their buildings for storage, she has a problem. This is a typical problem I see, residents make the assumption that council members don’t care about them and their wants and needs, but council people don’t get much information or support from residents. Both sides are mad at one another when a lack of communication is the problem at hand. If all the stakeholders feel strongly about vacant property legislation, they also need to show up at the council meeting to show their support and demonstrate to the other members that this is an issue that matters to the community. This is one of the reasons resident’s don’t get what they want, even though they almost all agree.
In the afternoon, someone mentioned a new comprehensive or maybe it was a downtown plan was in the works and that this would help illuminate what residents really wanted, which might help alleviate the problem. Once again, I asked for a show of hands. “How many of you would like to see your downtown transformed into a walkable hub of community and commercial activity, consisting of a bunch of three story buildings, all filled up with cute little shops, apartments and offices, done up with nice signage, hanging baskets and flower beds?”
100%. All 70 people in the workshop raised their hand and stated that this is exactly what they wanted. The public input portion of their plan is complete and at a cost savings of about $20,000. You’re welcome.
I understand engagement is important, but why keep asking the same question just to get the same answer? If knowing the answer never results in getting any closer to the answer, it’s not the question that matters, but the process. We know what people want, that is not the problem. The problem lies somewhere in the middle of aspiration and action. Somewhere between desire and reality. There is something broken in the machine that keeps it from spitting out what people want, so maybe we can stop asking the same damn question.
What became obvious during the workshop is this- we have been addressing the wrong problem. We have been trying to solve the wrong issue. We don’t need to keep asking people what they want. We know what they want because it’s what they always say, we know by looking where they always travel and we know by looking at where the most expensive real estate lies. We don’t ever have to ask again if people want to live in pretty places where they can walk and shop local. We know the answer. We have to start thinking about why what we know never translates to action.
There are three prime reasons for the disconnect between civic aspirations and action.
The first is low standards. A community might be clear about what it wants, but when offered up a lesser option, they might feel pressure to say yes. A developer comes along and touts a project that is’t good for the community, but people worry that if the town passes it up, that investment will never return. Then everyone starts calling everyone anti-business and socialists and then the fun really starts. So example community, like my younger self, says yes to a lot of things they probably shouldn’t have because apathy has taken hold.
The second reason regards a lack of action. I might say I want to get in shape every day, but if I don’t leave my Lay-Z Boy, it doesn’t really matter. There is no point in taking the time to do a study or a plan if the findings do not result in swift action. The plan is not at fault. I am currently paying for an app to help me learn Spanish, the app is not currently failing me, I am the reason I can no hablo Espanol. We have to find ways to translate recommendations into meaningful action. We have to break the work down into smaller portions so we can begin with no delay. Sorting this out is more important than another study.
Finally, and I believe this is the most consequential reason, cities are not outcome oriented, but process driven. Even when there is a clear consensus on what people want, there is truly no way to achieve it if we continue working through the current process a municipality has in place. There is no defining or overarching vision, it’s just a bunch of different departments managing a bunch of different processes that just spit out a result that works for them. If I wanted to build a house, I would first hire an architect to design the house, then a contractor to use the blueprints to bring in subcontractors that would turn those plans into a home. This is how things typically get done. This is not what cities do though. If a city was going to build a house, the city would bring in all the subs first and have them handle their own particular aspect of the construction the best they can and whatever pops out at the end is sufficient. This might mean the painter got his job done first, sorry about your luck plumber. In a city, this would translate to the traffic engineer making decisions about the design of city streets with no consideration for how that might impact everyone else in town.
Car companies don’t just start building using the people and parts they have lying around. They design the car they want first and work backwards from there. Cities, to realize what people want, have to decide what it should look like, how it should function, and then work backwards. Start with the desired outcomes then develop the process to realize those outcomes.
We can do so much better. Every person should have the opportunity to live in a city designed with the resident in mind. Shaped out of the notion that the urban fabric can elevate their lives and make them healthy and happy. Because if our cities aren’t being designed for residents, then who are we designing them for?