As You Like It

February 10, 2022

It’s really not that hard. We are waaaay overthinking all of this. In fact, it’s pretty simple. Cities are full of people, so we should prioritize people. Cars don’t even vote.

We don’t need consultants to tell us how to fix our cities, we can rely on what we know about human nature to inform us. Instead of dropping $40k on another study or plan, we could put that money towards doing something useful, like throwing a party. Seriously, that money would be better spent throwing one kickass party than on another 300 page ‘comprehensive’ plan.

Wait wait wait, before you throw your phone into the sea and report me to the planning police- just hear me out. Is there anything you like about your city that was built after the Truman administration? Do you actually enjoy driving? Do you find it a thrill to load your kids into the car to do absolutely everything? Does it give you immense pleasure to make your way to the great asphalt sea of suburbia to acquire your weekly provisions? Do you just love Walmart and Dollar General? Has anything good happened to your city in the since we landed on the moon?

I’m gonna go ahead and venture a big, fat ‘Nope’.

At some point in the last century of city planning and development, we stopped paying attention to the wants, needs and concerns of humans. Think about that. Here we are, out here designing habitats for humans, yet we haven’t built a place worth a shit since electricity was invented. Who are we designing our cities for then? Are planning firms holding pubic meetings just for SUVs?

If our cities are not being designed with people in mind (which clearly they are not, because no one likes anything that is getting built) then who are they being designed for?

No one really likes driving, but we keep paving.
No one wants to eat at Applebee’s, but they keep opening.
No one likes subdivisions, but they keep getting built.

No one ever longed for an office park, but guess what.

We stopped building anything anyone liked almost 100 years ago. What sense does that make? Why do we no longer give any consideration to residents when we build?

Let’s walk through this to see if we can’t understand what is going on.

Who is the prime user of the built environment? People- right? People use houses and buildings and shops and offices. Specifically, people of a community. So the residents of Flavortown are the ones occupying all the houses and apartments in Flavortown, they are the people primarily doing all the shopping and working in all the offices. So it should be a pretty straightforward conclusion that Flavortonians are the primary users, or call it the target audience, or let’s say customer or clients. Either way, same idea.

So, who then is building all this garbage that no one likes? Definitely not the Flavortonians. Nope- it’s real estate developers. They build stuff. It’s their job. So why are they building stuff no one likes? Here is where we have to dig a little deeper. Many, not all, developers will build what they are allowed to get away with. People tend to be profit motivated and will do what they can to maximize profit. This is the system we have chosen and developers are operating within the boundaries government provides them.

When you drive, you generally stay between the guardrails. That’s the idea, to help guide you down the safe path. Take away the guardrails and for some, things get a little dicey. Less experienced drivers may not know the path to travel and may veer off the road. Capitalism is like a car moving down the freeway at 60 miles an hour. Government regulations are those guardrails, put in place to provide a path and indicate where to travel. Some developers opt to operate ethically. Some adopt a triple bottom line and balance community and environmental concerns alongside profitability. Such developers are a blessing, but they are the exception not the norm. The problem stems from us wishing for this type of behavior instead of requiring it.
Let’s say as a society, we wanted to discourage stabbings. We would likely put some sort of law in the books that says stabbing is wrong, against the law and is a punishable offense. We will then deploy law enforcement officials to enforce the anti- stabbing law. This would be an effective way to try and minimize the stabbing. This allows citizens know what is and isn’t acceptable and helps perpetrate intended outcomes. City leaders want less stabbing so they pass a law to encourage this desire. Lo and behold, the stabbings subside.

Development is no different. If there is a type of development that you want to encourage and a type you want to discourage, a municipality would have to use the tools it has available to foster the desired outcomes. It’s fairly straightforward too. Pass laws/regulations/codes that allow for the type of development residents want and that the community benefits from and do not permit the type of development no one likes nor the kind that harms the community. Then develop a process that facilitates these outcomes. Make it easy, straightforward and navigable.

A city could re-establish so much local wealth if locals were actually allowed to be developers once again. The reason no one has built anything good in one hundred years is because no one from the community has built anything for 100 years. It’s all being done by outsiders looking to maximize their profit. Which typically means, building the cheapest thing you let them get away with. They are like teenagers, they will do absolutely no more than you tell them to do.

But it’s your community! You, your fellow residents, stakeholders and elected officials get to decide what gets built. You get to decide what things look like. It is up to you to decide the setting in which you live your life. No one from outside gets to dictate what your housing looks like. No one from some other town gets to tell you where you get to shop. These outsiders are not concerned with the well-being of your town, there incentives are in direct opposition to yours. They profit more when they spend less. But you make the rules and if you don’t, then you are are obfuscating your responsibility and screwing your community.

So embrace your role as the rule maker. Your community dictates what is permissible. You all decide where the guardrails lie. You must dictate the outcomes you want to experience.

So if residents want to live in pretty apartment buildings, make it possible. If you want a walkable and bikeable city- legislate it. If you believe locals know what’s best for your town, trust them to provide direction and not outsiders. It is your town, therefore it is up to you to decide the shape of it- no one else. So design your town in a way that makes you happy, makes you proud and facilitates the life you want.

I suggest considering what you want in your city- then begin to work backwards. If you want locally owned businesses in cute little buildings on Main Street surrounded by dense, locally built housing, start there then make it so. Sort out how to foster those outcomes. What process do you need to adopt, what regulations do you need to put in place? What can be done to create the built environment your community desperately needs and deserves?

Don’t be scared to scrap what’s already in place. There is no risk in abandoning what has led to decades of failure. Make this simple. Decide the type of community you want to be. Consider what sort of place is worthy of you and your fellow residents. Consider how you can make community happy and proud and work backwards from there.

Our great grandparents didn’t have any secrets when they went about building their cities. They didn’t have more money or better technology. They were intentional and understood that they had an obligation to make the town livable and lovable. They understood that the health of their city was dependent on the health of its residents and that their choices would impact everyone. So they chose to provide people with a home they could love and a place they could be proud of. They knew that the quality of their life was predicated on the surroundings in which it took place, so they made those surroundings worthy of themselves.

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