How, Not What

April 6, 2023

It’s always a lot more fun to discuss the what, but it’s the how we really should consider. Maybe that’s why most places never make any progress. Because everyone is so focused all the time on the what that no one stops to consider the how. 

We can never achieve the what if we don’t first map out a plan for the how. It’s fun to think about being in peak physical shape and looking fit in those new trousers, but what’s the workout plan look like? I would love to be able to sit down at the piano during a party and bust out a rendition of Vienna Waits For You, but I need to dedicate a few hours a week to practice before I sound anything like Billy Joel. Who doesn’t, at one point or another, dream a bit about having heaps of extra money and what it would get spent on, but it’s just wishful thinking if there’s no plan to save money. 

The what is a lot of fun to consider. A renovated kitchen, a perfect golf shot or an early retirement, but they are just empty aspirations if not coupled with a plan to achieve them. To make any what a reality, we have to start thinking about the how. How do we spend less, how do we find more time to practice our swing, how do we afford those sweet new appliances? 

It’s in the how where the rubber meets the road. It’s the how that will get us to our goals. This is the part we really need to dig into. This is the part we need to sort out. Use the what as motivation, but spend the majority of the time sorting out the how. 

Recently, I took part in a meeting to discuss mobility in my region and what can be done to improve the way residents get around. It’s always a pleasure to discuss these issues with passionate people, but we end up talking about the what a lot. It’s fun to think about narrowing roads, adding bike lanes, reducing car dependency, increasing funding for public transit, and making every street more walkable. It’s exciting to think about what the future could hold, but then the meeting turns to the inevitable “Well… how do we do it?” And the fun stops. 

When it comes to city planning, community development, and downtown revitalization, we spend a lot of time talking about the what. We put out lots of surveys asking lots of questions. We host a lot of meetings asking people what they want to see. We write a lot of long plans theorizing about what should take place. We waste an irresponsible amount of time asking people about what they want and precious little time sorting out how to give it to them. 

We really don’t need to keep asking what. We already know. We know because we have already asked them a hundred times. If your community has completed a plan, refer to the public engagement section again where you already asked all these questions. Look at old surveys, the public has been forthright with what they want, but that is not the issue. Not good enough? All right, just look at people’s behaviors then. Where do people like to travel, and what places are in high demand and have high property values? What places are successful? All of the questions about the what have already been answered. There is zero mystery when it comes to what people want. Stop asking already and get on with the business of delivering. 

We can move on from asking people what they want. With limited civic resources, we must put our focus on figuring out how to provide what people want. We must sort out the how. This is the complicated part because when we are working with government, there are so many roadblocks to getting things done. This is where the real effort must be applied. 

We can talk about how we need more housing because pretty much every community does, but that’s beside the point, we have to look at the structural issues that keep more housing from getting built. We can lament about the loss of local ownership, but what we need to do is to figure out how to repair a system that favors out-of-town interests. We can complain about sprawl and the ugly nature of our built environment, but it would be far more productive to find out why only subdivisions get built and traditional neighborhoods are going extinct. 

It’s fun to think about the future and it’s a pleasure to consider the possibilities, but it’s not time well spent if we don’t figure out a path to achieve those dreams. There are so many things our communities need, but more input is certainly not one of them. We have to unwind the problem with the process. We have to start focusing on the how to and try to understand what obstacles are in the way. If the process isn’t working, it can always be changed. 

We know what we need. Every single community needs to improve appearances, every single community needs to increase local ownership, and every single community needs to do a better job of facilitating social connections. These issues are universal and do not need to be discussed by any more committees. No more surveys needed. Spare us all another plan. Let’s stop talking about what needs done and focus in on how we get it done. 

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