Good Side of the Downside: The end is (only) near

Chuck Marohn needs a hug.

That was my first thought reading this in his July 17 Strong Towns post :

Let me be clear about what I actually imagine is in store for us. I look at America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods and I see overwhelming levels of fragility. I see a development pattern that destroys wealth; the more we do, the poorer we become. I see municipal debt levels rising as a consequence, as well as an increased dependence on state and federal assistance. I see property values and consumption rates (property tax and sales tax) artificially manipulated higher by federal monetary and fiscal policy—a lofty perch I don’t see as stable. I see local governments overwhelmed with liabilities, from infrastructure maintenance to pensions and rising health care costs. And I see the people in the system — politicians, professional staff and residents — all with powerful short term incentives to simply increase the level of fragility.

 . . . I think we’re royally screwed.

Now, Chuck is not by nature a negative dude. Not in the least, in fact, owing to the double dose of positivity that comes with being both an engineer and a Midwesterner. Engineers tend to see the components of reality as something like a giganto Lego set, just waiting for the right assembly to make things work better for everybody. Midwesterners, meanwhile, seem born with a dominant gene for conflict avoidance, for assuming others’ good intentions, for defaulting to polite resignation when frustrated by the indignities of everyday life. (Consider: In a college football universe currently dominated by the University of Alabama, its team enters combat invoking a biblical bloodbath — the Crimson Tide. The University of Minnesota footballers are the Gophers.)

Alas, the risk for those who are persistently rational and gentle minded is perpetual disappointment.

Let me help.

Like Chuck, I owe my outlook to upbringing and training. I came of age in Florida, where, as most folks now take for granted, “rational” seldom applies to any human endeavor. Add onto that experience the nearly three decades I spent in mass market journalism talking to a broad range of people who were likely to be misinformed or lying. As a result, I am inoculated against excessive faith in people and processes. And almost never disappointed. Yet in both my home state and in my professional life I’ve witnessed events and run across people that would have rewarded higher expectations. Against seemingly impossible odds, mind you. And odds are the point.

Here’s my argument against entrenched pessimism:

Let’s agree that no one knows the future, even though our lives depend on preparing for it. It may relieve our anxiety to pretend otherwise, but there are no future facts. Just guesses about what might happen given a certain set of conditions. If we knew the conditions, we’d know the outcomes. We could impose an engineer’s rational template on the process with reasonable expectations of success. The problem is we almost never have access to that kind of knowledge, especially when the info we’re trying to nail down is in flux. And anything involving humans, who are likely to harbor competing notions of successful strategies and outcomes, makes for the fluxiest of all planning environments.

That’s why Chuck, the Midwestern engineer, is throwing up his hands while I, on the other hand, am asking, “What the hell did you expect?”

What should help both of us — and others willing to suffer the frustrations of urban planning in the current era — is a warmer embrace of unpredictability. It requires giving up the notion of inevitability – both the inevitability of something we hope for and the inevitability of things falling totally apart. Every possible outcome falls along a continuum stretching from “pretty much for sure” to “pretty much no way.” Our jobs are to nudge the stuff in the middle ground, the zone of the improbable, closer to the territory of maybe, then on to the category of somewhat likely under the right circumstances.

We should be all about identifying and aligning the right circumstances. And we should be doing that in full recognition of the odds against game-changing success and without settling for the perverse comfort of hopelessness.

Towards the bottom of Chuck’s July 17 post, the Midwestern engineer reemerges. He’s found a patch of Lego-style optimism that works for him in metaphor he introduced at the top. In the event of the ultimate catastrophe, there are scientists populating a seed vault in Norway to insure the survival of agriculture and maybe life itself.

So you can think of Strong Towns as the urban intellectual version of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. We’re going to be a repository of tested and proven thoughts and ideas sitting at the ready for when they are needed. We’re going to attract some people who are naively optimistic about the future — who just want a train or a bike lane — and that’s okay. They’re welcome here and maybe we can learn from each other. We’re also going to have people who are deeply pessimistic and they’ll keep us honest. That’s okay too.

Yep, that’s okay. Totally.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Photo by Dag Endresen)

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Photo by Dag Endresen)

I may be one of those Chuck sees as “deeply pessimistic.” But I see myself as a master of low expectations, seldom disappointed at the unraveling of optimists’ dreams but nevertheless open to being surprised at improbable success.

A seed vault is too engineer-y for me. But if Chuck is committed, despite his disappointment, to preparing for the worst, the least I can do, despite my suspicions, is to commit to the work required in the event something good happens.

Ben Brown

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