In Chuck Wolfe’s absorbing new book, Seeing the Better City, he encourages readers to think with our eyes and communicate with visual imagery in order to improve our cities. With the proliferation of smartphone cameras and an endless array of easily accessible, web-based platforms on which to display them, virtually everyone is now a photographer. And, with cities on the ascendance, many of them confronting both excitement and worries about growth and development, more people than ever want to make them as hospitable as possible. It’s time to put those trends together, argues Wolfe, and use our eyes and our cameras “to explore, observe, and improve urban space,” to quote the book’s subtitle.
David Roberts over at Vox posted a new piece recently — “How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult” — that really got me thinking.
In it, he builds upon ideas previously explored in The Atlantic and makes a compelling case that forging new relationships as an adult — the ones we characterize as genuine friendships — is simply more difficult in places that aren’t particularly walkable and where participation in one’s surroundings requires a car most of the time.
You know things are getting dicey when the outgoing president of the United States feels obliged to remind us there’s still hope for American democracy at about the same time the incomer is on Twitter alleging (again) that America’s democratic institutions are plotting against him.
Last week I stepped back in time a bit to revisit the idea of NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard opponents to development) and consider anew whether their tenacious aversions earn them the lauding of heroes or the disdain we reserve for villains and scoundrels.
As I said then, in many cases, NIMBYs have kept the world from becoming a worse place, and that’s no small feat. But they’ve also kept the world from becoming a better place because their reactionary nature can’t seem to tell the difference between bad change and good.
Five years ago I felt like NIMBY activism was at a crossroads. Would it flame out, further becoming a cartoon of a once valid endeavor, or would it find its footing as torchbearers of meaningful collaboration towards community change?
Those thoughts are republished below. Next week I’ll follow them up with a look at where we’ve ended up, including a wrinkle I wasn’t expecting: the influence of social media.
You know, I gotta give NIMBYs their due. In many instances, their tireless efforts have kept the world from becoming a worse place, and that’s no small feat. But, sadly, it’s not their only accomplishment.
They’ve also kept the world from becoming a better place.
Welcome to the problem with NIMBYs. Their reactionary nature can’t tell the difference between bad change and good. And that’s a problem if you’ve any hope for building better communities.
Reprising: “Can’t we all just get along?”
Answer: Probably not. And we should be thinking about why and how that informs what we do to help neighborhoods and cities adapt to change.
Let’s pick an example unlikely to trigger the usual arguments over race, ethnicity and inequality, yet one that might be more helpful because of the absence of those factors. I give you Burning Man, the annual event in the Nevada desert where some 70,000 folks gather to test the limits of art, collaborative culture and diversity. On that last count, the one about tolerance for differences, a line was apparently crossed a few weeks back when one set of Burners decided others didn’t belong in the neighborhood.
There’s nothing new about the subject of today’s post. In fact, that’s kind of the point. It’s an ongoing grassroots public art initiative that simply exists, and has for quite some time. Many have had the pleasure of experiencing it but many others have not.
That’s the nature of artistic cultural expression. It happens but it’s not a happening. It lingers and evolves in place, existing over time for serendipitous discovery and contribution by others. Like me.
In this case, I’m talking about the Portland Horse Project.
“Mom, I need to walk 10k today,” coming from my 11-year old this morning almost gave me whiplash, as I turned to look at him to ensure an alien wasn’t inhabiting his body. In fact, there was one, if you view Pokémon as other-worldly. The playful new video game, Pokémon GO, is distracting kids and grown-ups alike with an augmented reality (AR) that requires walking with friends, visiting places of cultural and economic significance, and “capturing” Pokémon as they appear on the sidewalk by “hitting” them with virtual balls. By level five of the game, you’re able to join a team and visit local virtual “gyms” to practice or spar. The walking 10k comment was about hatching Pokémon eggs, each of which require walking either two, five, or ten kilometers.
The times, shall we say, are not ideal for that conversation we keep talking about.
You know, the conversation we feel we need whenever something scary happens. That ever-elusive, rational talk that includes everyone and ends with, if not a group hug, then at least a group understanding.
So you’ve finally aligned the stars to get something important done in your community. Maybe it’s a corridor plan that nods to the needs of pedestrians, bikers and transit riders, as well as car drivers. Maybe it’s an ambitious mixed-use master plan for your downtown. Or a revamped zoning code to enable the development and redevelopment everybody seems to want.