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.
Shortly before this essay’s original posting, I participated in a terrific conference called From Main Street to Eco-Districts: Greening Our Communities, hosted by a chapter of the American Institute for Architects in Corning, New York. Held a block off of Corning’s own, magnificent “Main Street” (actually named Market Street), and including many of the people who have helped make that street so successful, the conference started me thinking about the whole idea of Main Streets and what makes the best of them such delights to experience.
Not so long ago, Kristen Jeffers (who blogs as the Black Urbanist) shared an article over at Afropunk called “The Caucasian’s Guide to Black Neighborhoods.” It’s very, very funny, and particularly useful reading for anyone who’s more interested in our ability to build meaningful communities than in the more prevalent discussion of who, in any particular place, does or does not belong.
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.
When The New York Times used my wife and me as examples in a story about retirees’ growing preferences for urban life, it was a chance to literally walk the talk.
I’ve been writing about my Baby Boomer cohort for all my career, first in the ‘60s alternative press, then in newspaper and magazine stories as we aged through what is probably the longest adolescence in world history. The chance we’ll grow up before we die? Even money. But here’s something you can bet on:
The generation that moved markets at every stage of our lives is likely to have something left for a finale. And maybe it’s a walk-off nudge in the direction of neighborhood and community design.
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.
Scientists are learning more and more about how where we live affects the amount of exercise we get, and thus how fit and healthy we are likely to be. In general, city dwellers are particularly well placed to get regular exercise if they can take care of some or all of their daily errands without getting into a car: walking is good for us, and so is taking public transportation, because almost every transit trip begins and ends with a walking trip.
So here we go again.
Flood waters rise in southern Louisiana, displacing tens of thousands — some temporarily, others permanently — and potentially costing billions.
The familiar narrative cycle has cranked up. Right now we’re emerging from the stage where we celebrate the heroism of citizens, volunteers and emergency responders and question the competency of the feds. Next comes the rough accounting of damages and the fights over funding, then the agonizing slog towards a recovery unlikely to ever be complete. Finally will come a lessons-learned wrap-up that could be copied and pasted from reports post-Camille, post-Andrew, post-Katrina, post-Sandy and post a bunch of other recent calamities without a name.
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.