Though cities face an array of challenges, the most significant is perhaps the fact that popular opinion often favors the status quo, even when the status quo is deeply flawed.
In other words, helping residents understand positive change is more important than bike lanes, parking, density, business development or any of the other topics I frequently write about here. Persuasion should be Provo’s top priority.
This problem was tackled Tuesday in The Atlantic Cities by Lee Epstein. The article begins by laying out the two kinds of development that should be pursued and avoided, respectively. Then it explores ways to “sell the ‘urban’ experience to suburbanites.”
Among other things, Epstein hits on an important point that probably applies to some Provo residents: people generally choose to live in a place they like, even if that place is a suburb:
They like their houses and big yards. They like shopping – for everything – by car. Sometimes they don’t even mind a long commute to work by private automobile. And (in part because of at least forty years of economic segregation), they like their kids’ suburban school systems.
Epstein also notes that many people dislike change, even though it’s certainly inevitable:
Whether it’s intensifying an already urban residential neighborhood with a new mid-rise apartment or office building or a new business, or encouraging the suburbs to grow up primarily with infill and the increased convenience of even a modest mix of new land uses as the area naturally becomes more urban, the responses usually are, “We like things the way they are,” or “It will alter the character of our neighborhood,” or “Who knows what kinds of people [the change] would bring.”
Those responses might as well have come from Provo.
Epstein appears to believe that those arguments are counter productive. More importantly, he believes they can be overcome with a honest explanation of change and how to be a part of the process. He also stresses that change needs to be explained in terms of quality of life. He adds,
Some people learn best by hearing, others by seeing; it’s been my experience that good, accurate visual images go a long way to assuaging fears that some infill development will convert one’s cozy little corner of suburbia into Chicago’s Loop. The advantages of compact, sustainable, infill growth are legion; however, as much as some of us may like to think so, they are not self-evident.
I think all of us see examples of bad design, bad architecture, and bad infrastructure on a daily basis. It’s hard to trust, or even be aware, that there is any chance that anything will improve.
But I think everyone also wants better quality of life, and there is ample evidence linking that idea to better types of city design, many of which fall under the smart growth umbrella. For those reasons, it’s essential that we tackle the primary and most fundamental challenge of all: helping our community understand what positive change is and why it matters.