I’m Making Real Change in My City

To make your town strong, build relationships. This piece is called a manifesto, and I think it’s actually a practical guide from someone who has laid a foundation of face-to-face community so that when conflicts arise, they lead to a better city for everyone.

I’m Making Real Change in My City
By Allen Alderman*

*Note to Readers: If you ever wanted to REALLY make a change in your town, instead of just starting a fight, consider this your manifesto. It was submitted by a Strong Towns member who represents their community in local government. The author, who wanted to write freely, requested we publish this column under a pseudonym.

I’m making real change in my city, with more exciting things to come. Do you want your city to be a resilient place built for people? Here’s what is working for me:

1. Get involved in local politics.

Your local government is run by hard-working nerds who show up to meetings. You can be one of them. But if that’s definitely not for you, you should at least be emailing your representatives every few months. You would be amazed at how much weight is placed on correspondence from constituents who speak up. You can do what I did and run for your City Council. But you don’t have to. Find out when your Planning and Zoning, Adjustment Board, and City Council meets. Email your representatives your perspective about specific items on the agenda. Volunteer to be part of a citizen review process. Volunteer to be on your town’s tree commission or whatever so that you start making connections and have a longer resume when there’s an opening on a Planning Board or neighborhood steering committee to apply for. Changing the place you live is incredibly rewarding. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had with a hobby. People in your town are going to accumulate power and then shape the way it looks in 25 years. Why not you? And your chances will be better if you…

2. Get informed.

Read books about development and the looming fiscal and infrastructure disaster car-oriented cities are headed toward. Learn what your city spends taxpayer money on (“What does it say about our values that we spend $4.7 million on roads and only $27,000 on sidewalks?”). Learn the extent to which quick-moving traffic and ubiquitous free parking make everything worse for people. The more you learn, the more equipped you’ll be to…

3. Learn to make your case.

If your goal is to get angrier and angrier alongside people who think exactly like you without ever improving things, then you can skip this part and stick to posting memes on social media. But for most of us, it is important to learn to persuade conventional thinkers. A radical is easily dismissed. It’s harder to dismiss someone who can appeal to perspectives everyone shares. When I try to persuade my progressive friends, I talk about pedestrian access for the people who can’t drive and the disproportionate burdens parking minimums place on the poor. Oh, and climate change. When I talk to my Trump-loving family, I say I’m trying to bring back the fiscally responsible, traditional building patterns that our forefathers understood. I’m bringing back the front porch and kids playing outside and knowing your neighbors and supporting local businesses. “Of course if someone wants a big house and a big acreage and to drive and park everywhere, that’s their right. I just don’t think they should expect other people to subsidize it, which is how things work out now.”

Remember that people don’t usually change their minds if you engage them in an argument. If your interlocutor says something stupid, ask them why they think that’s true. If they say, “why should we build bike lanes when hardly anybody bikes,” then you say, “That’s a good question, but in my opinion that’s like asking why we should build bridges when hardly anybody swims across the river?” The more you practice this, the better you’ll get at bringing people along, which means you’re starting to…

4. Build a coalition.

Asking most people you know to change their minds about auto-oriented infrastructure is like asking a fish to change its mind about water. So you have to meet them where they are. But if you can convince one person every three months that things need to change in your city, and then over the next three months you each convince a person and so on, then in 3 years you will have a coalition 2000+ strong. Unless your city is enormous, that is far more than you need to effect real change. Especially if the people you influence are involved in local politics (see Step 1). And while you’re building your coalition, you need to…

5. Patiently persist.

Stupid developments with too much off-street parking will be built and you won’t be able to stop them. Ask questions. Suggest alternatives. But don’t be the angry person everyone ignores. Be patient. Persist. Local government moves slowly. Even if the city staff agrees with you, that doesn’t mean they assign the same priority to things you do. So learn to send an email every six weeks: “Hey, where are we at on looking at parking minimums?” It’s satisfying to finally get something to completion, but it’s not like a race. It’s like professional kitten herding. And even when you get things done, it probably won’t be all you want, so you have to learn to…

6. Be content with incremental progress.

I’m on a city council with six other people and three of them are starting to come along. We just hired a Strong Towns-friendly city manager. Our engineer cares about pedestrian access and is open to learning. And in spite of all that, I still know that things won’t be completely different next year. I wish I could snap my fingers and pedestrianize our main street. I wish I could fund a pilot project running a frequent bus back and forth on a fixed route through our transit-free midsize town. I wish I could eliminate parking minimums everywhere tomorrow. But the hurdles to those achievements are high and if I attempted to do all of that at once there’s a decent chance someone who ran against me in the next election would win. What I can do (and have done) is help get our streets blocked off for evenings and weekends in the summer. Two years ago, we had a few restaurants do outdoor dining on city property where a parking spot used to be. It was highly contentious at the time, but now we have a lot more and they’re widely embraced! Local change happens incrementally and experimentally. And the obstacles and barriers will tempt you to cynicism and despair, but change does happen steadily. You can accomplish almost nothing in a year. But you’ll be amazed at how different things can be in five years.

It’s worth it. You have no idea how gratifying it feels for me to walk with my children along a sidewalk in our town that is there because I helped make it happen, protected from traffic by a boulevard that used to have an unnecessary lane of travel, on the way to an outdoor patio at our favorite restaurant that would not exist if I hadn’t gotten involved. And good design is contagious. I get that it’s not possible for everyone, but if you’ve ever thought about getting more involved in local politics, I strongly encourage you to do it. Somebody else is thinking about the same, and they’re probably wrong about how to build the urban environment. So why not you?

This article was originally published by StrongTowns.

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