Building Your Engagement Ladder: Five Practices to Start Advocating for Resilience

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I first fell in love with cities from reading Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I especially resonated with her description of city streets as a “ballet,” finding it to be a delightfully accurate analogy for the kind of street life I experienced as a New Yorker. 

At the heart of her analogy is a recognition of cities as an ecosystem: an organically evolving, complex habitat that relies on a delicate, sometimes imperceptible web of interdependencies. The ability of ecosystems to coordinate and satisfy various interests with little to no central planning is what draws us to cities. But this lack of central planning is also what makes them chaotic and unpredictable. It’s discomfort with this unpredictability that drove early American city planners to embrace the “rational” and “orderly” design of the suburb. 

Unfortunately, attempting to make a complex ecosystem more orderly in a top-down fashion eventually destroys it. When it comes to the average North American city, the signs of ecosystem collapse are easily spotted if you know what to look for: design homogeneity, prohibitive codes that prevent adaptation, and fiscal fragility…just to name a few. 

Advocating for resilience at the smallest level possible is the only way to respond to this impending collapse. Starting with our own homes, then moving into our neighborhoods and cities, the challenge is to figure out what resilience looks like and to identify meaningful action in that direction. 

Yes, this is challenging, but by no means impossible. As a recent transplant to Waco, Texas, from Brooklyn, I’m finding that it’s much easier if you break it down into small steps and then arrange them so that they build off each other, like a ladder. Here are five “rungs” that have helped me get started and that might help you. 

Rung One: Cultivate Curiosity

I’ll never forget the time I got into a debate about Waco after living here not only for one year. I was outnumbered by four young men, all of whom were very well-read, passionate and perceptive. The debate unfolded over two hours and at one point, one of the men, who was from Waco and whose father had been a former mayor, gently shook his head as I struggled to make my point. In a few sentences, he explained an aspect of Waco’s history that I knew nothing about, but that put the point I was trying to make into perspective.

I quieted down and over the next few days, realized that I probably should spend more time learning about Waco before making overly confident statements about the city. Learn from my mistake and take the time to learn about your city’s history, leaders, communities, weaknesses, and strengths before moving into advocacy or action. Having this kind of context will help you speak with more empathy and humility, both of which are essential to advocating for resilience, especially if you’re new to a city like I am to Waco.

Books are great, but it’s worthwhile to observe your city through the senses, as well. When you can do so safely, trade your car and run an errand or two by walking, biking, or riding public transit. These forms of transit are slower and perhaps not the most convenient, so you’ll have to do some extra planning, but they will provide you with an invaluable new perspective on your city’s layout and design, and provide the breeding ground for the kinds of questions that can drive meaningful action.

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