I’m Making Real Change in My City

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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?

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