NOTICE: A year to live with the intention


This editorial originally appeared on the website January 3, 2022.

I spent part of my vacation reading Peter Norton’s latest book, Autonorama: the illusory promise of high-tech driving. As expected, this is an incredible read full of insight; Hope to have Norton on the podcast soon to discuss this.

Perhaps the clearest thing in the book for me was how it explained the mass adoption of the automobile and motor skills as a way of life. The transition was not as easy as you might think when you think about it today. As Norton writes, “The city where you can drive everywhere and only by car has never been easy to sell, otherwise the lavish efforts to sell it would have been wasted.”

These lavish efforts were essentially a joint venture between the titans of industry (let’s just call them “companies”) and those with the capacity to change public policy (let’s simplify and call them “government”). Since citizens and consumers have free will, as well as the freedom to buy the products they want and to vote for the candidates they prefer, the alignment of interests between business and government required, at a minimum, the assent of the American people. Ideally, he would have their full embrace.

Getting that embrace was really tough. It forced the government, as Norton puts it, to use public policy and public money to “destroy and rebuild American surface transportation around motor vehicle travel, so as to deprive travelers of a market of modes. competitors, with the express intention of promoting the demand for motor vehicles. Vehicles. “

At the same time, companies were to “propagate the idea that public policy only followed the preferences of the masses and that all conversion was a consequence of the free market.” In other words, the government was simply doing what the nation’s consumers wanted, with the government flipping the board to serve a new corporate vision simply an expression of market preference.

In 2022, it’s easy to look at this story by default across the modern paradigm, with red-oriented regions and politicians arguing – wholly implausibly – that auto-based development models are an expression of the market. free as the blue-oriented regions and politicians join them in embracing the government side of this business. Easy, but such a backward projection would be anhistorical.

In 1940, General Motors produced a video titled “To New Horizons” as part of its Futurama exhibit at the World’s Fair. As someone who has studied Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations, it was easy for me to see how the pitch appealed to liberal and conservative minds.

I’m going to simplify “left” and “right” here, while recognizing that there is always some nuance.

‘Towards New Horizons’ suggests that highway construction creates ‘new ways of living and new thoughts’ (left) while laying ‘the groundwork for most of what is good in life today’ (to the right).

Here is the 23 minute film, as posted on YouTube.

He goes on to say that because of the highways, “distant families have become neighbors” (right) and “people have constantly broadened their views” (left). A narrative crescendo suggests “the highways of the social [left] and commercial [right] developments expand without end or limit.

A call for common unifying narratives is how you move a diverse and complex society of people into action, and it is. It touches left and right without pushing back either. And it frames all of those changes, including higher taxes, more bureaucracy, and a complete dismantling of local economic ecosystems, in terms of improvement for everyone. As propaganda, it is genius.

And it reminds me of our project, the Strong Towns movement, an effort to strengthen our cities, towns and neighborhoods so that people can live good lives in a prosperous place.

We have the negative Strong Towns story in place: Our current development model is bankrupting our cities, families and small businesses. This prompts them to take on huge long-term obligations in pursuit of comparatively small short-term gains. In order to foolishly drive out the capital that flows up and down through government programs and business systems, we sacrifice not only our financial strength, but our quality of life, our security, our opportunities, our health, our resilience and much. other things that we value more locally. We must change.

We even have an approach for how to make this change. A Strong Cities approach means that we:

  • Stop valuing efficiency and start valuing resilience.
  • Stop betting our future on huge, irreversible projects and start taking small incremental steps and iterating based on what we learn.
  • Stop fearing change and start adopting a process of continuous adaptation.
  • Stop building our world on abstract theories and start building it based on how our places actually work and what our neighbors really need today.
  • Stop obsessing over future growth and start obsessing over our current finances.
  • Putting faith and power in ourselves and our neighbors to co-create the places where we live.
  • Many specific policies and programs flow from this way of thinking.

What we have not had is the futurama-style vision and narrative of how the world will be a better place with a Strong Towns approach. Of course, we are talking about safer streets, lower taxes, affordable housing, better opportunities for small businesses, better public health, real job creation, a better environment and good. other things. We talk about these things, absolutely, but mostly as abstract results in a larger political debate, not as actual lived experiences that people may be having right now.

Charles Marohn

Charles Marohn

Charles Marohn is a Professional Engineer (PE) and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). He is the founder and president of He was named one of Planetizen’s 10 Most Influential Planners of All Time in 2017.


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