OK, so better doesn’t necessarily mean more, but then what does better mean?
Oh, so many things. And that’s why the idea of growth has had such an easy time overwhelming our ideology. Growth means more. You don’t get much simpler than that, which is kind of the problem. When things are more complex, a lot of people tend to tune out. “Growth” is a soundbite, right? Media can point to it and let their audience know immediately if it’s good or bad.Up = good Down = bad
But how do we know what to think when we hear something like Sustainable Streets? New York City DOT is reducing its fleet? That’s down! That means bad. If less is better, how are we to judge when we’re where we need to be—when we have nothing? It’s madness!
See, it worked so well for so long: We know we’re better off when we have more than we had before. But it’s just not true. Improving quality of life is not inextricably tied to growth.
We are better off when we can breath clean air. We are better off when we can walk through our neighborhoods safely. We are better off when our food doesn’t make us sick and sad. We are better off when we speak to one another and know one another; when we appreciate our differences and respect one another.
We do that by building communities that foster these things, and focusing on how people live rather than how people drive. This is foundational. When designing and planning our communities, shifting from a primary concern with automobile transportation to a primary concern for how people live is the change in paradigm that will allow us to understand the difference between “growth” and “better.”
And it’s not all up to the city or town planners. There are ways for people to affect change without going through a long arduous process.
The local pizza place that puts a bike rack out front, the corner store that puts a bench outside the front door, the cafe that gets rid of a few parking spaces to make room for some tables outside—these are all things that go a long way toward communicating an important message about how that community functions. When people lock up their bikes they occasionally give a nod or say hello. When the old guy from down the street has a seat on that bench in front of the store, he’ll greet people and some may stop to chat. When that cafe’s patrons sit outside at those tables they’ll associate with one another (and yes, they can do that even when they’re on their laptops).
Those things don’t happen when people park their cars, and get their snacks and coffees to go. Social interaction is lost to the car.
Sometimes progress happens in small steps, but those small steps can be the impetus for something big. And better.
In addition to providing a better way of life, this shift in paradigm is also sustainable, which is an exceedingly important part of improving our towns and cities. We hear that term more and more these days, and in the next post I’ll explain why it’s so important.
Now, those of you who are uncomfortable with this information that more is not necessarily better, let me reassure you that you are not reading communist propaganda. It’s OK to have ambitions and work hard to have things like a nice home and fancy clothes. As I said in the previous post, growth can be a good thing. What’s important is to evaluate why we want those things and make sure we’re not being mislead.
If it is growth that we need, we need to understand how to get there. And that’s another thing I’ll write a little bit about next time.