Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist


Democracy and Urbanism

Dateline: 3:03 pm November 9, 2012 Filed under:

I celebrated Election Day by taking a drive in my gas-guzzling Jeep Liberty. Freshly topped off with a full tank of gas, I took a drive like any other self-respecting American. Why would I, a self-described urbanist, brag about, much less admit this? I’ll get to that momentarily.

Something that grabbed my attention during this week’s election, besides the results, a comment President Obama made during his acceptance speech:

“The role of citizens in our Democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.”

Agree with his politics or not, what I’ve come to understand over several years of community involvement in my neighborhood (I’m by no means an expert) is exactly what President Obabma means. Voting is just a start; you must be willing in some way to further engage in our imperfect democracy. Take a stand for what you believe, get involved in a civic group in but willing to compromise when others disagree (and they will). Whatever you do, don’t “bowl alone.”

As an urbanist this is particularly true. Decisions about urbanism occur on a daily basis at local, state and federal levels and require thoughtful consideration, informed research and rational discussion. There will always be those who oppose denser development or become incensed when a bike lane replaces motor vehicle lane on a city street. But in many ways it isn’t a rejection of urbanism so much as a lack of understanding of how many moving parts there are in city-building. Urbanism is complex stuff! For example, transportation and housing policy are intricately linked, and local, state and federal policies impact those intertwined issues for all Americans in very visceral ways, often the pocketbook.

To be sure, the utter lack of discussion of an urban agenda in this election was disturbing. I happen to think that a strong urban agenda can garner bipartisan support when properly understood. Increasing housing and transportation choices is good for the economy. More compact development and transit options attract economic development but also are more financially sound decisions. Urbanism has something for all points of view. I do profoundly believe liberals and conservatives can come to consensus on a number of urban policy issues. (For more on this visit the Human Transit website.)

But back to the Jeep. Yes, I own an SUV and a minivan. I have a single-family home with a double garage. I own my own company. I also live in a pretty walkable neighborhood with transit service. I love my Jeep Liberty. It gets perfectly rotten gas mileage but I love driving it. I’m perfectly comfortable in my own skin but there is something about how it sounds and drives like a truck that satisfies my masculine side. I can plow through snow and pull a boat with it. I can clear brush and haul it away. That said, one of my best achievements this year was not having to fill up the Jeep with gas for the entire month of October. This is a direct result of good urban policy and personal freedom. Because of a wise choice in where I live I can ride my bike for a number of errands and take advantage of light rail and bus service. That choice was mine, but the investment in good urban planning and transportation was made by local, state and federal policy-makers (elected by and with input from everyday citizens), and it resulted in a very clear cost-savings for my household.

What do my Jeep and Obama have to do with each other? The “frustrating work of self-government” allows us to do a number of things, including the freedom to own the vehicle we please. But it also allows us to advocate for the ability to use it less. Good urban policy involves choices, of housing and transportation, as they are intricately linked. It is critical, more than ever, to get involved in urbanism or whatever your cause, because it improves our civil society. I didn’t drive my Jeep much in the past month and I kind of missed it. God, I love this country!

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