Like many Canadians, we’ve spent the past few days processing the results of the 2016 U.S. election, and what they'll eventually mean for our friends, colleagues, and clients south of the border.
While these results shocked many pundits and pollsters, we believe there were distinct warning signs that cooler heads weren't to prevail, as this divisive campaign underlined several disturbing trends we’ve observed in prior debates and discussions. These communication breakdowns can be observed at varying levels of discourse in jurisdictions around the world, from large-scale referenda down to arguments about bike infrastructure.
At the risk of stating the obvious, our political system isn’t working for everyone, neither are the various ways we receive our information. A tremendous number of people will feel the shockwaves from this series of unfortunate (and perhaps avoidable) events, and the most densely populated areas will be among the most impacted.
As we wait anxiously to see how the next months and years play out, we thought we’d offer up our own observations, and document six things urbanists can surmise from this vicious election cycle, and what direction we should go from here.
1. Share the Stories, Not the Statistics
If 2016 has made one thing abundantly clear, it’s that we’re living in a post-truth society. Whether it’s the rate of crime in our cities, the state of the economy, the level of motor vehicle congestion, or the availability of on-street parking; the majority of people will believe what they feel to be true, rather than what the facts and figures state.
Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are very powerful, and very normal reactions to change. And city builders must address those emotional responses at a more personal level. As Democrats became painfully aware during the 2016 presidential campaign, bringing facts to a culture war is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.
Urbanists need to set aside the graphs, charts, and statistics on which they usually rely, and instead, connect to people on a human level. Explaining how they’ll benefit personally from inevitable change will go much further than listing off a series of abstract numbers. It’s imperative that we tell stories, craft narratives, and shape messages that appeal emotionally to our fellow citizens, rather than intellectually.
2. Think Outside the Echo Chamber
Another conclusion we can reach after this election cycle is that both our personal and professional circles – online and in real life – are becoming increasingly self-reinforcing and self-congratulatory. As we continue to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals, and algorithms feed us with the news and ideas that strengthen existing world views, breaking out of those echo chambers has become practically impossible.
Moving forward, the great challenge will be to stop preaching to the converted, and start thinking bigger and more creatively to get outside of our existing feedback loops. Not only will this help to spread our concepts and messages to a broader audience, but also challenge us to think differently about the problems we face as a society, taking a diverse range of perspectives and backgrounds into consideration.
3. Be the Diversity You Want to See
Despite all of the progress made in recent years, we need to acknowledge the glass ceiling is still a very real phenomenon, with depressingly few women and minorities in positions of influence, especially in politics, policymaking, and urban planning.
City building is still a field dominated by white males, a sad reality illustrated in far too many panel discussions and high-profile appointments (consider, for example, the heads of Planning, Transportation, Transportation Planning, Engineering, Management, Film, Economic Development, Parks and Recreation, Building, Climate Change, and Sustainability at the City of Vancouver).
As we heard recently, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it”, which is why we’re committed to demonstrating and celebrating the diverse group of women shaping our cities for the better, through our ongoing Women in Urbanism series.
4. Political Systems Are Failing Our Cities
While we can attempt to reach the widest possible audience with the most powerful and inclusive of messaging, these efforts are for naught if our political systems aren’t working fairly for all citizens. Canada’s First-Past-the-Post and America’s Electoral College systems are failing to keep up with the rapid rate of urbanization, leaving our cities vastly underrepresented at the federal and state/provincial levels.
As a result, someone in rural Terrace has three times the representation as a Vancouver resident in B.C.’s Legislative Assembly. South of the 49th parallel, a vote for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 was worth just 75% of a vote for their Republican counterpart.
Antiquated political systems that place greater value on rural votes over urban ones are not uncommon in countries around the world. And they leave cities to deal with some of their most pressing and urgent issues virtually all by themselves.
Concerns over traffic violence, climate change, social inequality, housing affordability, public health, social isolation, air quality, transit expansion, and motor vehicle congestion reach far beyond city limits, and yet without proportional representation, they remain civic-led issues.
5. Change Has to Come at Street Level
Here’s the good news: we already have the technology, wherewithal, and – for the most part – resources needed to solve many of these immense problems.
Although transportation is far from a silver bullet; providing residents with safer, cleaner, cheaper, healthier, more social, and efficient ways to move around their city goes a long way to address nearly every issue listed above.
While higher levels of government waste time waiting around for electric cars and hyperloops (that solve but one of the problems listed above), forward-thinking urban leaders have discovered that relatively quick, light, and cheap alterations at street level can make a huge improvement to our quality of life. Smart, strategic investments in walking, cycling, and public transit really require more political capital than actual capital, and will be on the front line of how cities tackle the great challenges of the 21st century.
6. We Must Learn to Do More with Less
In many countries, the highway-building industrial complex shows no sign of slowing down, as higher levels of government continue to sink massive chunks of their transportation budget into road widenings, bridges, tunnels, and interchanges. Not only are these mega-projects a tremendous waste of resources, but they also make car commutes easier and more attractive, shifting the resulting externalities from the suburbs into the city centres.
Therefore, city builders must learn to do more with less.
One such response has been the rise of tactical urbanism. And we’re encouraged by these short-term, low-budget, community-based projects that have long-term affects on the way we think, move, and feel about our cities. But they fail to address the root of this dilemma.
Enter one of the good news stories to emerge from the 2016 U.S. election: A number of housing and transit ballot initiatives successfully passed in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, who – frustrated by a lack of federal funding – approved regional revenue sources (like sales and property tax increases).
The fact that voters decided to support these (fairly desperate) measures is reassuring, but ultimately, civic leaders must push to provide themselves with the tools they need to succeed, including reliable infrastructure funding streams, and more autonomous governance models.
"When You Change the Street, You Change the World"
Many years ago, these combined feelings of helplessness and frustration convinced us at Modacity to focus our efforts and energy on hyper-local issues, and stop worrying about things out of our sphere of control.
Civic politics, as it happens, is far more impactful on our day-to-day lives, yet doesn’t nearly receive the attention or resources it requires. Here in Canada, for example, despite building, operating, and maintaining 53% of our public infrastructure; municipal governments collect just eight cents of every tax dollar, while the remaining 92 cents go to provincial and federal coffers.
Fortunately, cities have some of the most dynamic, intelligent, and innovative leaders in their respective fields, many of whom we’re lucky enough to call peers. So if we have one piece of advice, it’s this: stop fretting and start acting. Donate your time and money to local advocacy groups, non-profits, and council candidates you can believe in. If you’re feeling inspired or annoyed by a particular aspect of your neighbourhood: just build something.
As Janette Sadik-Khan passionately implores in Streetfight: “When you change the street, you change the world”. That continues to be our raison d'être. Who’s with us?