By Dom Nozzi, AICP
Consensus is the absence of leadership – Margaret Thatcher
How do we know when a community is suffering from an absence of leadership?
A lack of leadership is exemplified by four pillars of floundering. First, there is a pattern of “decision-paralysis.” Second, there is an inability to stand up to powerful interests. Third, popularity contests carry more weight than wisdom. Fourth, like popularity, fear and hysteria are too often reasons for decisions.
A number of communities, despite (or because of?) their reputation as “progressive,” are infamous for talking an issue to death. Doing so is a sign that elected officials are terrified of making enemies. They are seeking “consensus” to avoid making anyone unhappy. Such a community is paralyzed because there is insufficient courage to make important decisions.
In almost every case, there are prevailing forces in a community who seek measures that are detrimental to the interests of the community. Therefore, if one intends to engage in beneficial community actions, enemy-making is nearly always necessary. A leader is willing to stand up and say that a beneficial action needs to be taken, even if there are one or two objections. A leader is willing to create opponents in the short term if that is what it takes for long-term community well-being. As Margaret Thatcher once said, consensus is the absence of leadership.
At the local government level, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and the city Police Department tend to be powerful actors. Too often, the DOT is narrowly focused on striving to promote high-speed regional car and large truck traffic. Within cities, such actions are profoundly detrimental to the quality of life of the community. Yet because of a leadership vacuum, almost all cities are well known for not standing up to DOT. Cities regularly agree to be a doormat to DOT plans to turn formerly livable streets and neighborhoods into sterile, dangerous, place-less superhighways.
As an aside, many elected officials, shamefully and tragically, don’t even have the wisdom to realize that such transportation modifications are detrimental. To them, such a change is “progress.”
In most cities, the Police Department budget has been so large and growing for a number of decades that other essential city programs have been starved. Again, where is the leadership to stand up and say that enough is enough? Leadership that has the wisdom and courage to insist that transit, sidewalks, recreation, environmental restoration and culture, for example, must also be adequately funded?
Without leadership, these floundering cities regularly pander to popularity. But what is popular is not necessarily what is right for the community. If it were, we should have computers run the city, as all we would need to do is accurately conduct opinion surveys. Due to enormous, distorting government subsidies, for example, making cars happy is wildly popular. Authentic leaders, however, have begun to recognize that excessive catering to cars is toxic to community health. Such leaders insist on slower, more modest roads, motorist user fees, and efficient provision of parking. They don’t cave in when the state department of transportation proposes expensive road widening. They draw a line in the sand and instead insist that they are protecting and striving for a community that is designed for happy people, not happy cars.
Finally, a leadership vacuum is exemplified by making decisions based on hysteria rather than the interests of community health. Screaming emergency vehicle sirens all day, all night, and all week plague many city town centers. Not because murders and fires occur each night, but because quality of life has taken a back seat to fear. For a great many cities – particularly those in the south — mosquito spraying continues each summer. Not because it effectively controls mosquitoes. As any first-year biology student knows, spraying water vapor is as effective in suppressing nuisance insects as spraying toxins into our air (Not because water vapor controls mosquitoes, but because it creates the perception that the community is doing something about it.) And water is a lot better for people and our ecosystem. No, we spray poisons because we have no leaders willing or able to stand up to fear and put a stop counter-productive spraying.
We live in increasingly perilous, challenging times. Times calling, increasingly, for wise and courageous leadership. Will our communities muster the wisdom and courage to elect leaders for a change? Will the city opt for hope and vision, rather than fear?
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
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