By Dom Nozzi
Advocates for quality of life and sustainability — with regard to how we design our communities and our transportation system – often scratch their heads over the lack of enthusiasm from citizens to protest serious harms being committed in communities, and a lack of passion to support like-minded political candidates for elected office.
Where, for example, is the quality-of-life version of the fervent anti-abortion movement? Or the traffic calming version of the right-wing Tea Party?
How, in other words, do we motivate the political left wing to march in the streets? To boycott? To dedicate their lives to ending the ruinous destruction wrought by state departments of transportation and their over-sized monster roads?
Recently, a friend and political ally indicated that he was optimistic when 85 people in his community quickly volunteered to help counteract a right-wing effort to roll back conservation efforts in his community by vowing to attend future county commission public meetings on the topic.
But in my experience, out of the many who solemnly swear to join his cause, only a tiny number will actually show up for any meetings. Soon, no one for “our side” will attend the meetings.
“Volunteering to help” is just too easy. Long-term commitment is much more difficult to inspire – particularly on the political left.
What can be done to galvanize the political left? To sustainably energize those who seek better community design, more humanized, walkable streets, or more effective conservation of our sensitive natural areas?
In my opinion, a way must be found to instill a secular version of religious fervor in liberals and leftists. Marxism was able to do that in the past, but the socialism he and his advocates preached has been almost entirely discredited or become irrelevant today.
Another handy motivator is a compulsory military draft, which the war-mongering US has learned to avoid forever more in its on-going efforts to retain public support for American “global policeman” actions around the world. The mandatory draft during the Vietnam atrocity inspired long-term fervor and effective protest to stop that madness. War hawks have learned not to make the mistake of instituting a draft again.
What are some of the remaining tactics and events most likely to motivate progressive advocates in the future?
1. An enormous (and preferably abrupt) increase in the cost of gas, utilities or food. The important caution, however, is that these can lead to reactionary, militarized, autocratic politics.
2. A severe economic recession or depression, although Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs instructs us that progressive politics often plays second fiddle when one needs to first figure out how to put food on the table.
3. Severe traffic congestion, although this can counterproductively and ruinously lead uninformed communities to widen the road. Road widening as a response to congestion, however, is now much less likely given the extreme financial crisis being suffered at all levels of government.
4. A martyr, although people to be influenced must first be supportive of the action urged by the martyr. Ghandi instructed us that non-violent protest is useful for catalyzing action, not for changing minds.
5. Creating a local and much-loved “commons” at the local level.
I learned about the concept of a “commons” from All We Share, a book recently written by Jay Walljasper.
Creating a “commons” is, in my view, perhaps the most effective and therefore important tool available to progressive advocates seeking better community and transportation design (most of the others on the list above are outside of the control of advocates, after all).
What are examples of a “commons”? Communities create a commons when they establish a well-used pedestrian mall (a town center street where cars are prohibited), a public square, a public park or trail, a public meeting hall, and even a public sidewalk.
It is, in other words, a place where members of the community freely, easily and regularly meet to share conversation, fun, passion, politics, community celebration, and an appreciation for their community or its natural environment.
In Boulder, Colorado where I live, examples of a commons include Pearl Street Mall, the Boulder Creek Greenway Path and the well-used, publicly-owned greenbelt trails. Each of these much-loved community features have effectively built an army of people motivated to attend Council meetings and fight for those “commons” places.
They fight out of a passion for the public square or the forest or the trails or the lake they have grown to appreciate and love after spending time in such a commons. Who in Boulder, in other words, can fail to see how so many of its citizens have been forever galvanized to fight to protect Pearl Street Mall? Or the Boulder Creek Path? Or have a long-term commitment to wanting to see MORE such places created in Boulder?
As a result, for other communities aspiring to achieve the many admirable accomplishments Boulder now enjoys, courage and wisdom is needed to create a much-loved and well-used commons, where progressive politics and progressive evangelists can be nurtured and motivated to attend meetings. And work to elect sympathetic political candidates. An important reason I fought for the Hogtown Creek Greenway when I was a planner living in Gainesville, Florida was to create such a commons to build a progressive army willing to yell and scream at commission meetings.
A commons is a powerful way to recruit progressive action, educate citizens, keep issues in front of the public, and provide motivation that arises from a deep love and need to protect the commons.
What are the potential places where a “commons” can be created in your community? Does your town center have a short street section that can be converted into a car-free pedestrian mall? (at least temporarily) Can an underused public park be made more of a popular commons by scheduling frequent programs such as concerts or festivals at the park?
Without such a commons, the political left has very little ability to meet, agitate, educate and motivate.
With a commons, advocates for progressive change are much more likely to realize durable, long-term success.
A well-used pedestrian mall or greenway trail, after all, is much more likely to build a sustainable army of evangelists for better streets and healthier creeks than pamphlets, door-knockers, phone calls, or even efforts to elect champions for a better community.
After all, if there are insufficient numbers of galvanized citizens in the community – borne of a “commons” for many issues on the political left – even election of a “savior” will do little good.
Creating a commons should be at the top of any agenda to create long-term support for a better community.
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
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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