A New Year's Eve Call to Action for Urbanists

We've known for decades the better ways to do things, for greater urban health, sustainability, resiliency, vibrancy and economic success. So this year, let's resolve to have the will and skill to get past the short-term politics, the rhetoric, the market momentum, and the financial self-interest that has kept our better solutions from being realized.

4 minute read

December 31, 2012, 12:00 PM PST

By Brent Toderian


Hello Planetizen readers - on this New Year's Eve, I find myself "thinking with my thumbs" on my Blackberry as my wife and I explore Seattle before tonight's festivities - thinking beyond the resolutions and goals for myself, my family, and my company. I'm thinking about us - a community of urbanists, who have been working for much of our careers to make our cities, towns and communities better.

Sometimes we've worked with success, often with frustration and fatigue, but always with a passion that keeps driving us forward.

We've known for decades the better ways to do things, for greater urban health, sustainability, resiliency, vibrancy and economic success. Ways to address critical challenges as diverse as affordability, our carbon and ecological footprint, public health crises, demographic shifts, on and on - many or most with the same "convenient solution"... better, smarter city-making.

The challenge isn't one of not knowing. It continues to be a challenge of doing. Of having the will and skill to get past the short-term politics, the rhetoric, the market momentum, and the financial self-interest that has kept our better solutions from being realized. This is what we all need to be better at, in 2013 and beyond.

So this year, as North America struggles with self-imposed fiscal cliffs, irrational gun control ideology, patterns of urban sprawl virtually bankrupting cities, and an irresponsible lack of action on climate change, we city-builders can focus on where real success, real progress, has been occurring for a while - in cities and city-regions.

Here are a handful of resolutions, quickly written with my thumbs, for our community of international city-builders to hopefully embrace. They aren't unique - we all know what they are, and any of us could write them - but like resolving to lose weight each year, it’s the doing that counts, not the uniqueness of the resolution.

If we can make these real in 2013, we would truly make our cities better.

- We resolve to come together as professionals and disciplines, and finally break the silos that keep us from achieving holistic, complete city-building. We will agree across professions to common definitions of success.

- We resolve to set better goals, and better measure the RIGHT successes, rather than optimizing the wrong things. Smart growth, not sprawl (and before someone says we need to define these better, or replace them with “fresher, cooler terms” - we've defined and debated such terms incessantly for decades, with not enough attention to achieving them). Shorter, smarter trips, with everything we need closer. More parks and public places that more people visit, and stay in longer. The key is to be clear, and to honestly measure success over time. In many cases, we’ve been busy measuring the wrong things.

- We resolve to not just increase density, but to do density better! With beautiful (but not necessarily more expensive) design, walkability, mix and completeness, amenities, and housing and population diversity.

- We resolve to stop feeding, or accepting, the unhealthy and distracting "war on the car" rhetoric, and inspire our cities with what true multi-modal cities can achieve. All ways of getting around work better, including cars, if we emphasize walking, biking and transit!

- We resolve to house the homeless, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it actually saves us money. We can't afford to NOT house the homeless!

- We resolve to take back our own language from those who've made it code or ideological - words like livability, and quality of life. These are not left or right wing - they're just smart, and critically important to successful communities.

- We resolve to stop accepting "false choices" that are dumbing-down our conversation about how to building cities. Heritage preservation OR smart growth. Good planning OR job creation. Beautiful design OR affordable design. Good city-making doesn't play these false choice games.

- We resolve to stop using the eight most frustrating words in the english language - "we could never do that in our city!"

- Lastly, we as urbanists resolve to be not just involved in, but absolutely integral in, the broad conversation about the success of our cities and nations. We will be more clear, more persuasive, more "human" in our speech and writing. We will be a powerful voice as urbanists. And at the same time, we'll listen and learn a lot better.

This list isn't intended to be comprehensive – it’s the best my thumbs could think of today. But I was inspired to share them with you because I'm inspired by the year we could have together, our community of urbanists. Feel free to add more, to contribute and debate, but most importantly, to passionately participate this year.

We can resolve to make 2013 a key year in better city-making! Who’s in?


Brent Toderian

Brent is President of TODERIAN UrbanWORKS in Vancouver, Canada, and has over 24 years experience in advanced and innovative urbanism, city-planning and urban design. He advises cities & innovative developments all over the world, from Ottawa to Oslo, from Sydney to Medellin, from Auckland to Helsinki.

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