What is a City?

Urban design and planning is about solving puzzles. It’s about looking at data and applying best practices in order to change the behavior of people, places, and things. We don’t need to apply emotion to it, because more often than not the logical solution is also the most compassionate. Take homelessness: in the past our policies have not worked, have marginalized people, and have created a giant, wasteful, and expensive infrastructure that at its best helps high functioning individuals, and at its worst perpetuates and exacerbates the problem. Now we’re seeing programs that simply house people first, no questions asked, and then support them as needed into perpetuity. This saves communities boatloads of money, time, and energy. A single housing-first program can end homelessness for more people than dozens of old-model agencies combined.

These programs began in bigger cities, like D.C. and NYC, and are now popping up in smaller cities like Olympia. Advocates for the homeless simply took a look at those programs and studied how to scale them down for a city the size of Olympia. It was a hard sell, being such a new idea, and not (at the time) universally accepted as a best practice in the non-profit industrial complex. Social service agencies large and small have a lot invested in their services, and especially the larger ones aren’t nimble, and are often reticent to change because of the costs associated with retraining staff and retooling services. This is why, ten years ago, even a game-changing concept like housing-first was just a pipe-dream of a bunch of young punk social workers in Olympia, but not taken seriously by anyone in our community until years later when programs in other cities got positive results.

I’ve been involved in a lot of planning processes here in Olympia – big and small. A golden thread throughout has always been a NIMBY minority that resists change, and especially out-of-town voices and ideas. I would often look to my home city, Portland, OR, for ideas – Portland is on many top 25 Cities in the World lists – so not a bad example to follow in many areas of urban planning. Immediately good ideas face challenges. “We’re not (insert name of city with successful solution to the problem). That’s a much bigger city with much different problems.”

In the short video below, you’ll learn that NYC and Olympia are the same, though obviously one is much, much larger. Think about the ants. Ants all over the world use very similar methods to construct their colonies, no matter the size, and the same principles apply universally. Humans are animals that follow similar behavioral patterns when constructing our cities.

Watch the video to learn more, and then ask yourself: Why wouldn’t we look to our larger cities – some of them hundreds of years old – for guidance? Why resist change? What is the root of our NIMBYism? Where does it come from? How can we move beyond it and really start getting things done?

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