Transitioning to the Traditional City
2: Pooh-poohing the Naysayers
June 6, 2010
Once you start talking about the Traditional City, you get a lot of
people who say "but I don't want to live in your Traditional City!"
Of course they don't. This is normal. There's a simple reason -- most people want to do what everyone else
is doing. This is especially true when it comes to people's
houses, where people don't get that many chances to mess up (or they
think they don't). "Tried and true" works for them.
Although Traditional Cities are quite common worldwide, unfortunately,
the imaginary/intellectual space has not kept up. We have lost much of
our ability to think about Traditional Cities, which has been
accompanied by the disappearance of the ability to create them. People
can work with them when they are left over by past generations, but
creating a new one where it did not previously exist is rare. The
best efforts of even the best "New Urbanists" -- even those of Europe
and Asia, who really should know better -- are pretty lame compared
with the historical examples. That
is why I say it is so important to be able to imagine the Traditional
City, and also to understand the basics of how to make one (Really Narrow Streets).
The fact of the matter is -- despite humans' five-thousand year history
of building Traditional Cities -- we are visionaries.
The percentage of visionaries in the human population is rather small.
You could say the percentages work out something like this:
15% Early Adopters
50% Mainstream Followers
30% Fuddy Duddies
Visionaries: They enjoy the
exploring new lands, solving problems, taking giant leaps of
creativity, and often imagine that they are working toward the
general good. Visionaries are typically bad businesspeople. If they
were motivated primarily by profit, they would follow the easiest,
method of creating a profit. Maybe open a McDonald's franchise. Or
build condos and stripmalls in Phoenix. The
reason I keep talking about imagining
the Traditional City is because that's
do. That's my audience. It is also the necessary first step.
Innovators: The Innovators
take the material of the Visionaries and evolve it, improve it, and
commercialize it. The innovators are often excellent businesspeople.
They are constantly searching for a new Vision that they can
commercialize. (It's very hard to start a business in a
long-established industry. Are you going to compete with
Sherwin-Williams in the paint business? With Thyssen-Krupp in the steel
business?) The innovators took the idea of a "home computer" and
added features, improved the memory, created more software, and drove
down the price. Often, the Innovators take something far beyond what
the Visionaries even thought possible -- typically in incremental
steps, not the clean-sheet-of-paper leaps of the Visionaries. Did the
inventors of the hard drive imagine that you could eventually buy a 1TB
model for $98?
Early Adopters: The
Visionaries and Innovators are creative types. They are creators or
sellers of new products. If the thing under consideration is not a
commercial product, but perhaps an idea like "sustainability" for
example, the Innovators are busy innovating -- changing, tweaking,
adding, improving. The Early Adopters are generally not creative. They
participate in the new "movement" generated by the Visionaries and
Innovators. In the case of electronic goods, they are shoppers and
users, not designers, engineers and marketers. In the case of
"sustainability," the Early Adopters might follow the thinking of the
Innovators closely, and Adopt it whenever there is a new consensus, but
they will not contribute to the evolutionary process itself. Early
Adopters are excited about participating in the new evolutionary
activity. Innovators would be bored with a role of being a passive end
user. They want to tweak and create.
Mainstream Followers: Mainstream
overriding principle -- do what everyone else is
doing, and don't do anything original. They assume that if everyone
else is doing it, then there must be a good reason, or at least, they
don't want to find out the consequences of not doing what everyone else
is doing. What that reason might be, or the consequences, they
typically have no idea. The whole point is: if you follow the
Mainstream, you don't have to think about such things. Mainstream
fear is being laughed at. They adopt the new thing when the Early
Adopters start laughing at them.
Fuddy Duddies: Fuddy Duddies
don't really care what the Mainstream is doing. Usually, they just want
to do what they've always done. Their old CRT television and rotary
phone still work just fine. Sometimes, this is genuine wisdom. They've
seen enough cycles of "the next new thing" to know that not everything
is as good as everyone thinks it is. Besides, if you wait a while, you
can get the next next new thing. Probably cheaper too. If you already
know that you like
fly fishing, then why play World of Warcraft? It would just cut into
your fly fishing time. Eventually, they will adopt a few selected
things if it has had the bugs worked out and genuinely improves their
lifestyle. They are practical and look to end results. They don't do
things because it's the "next new thing!" or because "everyone else is
doing it." Obviously, they don't mind getting laughed at.
If you're wondering why your friends don't understand your enthusiasm
for Traditional Cities, it is because they are not Visionaries. We are
still at the Visionary stage, especially in the U.S. The Innovators are
thinking "this is all
airy-fairy nonsense." The Innovators want Proof of Concept. Eventually,
some Visionaries will go and create some new Traditional Cities, or at
least a few neighborhoods within existing cities. I hope they don't
screw it up. Why do you think I insist on Really Narrow Streets so often?
After a few failures -- which I suspect will be caused by not making
the streets narrow enough, and introducing excessive amounts of
non-space like Green Space and parking lots -- they might have some
At this point, the Innovators will get interested. The Innovators will
start to bring in some serious money, and increase the scale. We would
start to see some competition among different City Design concepts. Who
can make the best city? In other words, the Innovators will start to
Eventually, we want to create a class of Early Adopters. Maybe 5-10% of
the U.S. population living in Traditional City type neighborhoods. The
Early Adopters will start to laugh at the lamebrains still languishing
in Suburban Hell. That's when things will really start to move.
Eventually, municipal governments -- bureaucrats are always the
ultimate Mainstream Followers -- will make it impossible to build
anything but a Traditional City.
You can see these different thought processes when you talk to people.
Most people are not creators, they are shoppers. They adopt others'
creations -- the work of the Visionaries and Innovators. Often, when I
say: "look, Venice is so wonderful, we could live like this,"
people assume that I mean
that they should actually live in Venice. They say things like: "It's
full of tourists all the time, and I don't speak Italian." I don't mean
that at all -- I
mean that you could live like this in South Carolina, and not just
identically like Venice, but your own special 21st Century South
Carolina version of the Traditional City. But most people (95% in our
breakdown) can only deal with existing things. They can order from a
menu, but they can't cook. Since Venice exists, and Houston exists,
they assume that the only options are Venice and Houston. Literally
Venice and Houston.
The same process applies to historical examples. When I show some
lovely piece of
architecture and city design from the 18th century, is that people assume that you mean that they
should live exactly like
France in 1745. I say: "Look at this nice building and the
Really Narrow Street. We could also make our buildings nice and our
streets narrow. It's so easy." But the response is: "But they had
tuberculosis and very high taxes, and bad plumbing." Was I talking
about tuberculosis? Okay, if you insist, let's have a Really Narrow
Street with no tuberculosis.
Happy now? It's a repetition of the same pattern. Most people can only
deal with things that already exist. They aren't creators, taking a bit
from here and a bit from there, and a bit of their own inspiration to
create something new and better.
After a little while, you only want to talk to other Visionaries.
Most people who think they are Visionaries are really Innovators. For
example, you talk to the technology people who get all excited because
they think they can put a video screen on a soda can. You mean, we can
make video screens smaller and cheaper, just like Innovators have been
doing for the last sixty years? Wow, that's so creative! Like watching
TV from a soda can is really going to improve civilization in some
meaningful way. Like we don't get enough TV already. Or the biotech
people, who will talk your ear off about the new wave of miracle drugs.
Look: we did miracle drugs in the 1960s. Those drugs -- the first
antibiotics -- were truly miraculous. The last two decades of drugs
have mostly created miraculous profits with very little real benefit.
Even negative benefit. A real Visionary would say: we are already
drugged to death. That is just more of the same-old same-old (i.e.
typical Innovator thinking). What we really need is a change in
lifestyle, diet etc. so we don't develop the maladies (diabetes, heart
disease, obesity, etc. etc.) that we are now taking drugs for, with
little effect. What we really need is not more drugs but less drugs. Some people think the
solution to cars is ... electric cars! If they are a little more
sophisticated, they will understand the problem with electric cars, and
say: no no no, the solution is bicycles! They are really thinking
(without realizing it) about Suburban Hell + bicycles, or perhaps the
19th Century Hypertrophic City + bicycles. In other words, cities that
are poorly designed, so you need some sort of personal transportation
device. This is really Innovator thinking. Cars are a problem, so we
need to improve the system
with electric cars/bikes/etc. The Visionary says: the system is the problem, so we need a new system. Once you fix the
system, you don't need cars or bikes. Not as many, anyway.
* * *
These people -- perhaps 95% of the population -- also think that change
is very difficult, or at least, uncommon. They imagine that everything
will always remain the
same. This even becomes a sort of delusional fantasy, a fervent wish
that the rules of the game never change. They want to be assured that
if they put the ball in the basket, they will get two points. Now and
forever. If they are a little more sophisticated, they will assume that
the existing trends will continue to infinity. Dow 36,000. Oddly
enough, they also
imagine that things in the past were also the same as today. For
example, the 1970s were a decade of economic decline. The 1980s were a
decade of economic recovery. However, people assume that the 1970s were
... sort of like today, with different fashion. These people also
assume that the 1980s were ... a lot like today, with different
fashion. They assume that everything was always a lot like today, and
the only thing that changed was hairstyles.
If you look back at history, one thing you notice is that everything is
always changing all the time. The 2000s were different than the 1990s.
The 1990s were different than the 1980s. The 1970s were different from
the 1960s. The 1930s were different from the 1920s, which were
different from the 1890s.
You can even go read old Buddhists texts, which insist that everything
is always changing. It was always changing then too. People in those
days were also largely unaware of this constant change, so the early
Buddhist philosophers had to point it out to them.
People are also afraid of The End of the World As They Know It. Guess
what: TEOTWAWKI happens all the time. People graduate from college.
They get a new job in a new city. They move to a foreign country. They
get divorced. They get ill. They have children. They become wealthy.
Their children die in
accidents. There are famines, plagues, hyperinflations and military
invasions. If the World As You Know It doesn't end at least a
half-dozen times in your lifetime, you don't get out enough.
On a personal level, the Transition to a Traditional City would be no
more disrupting than moving from Houston to downtown San Francisco.
After about three weeks, you wouldn't even remember your old lifestyle.
You would be busy exploring your new lifestyle.
On the civilizational level, everything is always changing all the time
anyway. So why not arrange to have things change in our favor?
Other comments in this series:
Many Acres Can Sustain
2010: Let's Take a Trip to New York 2: The Bad and the Ugly
24, 2010: Let's Take a Trip to New York City
2010: We Could All Be Wizards
2009: What a Real Train System Looks Like
2009: Life Without Cars: 2009 Edition
2009: What Comes After Heroic Materialism?
2009: Let's Kick Around Carfree.com
November 8, 2009: The Future Stinks
2009: Let's Take Another Trip to Venice
2009: Place and Non-Place
2009: Let's Take a Trip to Barcelona
September 20, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity 2: It's All In Your Head
September 13, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity
July 26, 2009:
Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 3: How the Suburbs Came to Be
July 19, 2009:
Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 2: Downtown
July 12, 2009:
Let's Take a Trip to an American Village
May 3, 2009: A
April 19, 2009: Let's Kick Around the "Sustainability" Types
March 3, 2009:
Let's Visit Some More Villages
2009: Let's Take a Trip to the French Village
2009: Let's Take a Trip to the English Village
Comex (scroll down)
January 4, 2009: Currency Management for Little Countries (scroll
Effects (scroll down)
August 10, 2008: Visions of Future Cities
2007: Let's Take a Trip to Tokyo
2007: Let's Take a Trip to Venice
July 9, 2007:
No Growth Economics