A City Without Blame

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When I’m not writing Reddit-fodder blog posts for the Urban Phoenix, I’m probably working away at my 9-5 job where I facilitate clinical drug trials.  That’s right, my daily life of labeling bottles filled with drugs might not be glamorous, but I do enjoy what I do.

I work in what’s called a CGMP (Current Good Manufacturing Practice) regulated environment in which almost everything we do is proceduralized, checked and double check.  Any time we touch a bottle of drug that will eventually be distributed to a patient in a particular drug trial, we have a set of instructions that we must follow to the letter, ensuring that no matter who is executing the task, it is done the same way and the right way.

This might seem tremendously tedious and restrictive and to some extent you’d be right.  But there is a hidden beauty in this process that applies to how we design our cities.

In my job, when something goes wrong, rarely if ever is the blame placed on an individual.  Rather, when a mistake is made, we look at it as an opportunity to adjust our processes in a “corrective action,” or an effort to eliminate the chance that this mistake is made again.  Instead of pointing the finger at the negligent party, we accept that we are flawed humans and are thus prone to mistakes.  When we accept this fact, it allows us to step away from blame and build our internal systems to ensure that the same mistake isn’t made twice.

When we apply this model to our cities, we can either blame the driver who speeds, giving them a ticket through strict enforcement, or we can build our “systems” (our streets and roads) to minimize the opportunity for a driver to break the law in the first place.  We can blame the poor neighborhoods for our city’s problems, or we can construct an urban center that welcomes all people, with affordable housing, adequate transit systems and a barrier-free downtown to maximize potential for all.

I am not implying that individual accountability has no place, rather I am advocating for a proactive approach to lessen the opportunities for urban negatives to arise.  Holding folks accountable for their actions is still a piece of the bigger picture, but building a city with a strong set of human-based systems (walkability, transit, public space and an open plan that allows for urban flow) can minimize these negatives before they begin.

If there is a dangerous street on which drivers are speeding, accept that a certain percentage of drivers are going to speed when given a set of conditions (wide, multi-lane “strodes”) and change the design of the street to slow traffic by narrowing lanes, adding bump-outs, and more prominent crosswalks, among other amenities.  Speed enforcement is still a piece of the puzzle, but these amenities have a chance to reduce mistakes and reckless driving before it becomes a problem of safety or a pedestrian deterrent.

As a culture, we love to scapegoat an individual or a group of people with an oversimplified blame-centered construct.  It’s easy to say “these people are the reason we struggle.”  It is in our most subversive psychology in every aspect of our lives, be it politically, socially, even religiously, to want to point the finger at one person or a group of people as the source of shortcomings.  The much harder mindset to achieve is the acceptance that mistakes happen no matter what we do.  Negligence and a lack of respect for the law, unfortunately, exists everywhere.  As a whole, we are a flawed people, and we often don’t make the best choices.  But when we build a city that minimizes the negative impacts of things like traffic speed, surface parking, socioeconomic barriers, poverty, crime and other factors, we can build a city that lessens these effects without having to place blame.

We must ask ourselves, are we building a city based on accountability and enforcement of problems that could have been prevented, or a city with strong working systems that minimize the effects of problems before they start?  Like working in the investigational drug trails world, we can create an urban environment that maximizes productivity and livability by creating a city that deters the classic viruses that plague our downtowns with good design and a dedication to doing what works instead of pointing the finger.  Only when our mindset changes to a blameless, proactive versus a reactive stance on problems will we we be able tackle the real issues that impact our urban centers today.