Urbanists Need To Find Balance

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Recently, I received some negative feedback from followers after I took an slightly more “indifferent” stance on a few Rochester development initiatives that didn’t neatly fit the local streetscape.  While I typically advocate for projects that match the look and feel of the areas they occupy, I felt that the areas in question were sort of “neutral zones,” where new urban design and streetscape adherence were less of a priority.  While I would like to see more from these cookie cutter designs that don’t entirely pay homage to their environment, neither project was going to include bulldozing an iconic or historic structure, and I truly felt that neither was going to make the area any worse.

OK, these are low bars, I get it.  But I truly believe that, when it comes to new development, we need to pick our battles.  If I opposed every development initiative that lacked nuance, or didn’t blend with the street, I’d literally be opposing every project.  And while I’m not a fan of urbanism that worships any and all development and heralds it as “growth,” I’m also not an obstructionist.

It’s about balance.  It’s about understanding where the heart is in your city, where the fabric is most sensitive, most fragile, and most influential.  Like it or not, this is a block by block, street by street analysis.  Where would a new structure that didn’t perfectly match the look and feel of an area be OK, and where would it be a fundamental problem?  In the end, the balance lies in realizing you can’t oppose every development you don’t like, just like you can’t openly accept every development initiative that throws dollars at the city.  I’m not meaning to pick favorites, but there are some places, projects and plans that are worth fighting for.  The others?  Well, sometimes it’s alright to say “I’m not happy, but this one isn’t the end of the world.”  The truth is, if we fight every new initiative that doesn’t match the area’s “energy,” we will end up bitter and exhausted, and there’s a whole lot of city left that requires our focused attention.

Just like we have to constantly pick our battles with our spouses, children and coworkers, we must do our best to assess the most important priorities in our city and try to move forward with what we can handle.  One hotel on a lightly-traveled side street with little aesthetic appeal that has front-facing parking isn’t going to change a neighborhood.  It’s not going to tear at the fabric of our city, or crush the dynamics of downtown.  It’s not going to threaten equity, disrupt walkability or transit access… what it will do is add more hotel space for downtown conventions and events, maybe create a couple jobs and, while a little stark, will still probably look better than the building it’s replacing.

There are things we fight for, things worth fighting for.  Our cities need us to check the money coming into them and give it a good shakedown.  Our leaders need to hear us when a project fundamentally disrupts the balance in our neighborhoods and communities.  We need to shout from the rooftops when people are being pushed out because of big money development.  But maybe most importantly, we need to know that every battle is not the same, and some just don’t need to be fought at all.

Urbanism isn’t obstructionism, nor is it a red carpet for any and all development.  A true urbanist knows when to fight and when to fight another day.  A true urbanist understands that we can and will never win every battle, probably not even most.  But we do what we do best when it matters the most, and we leave the issues that don’t matter behind us so that our resources and our vision can be focused on the big picture of a better tomorrow.