Thursday, April 16, 2009

The seductive temptation of top-down

I've been reading Bill McKibben's Hope, Human and Wild - in particular the chapter about Curitiba, a city in Brazil that seems to have about as low a carbon footprint and as vibrant a community life as a city could hope to have. It sounds wondrous.

But, I thought to myself regretfully as I closed the book, it is in no way a model. Why? Because all the wonderful things the city has done seem to be the brainchild of its mayor, Jaime Lerner, and the band of young and enthusiastic architects and planners he's assembled. Turning a street into a pedestrian mall over a weekend (and against the fierce opposition of the street's merchants), getting people in the slums to collect garbage by paying them with bags of food - it all looks - from afar, anyhow - like redesign from the top down.

I think there's a limit to just how far top-down can get us. And to how long its changes can last.

Start with the practicality. In a city like, say, New York, there's no way those kinds of programs could be instituted just on the mayor's say-so. Frankly, Mike Bloomberg doesn't have much of a say-so. Any major initiative requires state approval; it also requires him to successfully navigate an intricate web of political pressure groups inside the city, all of them empowered by a regulatory process that's designed to give just about anybody a chance to have their say and - in many cases - to gum up the works. Just look at the fate of congestion pricing, or the ability - currently on depressing display - of a couple of state legislators to block a plan to bail out the transit system.

But I think the problem with the top-down approach goes deeper than the bureaucratic gridlock that afflicts long-established cities. Maybe I've been hanging out too much with Transition Town folks (I just spent two weeks in Totnes and had a chance to talk with Rob Hopkins, founder of the movement, a conversation I'll report on as soon as I've transcribed the tape). But I am skeptical that changes directed from the top can, by their very nature, be sustainable.

As McKibben describes it, governing Curitiba seems to involve a constant struggle to keep on top of the next manifestation of human nature or economic pressure that could destroy the town's carefully created culture. While the public transportation system is astoundingly efficient - and very heavily used - lots of people are still wedded to their cars (and delighted by the relative lack of traffic). McKibben quotes one resident as saying, "In some ways we remain spectators of the town." It sounds as though the town's culture is - so far at least - the creation of its mayor, more than of its citizens.

Top-down is a tempting model. A lot of us long for someone - President Obama, Mike Bloomberg, anyone - to impose sanity on us and our maladjusted, carbon-dependent, super-individualistic lifestyle. Take away our cars, take away our fast food, stop us - because we don't seem to be able to stop ourselves.

But if changes are really to take hold, there's no escape from the slow work of bringing people onboard. It is frustrating and maddening; I often feel like taking the whole population of the United States and just shaking them awake somehow.

Unfortunately, when you shake people awake, most of the time the only thing they really want is to be allowed to go back to sleep again.

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