I doubt anyone I grew up with would peg me as a radical; I’m generally a passive person (maybe a little passive aggressive, I admit), content to remain neutral out of fear of displeasing someone. It is, therefore, a surprise to me that I would probably be considered a radical to many people in relation to my views about urbanism, walkability, and bicycles.
In the field of civil engineering, of which I’m registered in Oklahoma, I feel like a black sheep; in the field of planning, of which I’m a certified planner, I feel I’m apart from mainstream planners who cover a myriad of concepts and often appear concerned with the past and the now, not actually the future.
I’ve never been a cyclist; I have always loved the freedom of riding for pleasure and utility, not for exercise. I believe in cities as a tool for conservation, which many on the right find hard to understand, which causes confusion and likely deems me radical.
Christa and I choose to live in an urban neighborhood, far from many of our friends and our church, yet again a relatively radical undertaking. We take our vacation time, never holding much more than a week; apparently another radical thing in the U.S. How I’ve come to this radical nature, I do not fully know, but I have an idea.
A couple primary influences for my radical nature are my education, a foundational experience, and the growth of social media and my partaking in it, adding to personal growth and understanding. As I think I’ve stated before here, I believe, my education encouraged me to explore the world and always approach life with an inquisitive, critical understanding.
Calvin College and the University of Michigan are both fantastic institutions, and they both pushed me to grow my abilities, not just my knowledge base. My liberal arts-based engineering degree pushed my mind to explore as much as possible, not bog down in minutiae that would likely saddle me for life. Mikael Colville-Andersen notes in the introduction to his new book Copenhagenize: The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism, he came into bicycle urbanism “unencumbered by academic indoctrination.” Calvin instilled me in the understanding that my career should always be to learn and grow, that it was right to question the status quo. I feel free to most aspects of “academic indoctrination,” and with that I feel invigorated, but it also makes me appear a radical. Like Charles Marohn being questioned by his state license arm, via anonymous complaint, I often feel as though my questions and the search for truth are treated as personal attacks on other engineers, not as the search for truth and constant learning that I see them as. Questions aren’t personal, they are educational.
The rise of social media is treated differently among people. For me, I’ve used it to connect to a whole new world of influence, acquaintance, and friendship. Twitter opened the door for me to meet numerous people in Oklahoma City (too many names to mention now), for games of urban futbol, to discuss Strong Towns, to buy and sell homes, and much, much more. But beyond the local friendships, it has enriched my understanding and approach to learning about the forefront of urbanism, planning, and engineering. And, on top of simply reading from experts outside of my personal circle in Oklahoma, I can actually interact with people via Twitter, and discuss true best practices and real life issues. It’s truly eye opening. And it’s also radical. Via social media, and the related interactions and real-life face-to-face time (such as at NACTO’s Designing Cities conference), I am able to stay far ahead of the traditional learning curve that I see in planning and engineering circles.
AND, these people and organizations are pushing research and understanding into books and written products. Pick up their materials and read them, it’s worth your time. Right now, I’m reading Copenhagenize, and it’s worth the small cost to buy it. I really like following Mikael and his whole Copenhagenize team as they push for a fresh understanding of what is, is not, best practice. As as side note, one which should really require a fully separate post, is this: what we’re doing as “best practice” in many places, particularly in America, are really easy or minimal practices, not best. Many of my fellow engineers and planners are content to settle for the most basic design or a plan that will ruffle the fewest feathers. This doesn’t help us make fresh, great places, it helps us just make the status quo shinier.
Another fantastic resource that I bought and read last year is Cycling Cities: The European Experience. It’s a book with a deep understanding of not just bicycle urbanism but the (relatively) recent history of cycling cities in Europe.
If you’ve made it this far in my text, thank you. And please note, if I seem radical to you, it’s only because I care deeply for the future. I am not in a war against (whatever you want to add here), and I am a search for the best life for everyone. If I question the status quo, it is not personal, but simply a method to move forward.
Finally, here are a few people/organizations that I follow, and who I have deep respect for in the various fields I find myself in (I don’t have space to name everyone, so here’s a start):
- Mikael Colville-Andersen
- Jeff Speck
- Charles Marohn
- Bill Schultheiss
- Angie Schmitt
- Congress for the New Urbanism
- Strong Towns
p.s. If you want to listen to me ramble on about similar topics and my reasoning, take a listen to this The Topic is Yours episode: Paul the Plan-gineer.
p.p.s. For a deeper understanding of my love for my heritage, read my review of one my favorite books of the past few years: The Happiest Kids in the World.