school of thOUGHT

I’m starting a new series called “School of Thought.” It’s my version of an Op-Ed.

I’ve de-emphasized the first two letters of “Thought,” because every Op-Ed piece is written by a person or group who has some preferred future in mind. So just as Op-Ed writers think that certain things ought to be one way or another, so do I. It might be so trivial as critiquing a restaurant for putting perfectly good sandwich fixings on plain, untoasted white bread. But it might have more import.

That said, I consider myself wide open to critique. I even invite it, and I’m often surprised when I don’t get it.

People would rather make me feel good instead of steering me in the right direction.

I’ll say this in a pull-quote. I screw up all the time. If it weren’t for people speaking truth into my life, my past would be one uninterrupted forest fire and the future would be gasoline.

The feel-gooders perhaps haven’t parented or participated in any recovery program, for to do either of those requires that one occasionally dole out some tough love, with the emphasis on love. Yesterday a man I respect, who knows Kerrville like I know the back of my hand, gave me some diplomatic yet direct — loving — advice. So, today I choose to be schooled. By whoever comes at me with love. If you come at me with not-love, school’s out.

With that in mind, I’d like to launch with the question, “What are the most important features of a sustainable city?” In our case, the city is Kerrville, Texas, a growing small town. But the principles I’ll outline here would apply to any municipality, in my opinion. Any place that wants happy citizens ought to do these things.

A future vision designed by community

Scott Francisco, a friend who works at a Pilot Projects, once helped an assortment of like-minded but occasionally head-butting organizations peaceably share an office floor. Peaceably and even productively.

Together.

How?

His organization typically helps neighborhoods and small towns and cities, not ad hoc collectives like ours. One of his operating principles is that the community must speak into the desired future. To have a few “at the top” plan but fail to include the broader collective voice is to invite dissension down the road.

Anyway, six organizations — four nonprofits, one social enterprise, and one finance start-up — shared a floor of a building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This was no ordinary building.

abs danny forster studio
rendering: Danny Forster Studio

We shared the 11th floor, with a quite stunning view of Central Park and Columbus Circle. Floor to ceiling windows on two sides. Which also meant solid walls on two sides. Which also meant people looking at walls or interior spaces. That’s where Scott came in, with his “sandbox.”

I’d recommend you watch the video instead of me explaining it. It’s under 2 minutes.

A cooperative, gaming atmosphere — the nature of the sandbox — naturally leads to the next principle I see as essential to a sustainable town or city. Kerrville did this, and did it will in my opinion, with the Kerrville 2o50 Plan.

Diversity

The “wrong side of the tracks.”

That’s where “they live. On the wrong side of the tracks.”

I’ve said elsewhere that in the Northeast, where I grew up, diverse people (racially, socio-economically, sexual orientation) stereotypically would socialize but would live apart. The continuing stereotype was that in the South, those were reversed. So I’m all for a “diverse” community, in which people socialize and live alongside each other.

diversity
graphic: Plan A Consultants

The thing about diversity is that it is largely an illusion. Kids are a blank slate and are taught that there’s such a thing. Because, and speaking of “sandboxes” or swing sets, or see-saws or fountains and playgrounds, kids who look and sound different to us adults have no problems playing together. They’re taught about difference by us. We coined the term diversity. It didn’t exist until we decided we needed a word to describe our tendency to see difference instead of similarity.

So when I say diversity is a principle of a sustainable town, I mean that any planning for a preferred future needs to acknowledge that some of us see differences between us and seek first to preserve and protect ourselves, and some of us see differences between us and lament that the other group is preserving its privilege. But both groups are operating on an illusion that was taught us by those who came before us and which we perpetuate among our children.

Yet we can’t ignore it.

Bottom line: anyone who feels excluded from the planning and is willing to roll up their sleeves should have a seat at the table, a seat in the sandbox. As for myself, I’m a white male and have never felt excluded, so I let others represent me. I’m fortunate like that.

And anyway, perhaps more important than diversity of looks or behavior is diversity of thought. Metabolizing an opposing viewpoint is like trying to enjoy raw kale.

Opportunity & Housing

These two go together.

Our Kerrville city leadership is fully aware that there are plenty of jobs, but these jobs pay at a level that can’t afford the available housing. Moreover, when more affordable housing is suggested and planned in an area, residents near it object for fear of their property values being diminished. And I get it; this is understandable: one’s home is often one’s primary investment vehicle, especially if it’s fully paid off. My day job is as a fundraiser, and donors occasionally give properties as illiquid gifts. I would be disappointed if someone stated an intent to donate a second home to my organization and then later that year we found out that it would garner 5-10% less revenue. That would mean fewer people served by my organization, and less of a tax advantage for the donor.

affordable-housing
photo: Up For Growth

But many of us here consider ourselves people of faith.

The most basic question is not whether we should allow low-cost housing near us or should provide more jobs. The more basic question is more personal: did we deserve anything good that we got?

We say, “We worked for [whatever it is that we have].” That means basically that we worked hard and were rewarded for our hard work. Cause and effect. But others work just as hard and don’t get rewarded. Did they not deserve what we did deserve? If we have good health, how much of that do we attribute to our hard work? Or how our kids turn out: good parents’ kids can sometimes go wrong, and bad parents’ kids can sometimes become Rhodes Scholars. There’s no real correlation if we’re honest.

Yes, yes, I’m getting preachy.

It’s because I love this place. Just like I loved New York City, where I’m from. But I’m here now, and I don’t intend to go back. I want to make my contribution to making Kerrville even more “Kerrville” tomorrow than it’s been today — 6pm on a Thursday in June.

Love forms a sustainable city

So, yes, and to belabor this last section is to invite even more scorn.

100 year old man - calisphere
100-year-old man. Photo: Calisphere

I speak to my neighbors: to love means to lovingly confront as well as to come alongside during hard times and celebrate during good times. I was lovingly confronted yesterday, and it didn’t even feel like confrontation. It felt like love.

I’m way too obnoxious to be so tactful.

But I have time yet. I’m only 57, and I’m banking on making it to 100.

About Author

Husband, father, traveler, writer, surfer.

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