THE IMPOSSIBLE OFTEN HAS A KIND OF INTEGRITY which the merely improbable lacks,” wrote Douglas Adams. Sounds great, but what does it mean exactly? For cities and communities, understanding this distinction is pivotal to assessing themselves. It is why the impossible will always hold greater appeal in our lives.
We all know that the things we value most also cost the most – it’s what makes them treasures. Raising children, making marriage work, building a successful business, excelling at the arts, saving the environment, or overcoming mental illness – all of these take effort and loads of it. Why, then, should building a valuable city be any different? If we’re going to go cheap, then we might as well pack it up.
Just ask Rick Cole, city manager in Santa Monica, California, and he’ll tell you that if where you live can’t produce a collective sense of wellbeing or hope in the future then the battle is already lost. There’s a reason why cities are increasingly emerging at the forefront of anything to do with change, like the fields of business, democracy, lifestyle, social justice, equity and equality. It could be because they know they are going to die if they don’t start showing leadership, and quickly.
Cole was educated on all the usual disciplines associated with city management and understands the propensity for bureaucrats to concentrate on limiting crime, zoning, building codes, and property taxes. But, really, are those the reasons we live where we do? Cole is the new breed of city manager who believes that a city must function on the values its citizens possess as opposed to merely managing creature comforts. And so he makes a simple suggestion: start from scratch. Don’t just go along with the decisions constructed by earlier generations, but decipher what it is your collective citizenry values in the moment.
Cole’s enthusiasm on this is infectious, especially to citizens, as when he exudes, “We should be in the business of community wellbeing. What we’re talking about it breathtaking.” You don’t hear city managers talk like that a lot, if ever, because something that’s “breathtaking” usually costs, and bureaucrats and civic politicians alike prefer to dwell in the realm of the “doable” and the “manageable.”
Cole compares cities to institutions that fall into a state of decline simply because they attempted to prolong the same old, same old. All of the efforts and practices that use to work in a functioning city are no longer sufficient, and the quicker cities understand that, the quicker they can begin their renaissance and recovery.
Following Cole’s guidance, Santa Monica took on a huge survey of its inhabitants and quickly discovered that fewer than half got any kind of exercise. Nearly one-third felt they were always in stress. Less than 50% talked to their neighbours. And 40% felt that they didn’t have any voice in their community and that the powers-that-be wouldn’t listen to them anyway. City leaders were stunned. It was an admission that just doing the same things the same way their elders had was now leading to the breakdown of community. It wasn’t about taxes, houses, roads, or material goods; it was about the mental health of the city’s inhabitants, and that would require a city plan unlike anything they had ever attempted before.
Part of the problem was that people were looking for more than what the old management structures could provide and were feeling the strain of underachievement. Citizens were dreaming at the same time their leaders were incrementally managing and it was killing them. They were now looking at Santa Monica the way that a new couple looks at their first home – a place full of life, possibility, a future, and things of value. It had become Cole’s job to lay out a plan to get them there.
The city manager’s plans received a boost when Santa Monica mayor, Tony Vazquez, made the theme of this year’s State of the City speech, “Get Things Done.” And so this California city has embarked on a new direction, one driven by reaching for the things that are of a costlier nature but filled with the stuff dreams are made of.
John Helliwell, of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, puts it plainly: “Just to focus on economic growth is to miss critical aspects of human life.” There is the old saying that dreams should be bigger than our fears, and that’s still holds true. But it’s a new era, with a whole new set of challenges and opportunities, and perhaps we could also add that the dreams of city dwellers should always be bigger than mere budgets or business plans.