First Experiment is a Self Journey / by Jim Hodapp

I've been thinking through many different little urban experiments, trying to think of one that would stand out as the perfect first experiment. While listening to a member profile podcast episode of StrongTowns, it struck me that the first experiment really is one of an inner journey along with a self reflection of how I first came to value things like walkable urban environments and vibrant communities. The first experiment is an experiment that has gone on, is going on and continues to go on, in small incremental steps inside all of us. The journey of our daily lives in what we value, being secure and celebratory in that, is the ultimate little urban experiment. In fact, our journeys are a set of little urban experiments with the sum of each life-shaping experience coming back to express itself to the world through each of us. Let me begin to explain what exactly I mean by this.

If you are reading this blog and you value walkable urban environments built to the human scale, chances are you are a deep thinker and you live your life in an intentional way. You seek to know yourself better and you have a pretty good idea of what you like and don't like. I am positing that these things go hand-in-hand in most people who value such things. Why is this important? It's important because we who would seek to change our urban environments for the better must first start by knowing ourselves well. What is it that we want out of an urban environment and why? Why do we value living in a dense walkable environment instead of a sprawling suburb or remote rural place? Why do we even care enough to want to participate in sustainable, little urban experiments in the first place? These are vital questions to ask ourselves because they will drive everything we do in our communities. Do you value walkability simply for exercise reasons or maybe more for social community reasons? Do you just want to know your neighbors well, or do you want to live, work and play all in the same community? Maybe you feel isolated living in sprawl and are entirely lonely? I know that's been true for me and I've asked myself time and again if there can be a better way. Whatever the reasons, it's worth knowing them about yourself well and continually discovering more about what you value every day. This is what I mean by an inner experiment. Don't worry about getting to specific answers for all of your questions. Start somewhere by determining what you truly value and run with that. Be curious and ask questions!

Try this experiment. If you've never done this before, then I hope this is a positive experience for you. Sit in your favorite comfortable chair with a pen and notebook. Mark a bullet point on the page and write out this question: what do I value in an urban environment? Then sit there in silence and think about that. If you find your mind wandering, that's okay. Sit there as long as it takes until your mind can focus on this question. List out as many of your own thoughts as you can underneath the first question. Then do the same thing again for this second question: why do I value what I listed in the first question about an urban environment? It's also okay if you don't have a why answer to several of the what questions.

Here are my answers:

What do I value in an urban environment?

  • A walkable layout with a dense mix of shops, restaurants, residential units, green spaces, artwork, etc. I'm talking about being able to walk to things immediately or within 15 minutes max.
  • Because I've observed the importance of diversity in all systems, I value many forms of transit including bikes, trains, buses, walking, cars, etc.
  • A clear sense of cultural pride in the design and architecture of things around me. I don't want to live in a bland environment, nor one that is trashy and not well maintained.
  • Sustainability in design and implementation of the built environment around me, from the residential places to the street drainage covers. Every detail is important for so many different reasons and it needs to function well, look nice and be able to be maintained over decades.
  • Fiscal sustainability of the built environment.

Why do I value these things about and urban environment?

  • Walkability provides for so many things that we otherwise take for granted or simply don't have access to. For example, if you live in a sprawling environment where you always must use a car to get anywhere other than a neighbor's house, then you won't have opportunities to have spontaneous meetings with a diverse set of people. Thus, it always takes energy to meet people and takes no energy to stay isolated at home and most likely sitting on the couch watching TV.
  • Across the board, I believe in diversity of things for added robustness. A city that only relies on one main form of transit (i.e. driving a car) is less robust, less vibrant and economically more susceptible to economic bust cycles. Having priority for many different forms like walking, biking, busses, trains, cars, etc allows all types of people to do practical travel, but even more importantly, discover things about where they live on their leisure time.
  • If we make sure that our cities are built at the human scale of development and not at the auto-centric scale of development, it enables people to notice much more about where they live. This, in turn, naturally creates much more pride for these cities. Have you ever lived or visited a city where the culture is to do everything as cheaply as possible? If you have, then I think you know why I value doing things well and creating and maintaining this sense of pride for where we live. Unfortunately, I believe Indianapolis falls in this category far too often, and so this issue is constantly on display in front of me.
  •  With my last point, please understand that I don't mean to say that I value everything being expensive and of absolute top quality. I value sustainability more than anything and that means doing things well instead of cheaply or exhorbitantly. Sometimes that means improvements might be expensive upfront, but sometimes they might be really inexpensive. However, what is absolutely clear is that if you don't do improvements in a sustainable way in both cost and design, it will create boom and bust cycles for our cities instead of a steady evolution of our cityscapes.

Now I'd like to hear from you. What is your self journey that you're on in regards to where you live? What do you value? Share in the comments.