Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Failure to Communicate: Accentuate the Positive

Late last spring I posted a piece called Beyond Starbucks Urbanism, which I billed as the first in a mini-series on urbanist communications failures. It’s later than I anticipated, but here’s the second piece.

I recently had the privilege of seeing Jan Gehl, godfather of Copenhagen’s bicycle network and a consultant to New York City and many others, speak. He was beyond awesome, but one thing that really stuck with me was how he got the tone completely right. One of his observations about how they transformed Copenhagen was, “We never talked about taking away things from people. We only talked about what they were going to get.”

This is a lesson too seldom heeded by urbanists, who almost seem to define themselves as much in terms of what they are against as they do what they are for. The anti-car rhetoric immediately comes to mind of course. All these things we want to do are talked about in terms of cars all the time. But what’s that got to do with it? If these are good policies, and have all sorts of good benefits for citizens, why can’t we talk about that? Why don’t we defend these things on their own merits?

Carol Coletta has a great saying that “eat your spinach” marketing doesn’t work. CEOs for Cities has been working for a while now to try to create a new vision of the American Dream, one rooted in a more urban context, something that would do for the city lifestyle what the GM Futurama exhibit did for the suburban, auto-based one. They want to create that positive vision rather than a dour one to inspire people to want to buy. That’s a hugely important initiative, and one that we should all seek to emulate.

Moving Beyond Sustainability

Nothing has done more to hurt the urbanist cause than it getting almost inseparably linked to the notion of “sustainability” and climate change. Sustainability has become almost a shibboleth of the right thinking urbanist. Architects, planners, politicians, journalists and more all try to out do each other with ever more rhetoric about radical transformations and grandiose, even science fictiony visions of the future low-carbon world. These might score points with the inside crowd, but they don’t impress the average member of the public all that much. Quite the opposite in many cases.

Right now in America millions of people are out of work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has had to invent new categories of long term unemployment to measure it. Ben Bernanke just said it might be five years before employment normalizes. Over 43 million people – one out of every seven in America – are on food stamps. That’s about the same size as the entire country of Spain. State and local governments are broke. Our local social safety nets are getting shredded as they cut back. The federal government is drowning in debt. Millions of people are or soon will be in foreclosure. Many more are underwater on their homes. People are hurting out there.

Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that Americans have roundly shown that they ain’t buyin’ it on cap and trade or other measures of sustainability. Apocalyptic but nebulous risks like climate change seldom resonate even in normal times. But especially with everything going on in America right now, it’s just not on the list. We might not like that, but that doesn’t make it any less true. It’s like Julian Simon put it, “No food, one problem. Much food, many problems.” Climate change is the concern of people who aren’t worried about where their next paycheck is coming from, where they are going to go after they lose their house, or how they are going to feed their kids.

Bill Clinton was right: it’s the economy, stupid. Urbanists prattle on about sustainability all the time as if the last few years didn’t even happen. No wonder it’s not working. And because pretty much all urbanist policies have been sold as about sustainability, there’s a linkage in the public’s mind, so that if they don’t believe in climate change or don’t rate it highly in favor of more immediate concerns, that takes urbanism down with it.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way. With better packaging, I believe there is a case for pro-urbanist policies (including those that promote sustainability), one that can work with the times and the trends instead of against them. Some people will never be converted. But I’m convinced there’s a lot more people who would be open to various environmental and urbanist ideas if we talked about their practical benefits rather than how they are good for the planet (even if they are).

Delinking Conservation from Sustainability

Back in the early 1980’s my father ran a freon packaging plant. They took in bulk freon in rail cars and put it into smaller cylinders for the marketplace. When he came in, a lot of excess freon from the packaging process was simply blown off into the atmosphere. Now my dad’s not exactly a staunch environmentalist, nor was the ozone hole even on the radar then. But he calculated how much money they were losing from wasting all that product, and decided to install recapture equipment to eliminate that blow-off. It didn’t require any environmental consciousness. Eliminating waste was simply good business.

Similarly at my old company, we talked about sustainability a lot. But what we talked about a lot more was cutting costs. Reducing our office space footprint, encouraging telecommuting, going paperless where possible and defaulting to double-sided printing, installing high end “telepresence” video conferencing reduce executive travel, etc, etc, etc. all reduced the firm’s environmental footprint a lot. But they also saved beaucoup dollars for the shareholders.

In an era of belt tightening, why not play up the money saving angle of conservation? After all, wasting all this stuff we do all the time costs a lot money – money many of us don’t have. There’s a real business case to be made here.

If I were mayor of a city, I’d be targeting my green message not at the sustainability-urbanist axis, but the taxpayers, making sure they know how much money I’m saving them. That’s the kind of green that resonates with them right now.

New York’s Positive Livability Message

When it comes to transportation policy and urban livability, New York City is setting the bar from a policy and taking action perspective. But they’re also doing it from communications one. I’ll show here again this great video on New York’s quality of life agenda. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Mayor Bloomberg, Janette Sadik-Khan and others don’t bury their environmental goals in the sand. She says the goal is to make New York “the greatest, greenest city in the world” and they do talk about taking space away from cars.

But the clear focus is the positive benefits to New Yorkers. Not only is the imagery great, so are the talking points, stressing quality of life – “We really try to focus on things that improve the quality of our lives today.” (Bloomberg) – safety (traffic fatalities down 20% since PlaNYC released, pedestrian safety improved by 60% in Times Square since closing Broadway), better services (reduced bus boarding times, faster bus speeds), the benefits to business – “Our agenda is to unclog our streets so commerce doesn’t get stifled” (Bloomberg), and the fact that businesses are pleased (sales are up) now that Times Square has been reconfigured – and the inclusive nature of the improvements – “It’s not just for the spandexed and the brave. It’s for moms, dads, kids, everyone.” (bike planner).

A recent article on Sadik-Khan in the Guardian reinforces the messaging:

Congestion – sclerotic city arteries clogged with traffic – is economically inefficient, ergo making mass transit work serves the city’s economy. Since 96% of Wall Street’s workforce goes to the office by subway, bus, boat, bike or on foot, keeping the city moving and making it prosperous are of a piece…. “The goal has been moving as many people as possible as quickly as possible – and safely,” she says. “Re-engineering streets is about re-imagining streetscapes, but it’s also about making streets safer.” … “What we’ve found is that we’ve not only achieved a 50% reduction in cyclist injuries where we have these lanes, but a 40% cut in all injuries because of the pedestrian refuge islands,” she says.

More Good Marketing Messages

New York isn’t alone in spreading the good news about practical benefits of these policies. If you ever get to hear Washington, DC planning chief Harriet Tregoning talk, she’s a fountain of evidence about how that city’s approach has paid off. For example, even during the recession, DC sales tax collections have been going up. Now obviously as the nation’s capital, there’s always unique dynamics there, but that blows me away.

She’s also been working hard to marshal statistics to help make business even better. For example, a lot of national retailers rely on traffic counts to decide where to locate stores. But in the city, there may be huge numbers of people passing by on foot or in buses that aren’t getting picked up by that measure. So they are working diligently to find ways to gather data to give a more accurate picture of demand to retailers. That’s the intersection of urbanism and business.

There are also sorts of fiscal benefits that can be talked up. As I like to say, “less lanes is less money.” Why spend money on more concrete for cars than you actually need by over-designing for peak of the peak and such?

I was also stunned to read in Streetsblog that all New York’s current bicycle initiatives combined only cost $8.8 million – and only $2 million of that came from the city’s budget. As bike commuting has doubled since 2006, albeit on a low base, it’s tough to imagine any investment that could be more cost efficient or have a higher ROI than that.

Let’s face it, most municipalities and states are broke right now. So looking at low cost, fast to implement, high impact changes like NYC’s public plaza program and pedestrian/bike improvements are clearly the way to go. We can’t afford anything else. In the short term especially, the pedestrian and bicycle need to be at the core of the transport policy for any city that hopes to have a fiscal future.

There’s a lot more where this came from. I think this is the type of thing that needs to inform our arguments to a much great extent going forward. As Jarrett Walker said over at Human Transit, let’s not talk about “coercion”. Let’s stop talking about what we want people to give up, and about how we have to do this or that to “save the planet.” Instead, let’s talk about why it’s just plain a good idea to do anyway. Let’s defend our policy prescriptions on their own merits – because I’m convinced they can stand on their own two feet.

More Goodness from Munich

I’ll leave you with another video. Copenhagenize pointed me at this video out of Munich, talking about marketing bicycling to help build the bicycle culture in that city. They want to produce something that inspires an emotional connection, that gets people to experience the “joy of cycling.” Marketing isn’t all just about dry facts and figures, though that’s what I stressed in this post. This short piece talks about how Munich developed their sales approach. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Topics: Sustainability
Cities: New York

12 Responses to “Failure to Communicate: Accentuate the Positive”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    What you say about talking positively is absolutely right – and I’ve seen this first-hand with transit, too. Nearly everyone walks a fair amount, and nearly everyone would bike or use transit given appropriate facilities and incentives.

    But, I think some of what you’re saying about environmentalism is tone deaf. It’s not true at all that “Climate change is the concern of people who aren’t worried about where their next paycheck is coming from, where they are going to go after they lose their house, or how they are going to feed their kids.” Climate change is the concern of a lot of people who will lose their house if sea levels rise even a little, in Bangladesh and the Maldives – as well as many others who live in the cities they’ll squat in. All politics boils down to empathy with people you don’t know; the question is whether this empathy stops at national borders.

  2. Alon, tone deaf where? I am talking about America here mostly, not the Maldives. Obviously, you have to craft your appeal differently for different marketplaces. But in the US, for the most part the people talking about climate change are not making the sale in the broader public.

  3. the urban politician says:

    Aaron, please forgive Alon. No offense to him, but he’s clearly the one who is tone deaf, being what I imagine to be an intellectual living in an international city called New York.

    I agree wholeheartedly that most of the rest of middle America thinks very little about climate change and how it can affect their lives.

    This was a GREAT piece, and it kind of echoes some thoughts that had come to my mind recently. Urbanists (and liberals in general, to be honest) are outright horrible at selling their policies to the mainstream public. I don’t want to turn this into a partisan debate, but this explains, in my mind, why liberals often get clobbered by conservatives in US politics. They get labeled as the “elitists” who are out of touch, while conservatives are seen as the “real Americans” who care about the common people and their values, which obviously is not true.

    Getting back to urbanism, there generally has been more of a push towards marketing it to the Starbucks, yuppie crowd, but there is also a legitimate reason for that. It has been this “Starbucks crowd” that has largely lead the “back to the city movement”, so clearly this is the group to which most urban initiatives are marketed.

    Anyhow, this was a very good read, and my opinion is this: we should view the rebirth of cities as something that STARTED with the Starbucks class, but now efforts should be made to extend that to the rest of Americans. This is opposed to what may be the common thinking out there, that urbanism is and always shall be the domain of the Starbucks class, while everyone else continues to live in autotopia.

    One last request: Aaron, can you bring your ideas directly to Chicago’s leadership (as opposed to just posting on your blog)? Seriously, I really think they could learn a few things from you. Failed marketing the benefits of better transit to the city’s residents is one of Chicago’s weaknesses.

  4. Long time reader first time commenter here!

    This is a really well-though out piece, and your “eat your greens ‘cos they’re good for you” analogy is spot on… I’m involved in trying to build bike lanes where I live at present and you’re absolutely right in that the only way to sell this is by selling the positives. Tell people you’re going to take away their car parking spaces and you’ll have a riot on your hands; show them you are improving their local community, giving them a quicker way to get around town, increasing their property values etc etc and they’ll thank you for your hard effort.

    Keep up the great work – looking forward to installment 3; don’t leave it so long next time!

  5. Thank you.

    TUP, there are a lot of people in Chicago who read the blog. I’m sure Mayor Daley has never heard of me, but there are people who read who can inject ideas where they can.

    I do think there have been some very effective liberal communicators though. Bill Clinton comes to mind. You don’t get to be the four term governor of Arkansas without being able to have a beer with Bubba. In fact, Bill Clinton was Bubba. He did all sorts of things to make sure he retained a connection with the man on the street. Remember all those times he sneaked out of the White House to grab McDonalds? (He conveniently made sure that got reported). Very effective. He drove Republicans nuts.

  6. George Mattei says:


    Good analysis. In the short term I totally agree with you-urbanists don’t sell their product well. They have this vision of an “alternate universe” I will call it, which reflects their idealized America and not the realities we have now, especially if you don’t live in New York or Chicago.

    The point you made is similar to what I recently saw David Brooks say about the health care reform battle: to paraphrase he said that Democrats don’t get it-even if you win the argument it’s WHAT argument you are having that matters, because that sets the tone of expectations for the general population. The health care fight became a referendum about how much government should be involved in people’s lives-and so the Republicans scored major points even though they lost the battle. We saw what those points bought in the most recent elections.

    In this case, I think you are saying that urbanists are not starting out with the right argument. They are leading right into the status-quo group’s main argument-that these urbanists want to come in and force you to change your life. If urbanists instead argued that they are providing a better quality of life, that would resonate much better.

    However, in the long run I do think that the sustainability argument has legs. In 20 years when oil is much higher priced than it is now and the effects of global warming are becoming increasingly less deniable to all but the most ardent foes, people will begin to listen. So I would not totally give up the sustainability message.

    Today a politician cannot get elected without a distinct platform on economics. Whatever their views are, they can’t just say “Oh the economy, whatever”. But many politicians more or less do this about the environment. I believe that in the next 25-30 years this will change-no matter what your views no politician can get elected without a well-crafted policy on the environment and sustainability. In this light, urbanists should recraft their message, but be careful not to abandon the sustainability message altogether.

  7. Sean says:

    This article almost comes across as targeting sustainability professionals. These positions are primarily responsible for developing climate action plans for local governments, universities and businesses with the goal of becoming carbon neutral by a certain date. Why is this a bad thing?

  8. Matthew Hall says:

    This is certainly the issue in Cincinnati politics. There is a committed minority who identify with Cincinnati so completely they will fight to the death to stop anything that fundamentally changes it. Any suggestion that they might gain from economic development efforts through increased property values, increased local tax income or more demand job opportunities is reflexively dismissed as some vast conspiracy to divest them of their birthright. They simply cannot conceive of how they could live in a significantly changed city. They equate real change in Cincinnati with some kind of spiritual death. The more cosmopolitan arguments made by some in Cincinnati merely form a focal point for them to attack and organize against. The local demonization of a streetcar plan, for example, verges on the psychotic. These Middle East like attitudes are the only real barrier to Cincinnati’s long-term success, in my view. I say all this as a relatively recent arrival to Cincinnati. The life-long locals are hardly even aware that other American cities has little or none of this siege like mentality. The city’s only hope is to attract more outsiders and to engage them in building a better and more diverse city. Sometimes, communication of the kind that the Urbanophile describes is simply not possible.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I read the article. I disagree about New York, there is nothing sustainable and green about it. It is a disgusting and ugly hell hole for those of us who are poor. But then again, the rich authors of this article probably have only been to Manhattan.

  10. the urban politician says:

    Anon 11:08

    I lived in New York (Manhattan and Queens) and saw a great deal of the city, and I would have to disagree. I’ll let you have your “disgusting and ugly” (that’s subjective, after all), but I would still consider the outer boroughs more sustainable and green than 99% of America. Mass transit usership, population density, pedestrian friendliness, etc in New York, all hallmarks of “green sustainability” all rate very high marks in NYC’s outer boroughs.

  11. Anton says:

    Since much of the current argument for urbanism is based on environmental sustainability, let me throw out this thought experiment — what would liberal-leaning urbanists (perhaps I am being redundant) say if in the coming decades the auto-dependent suburban lifestyle became environmentally sustainable? Say, all-electric solar-powered cars or some such technological advancement.

  12. Anton, I think you already know the answer to that question.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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