Do I have a New Year's wish for Salem, Oregon? Oh, yeah, I sure do.
This long-time resident -- I've lived in and near Salem for 38 years -- hopes everybody in this town, but especially our Mayor, City Councilors, and other city officials, will become way more creative, inventive, and non-linear in their thinking about how to make our area better.
For a great example of how things have gone wrong with prior assumptions that the future will, and should, be like the past, check out a recent Salem Breakfast on Bikes post: "Our Habits in Modeling and Overbuilding."
Let's take a tour through a couple of local historical examples of planning that seemed "wise and prudent" at the time, but which history has shown in fact to be far from wise and prudent. Consistently, it seems we overbuild things based on aggressive modeling.
Modeling Parking Demand
Back in the 1970s, it seemed wise and prudent to build big, public parking garages downtown. Unfortunately we have found that we don't need them all or we don't need them as big.
There's a huge surplus of parking in City garages. At peak the Liberty Parkade is about 60% full, and the rest operate under 50% full at peak. And the Urban Renewal Agency struggles with a substantial budget deficit in the parking district.
The garages themselves are also holes of under-productive land and building in the urban fabric of downtown.
Our parking garages are a clear example of overbuilt infrastructure.
Modeling Future Driving
Throughout the 1990s, 2000s, and even 2010s, it has seemed wise and prudent to plan and build big, wide public roads.
The traffic modeling that "proved" the need for them has totally broken down, however. Previous and stubborn assumptions about constant growth and about the rate of growth are almost certainly wrong. Even the highway-happy Feds are down-sizing projection models. And in fact a Wisconsin Judge recently ruled that projections for a highway expansion were unfounded.
But our current planning here hasn't caught up this structural change, and we are currently planning for a half-billion dollar bridge, whose annual debt service is estimated to be $45 million a year for 20 years, but which we will likely not need.
Read the entire post. It goes on to talk about planning for a new $80 million or so Salem police facility.
A few years ago a 75,000 sq. ft. building was proposed, which is about 50% larger than the size of the current police facilities. Now a City Council subcommittee has voted for a 150,000 sq. ft. police facility based on unrealistic more-of-the-same assumptions about population growth, the need for more police officers, and policing approaches over the next 30 years.
Philosophically and scientifically, planning in this town is way off track. Why? Because almost always, the future won't be like the past. This is especially true in our modern fast-changing human world.
Yet our current Mayor, Anna Peterson, and her compliant City Council majority are prone to linear thinking. So have most previous administrations at City Hall. Indeed, so are most of us individuals, because we find it difficult to break out of the Box of the Present Moment and Past Experiences.
I'm re-reading a marvelous book, "Stumbling On Happiness."
The hard cover book jacket says, "In this brilliant, witty, and accessible book, renowned Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes the foibles of imagination and illusions of foresight that cause each of us to misconceive our tomorrows and misestimate our satisfactions."
Here's a passage from the chapter I read this morning:
Because time is such a slippery concept, we tend to imagine the future as the present with a twist, thus our imagined tomorrows inevitably look like slightly twisted versions of today. The reality of the moment is so palpable and powerful that it holds imagination in a tight orbit from which it never fully escapes.
Presentism occurs because we fail to recognize that our future selves won't see the world the way we see it now. As we are about to learn, this fundamental inability to take the perspective of the person to whom the rest of our lives will happen is the most insidious problem a futurian can face.
When Gilbert says "our future selves," he's speaking about the always-altering Me who we will see in the mirror months, years, or decades from now. But we can also apply this term to mean the changing selves who will inhabit Salem in the future.
Some of these selves will be ourselves, the current residents of Salem who have simply become older. Others will be newcomers -- children born here, people who move here.
All of these "future selves" are going to be different from the "current selves" who inhabit Salem now. They will have different desires, needs, values, priorities, feelings, thoughts, ways of living and being.
Yet as Gilbert stresses in his book (which is based on solid scientific research):
We predictably underestimate how differently we will feel in the future...We make mistakes when we compare with the past instead of the possible.
Great advice. Compare with the possible, not the past.
This helps us escape from the more-of-the-same trap -- believing that either (1) the future should be like the past, and/or (2) the future will be like the past. Unfortunately, policy makers here in Salem continue to be captured by both beliefs.
The Breakfast on Bikes blogger correctly points out that public downtown parking garages were overbuilt, and currently are underused. Also, that both nationally and locally, traffic projections have been way too high, given changes in driving habits.
Yet observing City Council meetings, I see Mayor Peterson and most councilors keeping on with the same old linear thinking. What was, will be. What was, should be.
They fail to understand that each new generation of "selves" looks upon the world differently. Also, that same-person selves change too as we grow older. My wife and I, who are both in our sixties, share values with younger people in their twenties and thirties (albeit for somewhat different reasons).
We like diverse compact mixed-use areas that are highly walkable and bikeable. We want the option of going carless, which requires quality mass transit for longer trips. We're concerned about preserving the natural environment.
Along this line, today Salem Breakfast on Bikes put up another thought-provoking post, "Are the Mill Creek and Salem Renewable Energy Office Parks Already Obsolete?"
Different focus, same theme. The future isn't like the past. Get outside the box of linear thinking.
Which brought up a thought... an anecdote about my time in Portland State University's Systems Science program back in the 1970's. (I became a Ph.D. dropout, but finished the course requirements; so you can call me "Not quite Dr. Hines"; or, better, "Brian").
I was sitting in the front row of a small seminar-like class taught by Magoroh Maruyama, a professor in the program who had a bit of a Zen master in him. Another student asked whether taking another class he taught had a prerequisite.
Maruyama jumped up, dashed to the blackboard, grabbed a piece of chalk, and emphatically said (almost yelling), "No prerequisites! That is not systems science! We start here, and then we go anywhere!!" as he started with a point and drew an expanding circular maze of scribbles with no discernible pattern.
I've forgotten a lot about what I learned about Systems Science. But I sure remember that moment when Professor Maruyama demonstrated how reality tends strongly toward creative non-linearity rather than predictable straight lines.
Mayor Peterson and the Salem City Council need to learn the same lesson.