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Freedom’s just another word? Not for a Jeep-driving urbanist

Sam Newberg / Dec 21 2012

For Release Friday, December 21, 2012
Citiwire.net

Sam Newberg I celebrated Election Day last month by taking a drive in my gas-guzzling Jeep Liberty. It had been freshly topped off with a full tank of gas, so, like any other self-respecting American, I took a drive.

Why would I, a self-described urbanist, brag about — much less admit — this? I’ll get to that shortly. First, consider something that grabbed my attention during President Obama’s acceptance speech:

“The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.”

Over several years of community involvement in my neighborhood, I’ve come to understand what President Obama meant. You may or may not agree with his politics, but his point is that voting is just a start. You must be willing in some way to further engage in our imperfect democracy. Take a stand for what you believe, get involved in a civic group and be willing to compromise when others disagree. (And they will.) Whatever you do, don’t “bowl alone.” To make a difference, you must show up.

For an urbanist, this is particularly significant. Decisions about urbanism occur daily at local, state and federal levels and require thoughtful consideration, informed research and rational discussion. Some people will always oppose denser development — which most urbanists generally approve of — or they’ll become incensed when a bike lane replaces a motor vehicle lane on a city street. But in many ways that reaction isn’t a rejection of urbanism so much as a lack of understanding of how many moving parts there are in city-building. Urbanism is complex stuff. For example, transportation and housing policy are intricately linked, and local, state and federal policies affect those intertwined issues for all Americans in ways — often involving the pocketbook — that can produce visceral reactions.

To be sure, the utter lack of discussion of an urban agenda in the 2012 national election was disturbing. I happen to think a strong urban agenda, when properly understood, can find bipartisan support. Increasing housing and transportation choices is good for the economy. More compact development and transit options attract economic development but also are more financially sound decisions. Urbanism has something for all points of view. I profoundly believe liberals and conservatives can come to consensus on a number of urban policy issues. ([For more on this, visit the Human Transit website.)
But back to the Jeep. Yes, I own an SUV (also a Mazda 5, what I call a “mini-minivan”). I have a single-family home with a double garage. I own my own company. I also live in a generally walkable neighborhood with transit service.

Jeep I love my Jeep Liberty. It gets perfectly rotten gas mileage, but I love driving it. I’m comfortable in my own skin, but there is something about how it sounds and drives like a truck that satisfies my masculine side. I can plow through snow and pull a boat with it. I can clear brush and haul it away. I can cut down a Christmas tree in a blizzard and haul it home.

That said, one of my best achievements this year was not having to fill up the Jeep with gas for the entire month of October. This is a direct result of good urban policy and the personal freedom to choose it. Because of a wise choice in where I live, I (often accompanied by my kids) can walk or ride my bike for a number of errands and take advantage of light rail and bus service. That choice of where to live was mine, but the investment in good urban planning and transportation was made by local, state and federal policy-makers (elected by and with input from everyday citizens), and it resulted in clear cost-savings for my household.

I’m also part of a small but growing nucleus of young-ish urbanists in Minneapolis tired of decision-makers deferring to the status quo or to a few motivated NIMBYs at the expense of good urbanism. It is easy for officials to talk of good urbanism or refer to the way we used to build cities, but we chose to live in an urban place and we are beginning to demand more action that results in attractive development that pushes our city forward.

Our first goal is to create a caucus and influence the 2013 mayoral and city council elections in Minneapolis. Time will tell how effective we can be, and in the words of Obama, it will be hard and frustrating work, but the possibilities are exciting.

What do my Jeep, Obama and democracy have to do with each other? The “frustrating but necessary work of self-government” allows us to do many things, including generally giving us the freedom to own the vehicles we please. But it also allows us to advocate for the ability to use them less.

Good urban policy involves choices, including for housing and transportation, as they are intricately linked. It is critical, more than ever, to get involved in urbanism — or whatever your cause — because it improves our civil society.

I’m proud to drive my Jeep, but I’m equally proud and thankful I can exercise my right to vote on good urban policies and can influence them locally and nationally. I love this country!


Sam Newberg is a Twin Cities-based writer and real estate consultant. His e-mail address is sam@joe-urban.com.

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One Comment

  1. Posted January 1, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Good essay, Sam. Like you, we have cars (a Subaru WRX wagon and an Impreza hatchback) and like you, we often go for weeks at a time without visiting a gas station.

    No carpenter goes to work with only one tool in the box. The Subies are great for trips to Santa Fe, up into the mountains on twisty mountain roads, or for the “road trip” we just took to Colorado as a Christmas gift to ourselves. Meanwhile, our bike lane system and municipal bus line, both of which I had a hand in designing, ensure that nobody in relatively compact Los Alamos is ever stuck in their car except by personal choice. A municipal high speed fiber optics system is in discussion; this is the 21st Century version of our Interstate Highway System.

    Meliora.