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Incremental Change on a Radical Scale

Article Photoby Worldchanging Portland local blogger, Ethan Timm:

While planetary accords and national legislation are vital for addressing carbon emissions and climate change at a scale as massive as the problems we face, the emergence of widespread local, incremental change and the regional reimagining of cities and watersheds are beginning to create real shifts leading us towards a more sustainable world. Margaret Wheatley writes:

Large-scale changes that have great impact do not originate in plans or strategies from on high. Instead, they begin as small, local actions. While they remain separate and apart, they have no influence beyond their locale. However, if they become connected, exchanging information and learning, their separate efforts can suddenly emerge as very powerful changes, able to influence a large system.

In The Agenda Restated, James Howard Kunstler summarizes his Worldchanging wish list, concluding that "Life in the USA will have to become much more local, and virtually all the activities of everyday life will have to be rescaled."

Alex Steffen, in Use Community, makes a similar point, writing that "we need to reinvent our lives now, immediately, on a radical scale." By addressing the transformation of methods and theories of consumption - from ownership to use - he gives a convincing picture of how certain aspects of Kunstler's rescaled society could function.

Change is upon us. Conflating Kunstler and Steffen, I suggest that it is up to us to implement incremental change on a radical scale, allowing for the reuse and re-imagining of existing infrastructures - like recycling at an urban scale.

Portland's growing network of bike boulevards present a method of incremental change which is having a larger, radical, systemic effect. Portland is, in effect, recycling its roads.The concept is quite simple:

Bicycle boulevards are low-traffic neighborhood streets that have been optimized for bicycling. They provide direct, attractive routes for bikes. On bicycle boulevards, stop signs are turned to keep cyclists moving, and traffic lights and curb extensions help cyclists cross busy streets. Traffic calming slows cars down, and drivers are discouraged from using them for cut-throughs.

Bicycle boulevards represent a radical departure from most infrastructural development by emphasizing a low-intensity technology, reduced speeds, and the reconfiguration of a network to give preference to non-motorized, healthy, local use. For a detailed description of bicycle boulevard design techniques, see Berkeley's Bicycle Boulevard Design Tools and Guidelines.

In Portland, the method of implementation of bike boulevards is integrated with an overall transportation plan, allowing for public input on a process of allocating portions of an overall transportation budget towards the development of integrated bicycle boulevards. This process is overlayed on a transportation plan which gives consideration to regional bike network connectivity - making sure that if you want to, you can ride your bike from A to B safely and legally.

A separate but integrated program funded via a federal grant is implementing informational signage throughout the Portland bike network, including bike boulevards. These signs include directions, mileage, and estimated riding times. According to PDOT, "people perceive that it will take much longer than it really does to ride a bicycle a set distance. We think the riding times will help provide accurate information about how quickly a bicycle can move throughout the city."

The radical reinvention of Portland's transportation network - an incrementally scalar Worldchanging plan - has started to inspire innovative and systematic reimagining of urban mobility. The popularity of carsharing has inspired locals to start dreaming of bikesharing. Much has been said about the benefits of carsharing and its relationship to a Use Community - bikesharing expands this concept by adding the benefits of biking. Fundamentally, bikesharing only makes sense within the framework of bike boulevards which, in turn, rest within a larger bike-oriented transportation plan. At the local level, radical scalar change can occur through incremental design and policy decisions which affect personal choice and accessibility.

The world is changing. The Black Sheep Bakery retail outlet has a bike-through window. Pedicabs are making a comeback. Soon you might check out a bike with your library card, ride down a bicycle boulevard to pick up some locally baked bread at a bike-through window, passing a few pedicabs along the way. Then we'll all breathe easy.

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Yet, according to Wikipedia, Portland's elevation is 50 feet above sea level. All these local, incremental changes will be under water NO MATTER WHAT WE DO according to Lovelock and others. Which begs the question: Are we really making these changes to promote a livable future for future generations or simply to make ourselves feel better while we peddle around with our iPhones and iPods (I'm not trying to be a prick, but you have to admit that YOU buy into this brand-love-mentality and this is quite contrary to your stated goals and intentions) to the bakery that 96% of the global population and 40% of the U.S. could never afford to frequent on a daily basis.

Kunstler does not promote incremental change. He is screaming for large-scale and immediate reduction and reversal. Incremental change is what Pelosi will be shortly offering up. Incremental change is what satisfies the 'liberals' and keeps them deaf to that whistling sound that is the rushing wind as it buffets us while we plummet from the cliff. Incremental change is what kept Al Gore sitting on his hands during his 8 years in office. Kunstler is in on the Gore joke. Kunstler is wise enough to understand that the web won't save us, that the U.S. ecosphere still doesn't understand that only a revolution, armed if necessary, will compel immediate and drastic action. Kunstler is the perfect person to invoke, but doing so only conflicts with the content of your message. Bike trails are not the salvation - merely a salve.

Posted by: Tod Brilliant on 26 Feb 07

Tod, you make an understandable mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. The point of Worldchanging (as I understand it) is not that we will find salvation in an idea ('let's all bike our way out of climate change!'). It is that we will find a sustainable future in a vast assembly of ideas, which - all implemented together - create a radically different world. And the point of the article (again, according to me) is that incremental changes, compounded, can lead to radical change in a non-linear way. The more the paradigm shifts, the faster it shifts, and today's radical is tomorrow's standard-bearer. And the paradigm *is* shifting; will it happen fast enough? Too soon to know.

It's certainly true that Kunstler screams for large-scale change; he argues that Americans will be caught unawares and unprepared when climate catastrophe descends. Worldchanging is about trying to prepare, to make aware... so that we can adapt with a minimum of chaos.
It is about preparing the ground - and at this point, building the structures - for the revolution you advocate. Except of course that if it is armed, we have already lost.

Posted by: justus on 26 Feb 07



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