Longtime readers know that I am transfixed by the subject of urban planning: the field dedicated to the development and design of our cities and towns. I have a full bookshelf devoted to the subject, even a few textbooks about things like parking and zoning. I’ll admit, I find sidewalk design inherently fascinating, but it’s not just about the sidewalks: the way I see it, urban planning is ultimately how the spaces and structures surrounding us shape our lives, whether we’re aware of it or not.
For Christmas, Will gave me a new book for this shelf, one intended for a general audience. It’s called Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, and I read it in two days over winter break.
The author, a Minnesotan who’s been an urban planner for several decades, argues that our cities are on the verge of a long, slow decline, and that any solution needs to begin with a bottom-up approach. Marohn pushes for change beginning at the most local, sometimes even individual, level—not by implementing billion-dollar regional plans, but instead carrying out whatever the “next smallest thing” is that can improve our community.
The next smallest thing. I’ve been meaning to tell you about this ever since I read the book, nearly three months ago. And now, returning to this book, and this chapter, in the wake of a global pandemic, I have to admit: the words strike me differently. Marohn argues the majority of our cities are trapped in a vicious cycle of financial shortfalls, left vulnerable to collapse should even the slightest downturn occur.
Whelp. Here we are.
Marohn writes that when a local government identifies a significant problem, they often seek a comprehensive solution, one that devotes large sums of money to fixing it, once and for all. But that’s not the best way forward, and here’s why: that money is often not available, which means nothing can be done right now. And grand solutions may solve one aspect of the problem, only to reveal—or even create—other problems. “That’s the way complex human habitat operates,” he says.
So what are we to do instead? The next smallest thing to solve the problems confronting us. “There are a lot of improvements that can be made with paint, straw bales, and a shovel. Working at this scale—using a hacker mind-set—allows quick action. There is no need for years of study or deliberation…. We can try things and see what happens.”
These “little bets” aren’t intended to solve the problem; they’re intended to make things a little better. Not only do these small actions create real financial value out of very little investment, but they also change the relationship between citizens and their communities. When people and organizations are empowered to make these “little bets,” they’re no longer people who pay taxes in order to passively receive a service; instead, they become active collaborators in their communities.
(Yes, this is eerily similar to Chapter 2 of Don’t Overthink It.)
Friends, the next smallest thing isn’t just for coronavirus, or for sidewalk design. I would bet everyone of us could point to a problem in our lives before all this began. We are small, the world is large. It seems larger every day, actually. We’re just one person, so what on earth can we do to make things a little better?
The next smallest thing.
Everyone’s lives, and roles, look a little different. I’m just spitballing here, this is not a comprehensive list, but maybe you could do something small to make things better, for yourself or others: Drink a big glass of water. Take a walk. Or go for a run. Tell your local representative they’re doing a good job. (I hope, for all our sakes, they are.) Put the food pantry on your calendar (and read up on social distancing, whether you’re serving or shopping). Check in on your elderly neighbor. Or your friend who lives alone. Tell those in the medical professions you’re grateful for them. Place an online order from a local business. Check in on the people who run and work in these businesses. Plan your week’s meals based on what’s in your pantry. Step away from the computer. Call your mom.
Figuring out how you can help is a project. So is figuring out how to get the help you need. Don’t let that big project overwhelm you. Do the next smallest thing.
Friends, I’ve been thinking of you all, these past few weeks. May you be safe, healthy, and peaceful—if not now, then soon.
Please tell us your next smallest thing in comments. And then, when you push away from the computer or put down your device, would you go do that thing?
P.S. 6 fascinating books about an unlikely favorite subject (urban planning, of course).
P.P.S. My friend Emily Freeman wrote a lovely book called The Next Right Thing, about finding and doing the next right thing in love for your personal and spiritual life.