Transitioning to the Traditional City 2: Pooh-poohing the Naysayers

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Published : June 07th, 2010
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Category : Editorials





Once you start talking about the Traditional City, you get a lot of people who say "but I don't want to live in your Traditional City!"

Of course they don't. This is normal. There's a simple reason -- most people want to do what everyone else is doing. This is especially true when it comes to people's houses, where people don't get that many chances to mess up (or they think they don't). "Tried and true" works for them.

Although Traditional Cities are quite common worldwide, unfortunately, the imaginary/intellectual space has not kept up. We have lost much of our ability to think about Traditional Cities, which has been accompanied by the disappearance of the ability to create them. People can work with them when they are left over by past generations, but creating a new one where it did not previously exist is rare. The best efforts of even the best "New Urbanists" -- even those of Europe and Asia, who really should know better -- are pretty lame compared with the historical examples. That is why I say it is so important to be able to imagine the Traditional City, and also to understand the basics of how to make one (Really Narrow Streets).

The fact of the matter is -- despite humans' five-thousand year history of building Traditional Cities -- we are visionaries.

The percentage of visionaries in the human population is rather small. You could say the percentages work out something like this:

0.5% Visionaries
4.5% Innovators
15% Early Adopters
50% Mainstream Followers
30% Fuddy Duddies

Visionaries: They enjoy the process of exploring new lands, solving problems, taking giant leaps of creativity, and often imagine that they are working toward the general good. Visionaries are typically bad businesspeople. If they were motivated primarily by profit, they would follow the easiest, tried-and-true method of creating a profit. Maybe open a McDonald's franchise. Or build condos and stripmalls in Phoenix. The reason I keep talking about imagining the Traditional City is because that's what Visionaries do. That's my audience. It is also the necessary first step.

Innovators: The Innovators take the material of the Visionaries and evolve it, improve it, and commercialize it. The innovators are often excellent businesspeople. They are constantly searching for a new Vision that they can commercialize. (It's very hard to start a business in a long-established industry. Are you going to compete with Sherwin-Williams in the paint business? With Thyssen-Krupp in the steel business?) The innovators took the idea of a "home computer" and added features, improved the memory, created more software, and drove down the price. Often, the Innovators take something far beyond what the Visionaries even thought possible -- typically in incremental steps, not the clean-sheet-of-paper leaps of the Visionaries. Did the inventors of the hard drive imagine that you could eventually buy a 1TB model for $98?

Early Adopters: The Visionaries and Innovators are creative types. They are creators or sellers of new products. If the thing under consideration is not a commercial product, but perhaps an idea like "sustainability" for example, the Innovators are busy innovating -- changing, tweaking, adding, improving. The Early Adopters are generally not creative. They participate in the new "movement" generated by the Visionaries and Innovators. In the case of electronic goods, they are shoppers and users, not designers, engineers and marketers. In the case of "sustainability," the Early Adopters might follow the thinking of the Innovators closely, and Adopt it whenever there is a new consensus, but they will not contribute to the evolutionary process itself. Early Adopters are excited about participating in the new evolutionary activity. Innovators would be bored with a role of being a passive end user. They want to tweak and create.

Mainstream Followers: Mainstream Followers have one overriding principle -- do what everyone else is doing, and don't do anything original. They assume that if everyone else is doing it, then there must be a good reason, or at least, they don't want to find out the consequences of not doing what everyone else is doing. What that reason might be, or the consequences, they typically have no idea. The whole point is: if you follow the Mainstream, you don't have to think about such things. Mainstream Followers' biggest fear is being laughed at. They adopt the new thing when the Early Adopters start laughing at them.

Fuddy Duddies: Fuddy Duddies don't really care what the Mainstream is doing. Usually, they just want to do what they've always done. Their old CRT television and rotary phone still work just fine. Sometimes, this is genuine wisdom. They've seen enough cycles of "the next new thing" to know that not everything is as good as everyone thinks it is. Besides, if you wait a while, you can get the next next new thing. Probably cheaper too. If you already know that you like fly fishing, then why play World of Warcraft? It would just cut into your fly fishing time. Eventually, they will adopt a few selected things if it has had the bugs worked out and genuinely improves their lifestyle. They are practical and look to end results. They don't do things because it's the "next new thing!" or because "everyone else is doing it." Obviously, they don't mind getting laughed at.

If you're wondering why your friends don't understand your enthusiasm for Traditional Cities, it is because they are not Visionaries. We are still at the Visionary stage, especially in the U.S. The Innovators are thinking "this is all airy-fairy nonsense." The Innovators want Proof of Concept. Eventually, some Visionaries will go and create some new Traditional Cities, or at least a few neighborhoods within existing cities. I hope they don't screw it up. Why do you think I insist on Really Narrow Streets so often? After a few failures -- which I suspect will be caused by not making the streets narrow enough, and introducing excessive amounts of non-space like Green Space and parking lots -- they might have some success.

At this point, the Innovators will get interested. The Innovators will start to bring in some serious money, and increase the scale. We would start to see some competition among different City Design concepts. Who can make the best city? In other words, the Innovators will start to innovate.

Eventually, we want to create a class of Early Adopters. Maybe 5-10% of the U.S. population living in Traditional City type neighborhoods. The Early Adopters will start to laugh at the lamebrains still languishing in Suburban Hell. That's when things will really start to move. Eventually, municipal governments -- bureaucrats are always the ultimate Mainstream Followers -- will make it impossible to build anything but a Traditional City.

You can see these different thought processes when you talk to people. Most people are not creators, they are shoppers. They adopt others' creations -- the work of the Visionaries and Innovators. Often, when I say: "look, Venice is so wonderful, we could live like this," people assume that I mean that they should actually live in Venice. They say things like: "It's full of tourists all the time, and I don't speak Italian." I don't mean that at all -- I mean that you could live like this in South Carolina, and not just identically like Venice, but your own special 21st Century South Carolina version of the Traditional City. But most people (95% in our breakdown) can only deal with existing things. They can order from a menu, but they can't cook. Since Venice exists, and Houston exists, they assume that the only options are Venice and Houston. Literally Venice and Houston.

The same process applies to historical examples. When I show some lovely piece of architecture and city design from the 18th century, is that people assume that you mean that they should live exactly like France in 1745. I say: "Look at this nice building and the Really Narrow Street. We could also make our buildings nice and our streets narrow. It's so easy." But the response is: "But they had tuberculosis and very high taxes, and bad plumbing." Was I talking about tuberculosis? Okay, if you insist, let's have a Really Narrow Street with no tuberculosis. Happy now? It's a repetition of the same pattern. Most people can only deal with things that already exist. They aren't creators, taking a bit from here and a bit from there, and a bit of their own inspiration to create something new and better.

After a little while, you only want to talk to other Visionaries.

Most people who think they are Visionaries are really Innovators. For example, you talk to the technology people who get all excited because they think they can put a video screen on a soda can. You mean, we can make video screens smaller and cheaper, just like Innovators have been doing for the last sixty years? Wow, that's so creative! Like watching TV from a soda can is really going to improve civilization in some meaningful way. Like we don't get enough TV already. Or the biotech people, who will talk your ear off about the new wave of miracle drugs. Look: we did miracle drugs in the 1960s. Those drugs -- the first antibiotics -- were truly miraculous. The last two decades of drugs have mostly created miraculous profits with very little real benefit. Even negative benefit. A real Visionary would say: we are already drugged to death. That is just more of the same-old same-old (i.e. typical Innovator thinking). What we really need is a change in lifestyle, diet etc. so we don't develop the maladies (diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc. etc.) that we are now taking drugs for, with little effect. What we really need is not more drugs but less drugs. Some people think the solution to cars is ... electric cars! If they are a little more sophisticated, they will understand the problem with electric cars, and say: no no no, the solution is bicycles! They are really thinking (without realizing it) about Suburban Hell + bicycles, or perhaps the 19th Century Hypertrophic City + bicycles. In other words, cities that are poorly designed, so you need some sort of personal transportation device. This is really Innovator thinking. Cars are a problem, so we need to improve the system with electric cars/bikes/etc. The Visionary says: the system is the problem, so we need a new system. Once you fix the system, you don't need cars or bikes.
Not as many, anyway.


Nathan Lewis


Nathan Lewis was formerly the chief international economist of a leading economic forecasting firm. He now works in asset management. Lewis has written for the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal Asia, the Japan Times, Pravda, and other publications. He has appeared on financial television in the United States, Japan, and the Middle East. About the Book: Gold: The Once and Future Money (Wiley, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-470-04766-8, $27.95) is available at bookstores nationwide, from all major online booksellers, and direct from the publisher at or 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797.




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Nathan Lewis was formerly the chief international economist of a firm that provided investment research for institutions. He now works for an asset management company based in New York. Lewis has written for the Financial Times, Asian Wall Street Journal, Japan Times, Pravda, and other publications. He has appeared on financial television in the United States, Japan, and the Middle East.
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