T E D  X  D E T R O I T

Claire Nelson, Urban Consulate

"The New Space Race"

Detroit Opera House, September 2014




So I don’t know about you, but sometimes I read the news and I get a little bit overwhelmed. So many big social problems here in America begging to be solved, and progress never feels fast enough.

Here we live on this beautiful planet, in what we call the "Land of Opportunity." But when I scan the headlines, I think "Damn, we can really muck things up sometimes, can’t we?"

I'm thinking about income inequality and racial injustice. Segregation and sprawl. Climate change and environmental degradation. Political polarization and apathy.

I read about education reform, and justice reform, and prison reform, and campaign finance reform. That’s a lot of reform.

And these are just the issues I bump up against while working to promote cities – which I do because I believe cities hold the answers to many of these questions. So much goes back to how we use space. But I’ll come back to that.

There are two quotes I keep close at hand, side by side. One from an article in The Spectator that says: "Never in the history of the world has there been less hunger, less disease and more prosperity." And then a second, from the popular TED talk by Brene Brown: "We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history."

This is shocking, isn't it? How can this be, that these two things are true at the same time? So much prosperity, so much unhappiness. We're doing something wrong...

I’m a big believer in lots of little solutions. Short of revolution (*which I'm just not sure Americans are ready for yet...are we?), it’s about each of us doing what we can in small ways to make a more perfect union and a more peaceful planet. 

We see this everyday in Detroit. People starting somewhere, doing what they can with what they have. It’s incredibly inspiring. The collective power of these individual actions can be huge.

But I also see an increasingly crowded marketplace of causes all competing for our attention. Campaigns, email alerts, calls to action – Sign this petition here! Make a donation there! – all hoping to turn into larger priorities.

But there is a little psychological principle called "finite pool of worry." We can only be concerned about so much at one time. In order for a cause or an issue to make it into our “Top Ten" lists, it has to address an immediate need, an imminent threat, or a personal self-interest.

And a lot of issues just don't feel urgent enough to inspire us to make dramatic changes.

I’ve experienced this with Detroit – and urban issues in general. And I’m sure you’ve all experienced the same in your work, too. We might shake our fists, or share the alarming data, or tell the heartbreaking stories, hoping that will inspire others to care, too.

Or we might make challenges fun! Like dousing ourselves with ice to raise a hundred million bucks for medical research. Hey, if it works?

But we need like a million ice bucket challenges. And I’m impatient...

So I’m interested in how we might be a little bit more efficient and effectiveabout all this with the choices we make everyday. Not like an extra thing we have to worry about after we do our jobs and take care of our families. But something we can each do as part of our regular lives.

And here’s where I come back to space. Not outer space, but the space right here on Planet Earth. And particularly America, where we have lots of it – and where we also use lots of it. Because, let’s just be honest, we are greedy little monsters who always want more, more, more. Bigger homes, bigger cars, bigger yards, bigger everything.

We really do measure our worth in how much space we own and occupy – and not just the size, but the distancewe can afford to put between ourselves and problems, like poverty.

This is devastating. To our city, our region, our country and planet. Anything that puts more distance between people – that concentrates poverty, or segregates wealth, or chews up more natural land, or spreads our needs out across more space and distance, is a step in the wrong direction.

It’s expensive. And it exacerbates all of the civic and social problems we already struggle to solve when we spread ourselves too thin.

But space is also an opportunity, because it’s something we can actually control. Square feet and square miles. Distance and dimensions. Zip codes and zoning.

How we choose to use these precious patches of earth we’ve been given determines so much. It affects which schools are well-funded and which aren’t. It affects which children will “make it” and which won’t. It affects things like heart disease and obesity when we live too far to walk. Or economic opportunity and political apathy when we live too far to talk.

Our destinies are written in the landscapes we shape.

If aliens landed from Mars, they could tell a lot about who we are as a people and a civilization just from looking around. What do we care about most? What do we care about least? Who do we care about most? Who do we care about least?

It all shows on our face, in our physical environment – our hopes and fears, our generosity and greed.

And make no mistake – we do choose these things. I think sometimes we don’t realize how much. Like we kinda figure it’s all already been designed and planned for us, and we just pick from the options we’re given as best we can. Like, “Okay, this is the most house I can afford. And this is the best neighborhood I can afford. And this is the closest store or school I can afford.” And on and on...

But we drive the market. We are the consumers, we choose. If we want to spend less time alone in our cars and more time participating in civic life – or if we want to spend a little less energy making the perfect manicured lawn, and a little more energy creating a world-class public park – we can choose that.

We make these choices everyday. A million little choices that add up to a collective statement about who we are as a people, our values and priorities.

And here’s the real paradox of space: We think privacy and security and space and comfort make us happy, so we spend a lot of our time and money chasing that. But the truth is that we actually crave more belonging and connection. And there is all kinds of science and research to back this up.

We may complain about other people – how annoying it is to have to share our stuff, or how anxious strangers make us feel. But our happiness and health is absolutely tied to human engagement and connection.

When we minimize opportunities for this in the natural course of our daily lives, we inflame all kinds of bad stuff. Feelings of isolation, loneliness, mistrust, fear – which then leaks out into other arenas of public life.

Research also tells us that we derive more happiness from being courageousthan from being cautious. So when we let fear lead our decision-making about where to live or work, and we opt out of places that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable, we rob ourselves of the deeper satisfaction that brave new encounters and experiences might bring.

Cities are designed for this. Density and proximity, diversity and multiplicity, discovery and serendipity. This is not only important for innovation, it’s also how we gain empathy. Sharing space, sharing moments, sharing responsibilities.

We could go a long way to disrupt the “us versus them” crap in our political rhetoric if we stopped distancing ourselves from people who are different from us, and actually brushed up against each other once in awhile.

This is where the conversation turns from “me” to “we.” And that’s where progress is made.

I think we get confused sometimes about "The American Dream" – believing that happiness is more, more, more... me, me, me.

What the city offers is a different, better version of "more." It’s a shared more. It’s about being a part of something bigger than ourselves while still maintaining our unique individuality. It’s about having access to this huge abundant feast of places and ideas and experiences – more than you could ever afford if you were just cooking for yourself.

It’s a really great deal – the best value our civilization offers, really. And the best chance at reversing the tides of climate change and inequality (all things we can totally win, by the way, if we can see ourselves as on the same team).

But in order for it to work, it needs more of us to opt in.

So here’s my challenge – let’s make it a game. Let’s call it the new American Space Race. And it goes something like this: 

We used to celebrate the explorers and pioneers for charting new paths, expanding our horizons. But the next great American quest is not outward, but inward – deepening our connection to ourselves and our neighbors.

In this new game, the guy with the least space and distance wins. 

And Detroit is a really great place to begin.

Thank you.