And on Dawn of the 8th Year, She Dared

So I’m sitting here in my upgraded Delta One seat* on my way from Shanghai to Boston, about to embark on a 27-day-long, privileged-chaos-fueled sojourn. In the next just-shy of four weeks, I will have traveled to eight cities across six different countries, mostly promoting State of Place (you can see the schedule of my talks below) and spreading the data-driven “gospel”... I literally had to pinch myself. How is this my life? How did I get so lucky? But…

I’ve been at this HOW long?

Earlier this month, while I was on another similarly epic trip throughout all the nooks and crannies of Israel, LinkedIn kindly reminded me that it was my eight-year anniversary “working” at State of Place. I began getting nice little messages congratulating me on said anniversary (thanks, guys!). But this anniversary – and the well-wishes it garnered – stirred some mixed-emotions…How could it have been that long since I embarked on this crazy journey? How could I have been on this all-encompassing, exhilarating, gut-wrenching roller-coaster that is startup life for eight years now? How have I survived? How am I still doing this…still struggling in so many ways, whilst getting so much affirmation and encouragement from others?

Why is this still a thing?

And then I think, what the heck?! Forget about me. How has it been this long and we’re STILL SO far from data-driven citymaking? From evidence-based design and planning? From truly planning around the triple bottom line? And now more than ever, how are we so far from truly embracing people-first places, especially in-light of the looming climate crisis? What we’re doing at State of Place should no longer be groundbreaking. It should no longer be innovative. It should no longer be impressive. Shit, citymakers should know the answers to simple questions like, how many of the streets in my jurisdiction or portfolio have sidewalks, trees, outdoor dining, the kinds of amenities that attract people, or that keep people safe, or that mitigate freaking climate change? Bottom line, my passionate talks advocating for data-driven citymaking should be downright mundane by now…And yet, the one word that sticks out after all my talks is – wow, that was really inspirational….

 But enough with inspiration. What good is inspiration without follow up action? Follow up policies? Follow up RESULTS? What will it actually take to usher in real, structural change in the planning and real estate industry? A different messenger (perhaps of a different age, color, gender)? Regulations? Uprisings? We’ve already made the case, over and over. We’ve already shown that making places better for people makes places better overall – that includes your damn wallets and our planet (or should I say, humankind – as someone so poignantly pointed out to me, the planet will be here long after we’re done mistreating it). We’ve already shown that using the data and evidence that us nerds and geeks have amassed over the last several decades makes it more likely that the best decisions will be made and that you’ll garner support more readily for those decisions. You can already see that relying solely on intuition, gut, and top-down, expert-led approaches isn’t going to get us where we need to be, as fast as we need to get there.

Righteous Indignation

So what’s it going to take? Another 8 years? We don’t have another 8 years people. As Greta Thunberg so passionately blasted out this week in her outrage-fueled indignantly-justified condemnation of this lack of action, during the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, ” For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you are doing enough…?...How dare you pretend that [the climate crisis] can be solved with business-as-usual and some technical solutions. With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone in less than eight and a half years. There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures today. Because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is…”

I dare you

So I dare you – us all – not to say to her, not to say to any of us trying to speak truth to power, trying to point out the obviousness and urgency of the situation, trying to point out the need for radical action – merely, wow, you’re so passionate. Wow, you’re so right. Wow, you’re so inspirational. Instead, I dare you change the status quo. Be just as bold and indignant and unrelenting as this 16-year-old girl who refuses to take no for an answer. Who just over a year ago sat alone, fighting for climate rights, in her first climate strike. Sure, meet folks where they are at first, get them to the table – but then drag them along with you. Fight for the change we need, today. Don’t take no for an answer. After eight years, maybe they’ll never be ready? Are any of us truly ever really ready for radical change? I didn’t know how to swim until I jumped into the deep end of the pool. I didn’t know how to ride a bike until I started pedaling. I didn’t know how to cook till I dared to demand that I be allowed to do so – at the age of 7. And yet, here we are. We know what we need to do. We know how to do it – or at least what we need to do to make it happen. And yet, you do not dare. We do not dare. So yes, how dare you not dare?

The Power of Eight 

On this, the first month of my eight-year anniversary as a hard-headed startup founder, I promise you two things. By September of 2020, the talks I’m giving worldwide about harnessing the power of data-driven placemaking to accelerate the creation of a more inclusive, walkable, sustainable built world will become as dated as Steve Job’s talk in which he first debuted the iPhone. I pledge to change your wows to duhs! And two, I will dare to do all we can do to make the connection between that sustainable built world and climate justice not only just as urgent as Greta’s message, but also, actionable, executable, and inevitable. In the end, there’s something, dare I say, spiritual about having been in Israel – spreading said message – during this 8th anniversary. In Judaism, the number eight is “symbolic of an entity that is one step above the natural order, higher than nature and its limitations.” But it is also tied to the number seven, which represents the entirety of the “natural world.” Eight not only comes after seven in the numerical sense, but it is also beyond seven, beyond the natural. So it’s only fitting that Greta’s message is coming during this, our 8th year, when we need this daring – go beyond what is possible (or what they say is possible) - message the most. We dare you to join us…No, you MUST dare to join us.

*By the way, I’m not unaware of the irony of having to travel transcontinentally to spread the message around data-driven citymaking to fight the climate crisis…I do what I can to offset this, not the least of which is dedicating my life (rather meagerly thus far) to spreading this message. But I still struggle with this…

Mariela AlfonzoComment