George Lakoff and the Mode Shift


A couple of months before it became clear in 2004 that John Kerry didn’t have a clue about how to frame his election bid — “Lt. Kerry reporting for duty,” is the memorably stupid way he started his nomination address — a University of California at Berkeley linguistics professor named George Lakoff (see pix) burst onto the national political scene to remind progressives that the message was everything in public policy and politics. His 2004 book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” was a tutorial in message development that was widely shared among very smart and committed liberals who couldn’t understand why a plain talking president who so transparently skirted the truth was going to win the election.

I know how hard this idea of framing and values can be for advocates. Within my own organization, which is pretty good at framing and message, it’s still hard at times to make the case. Despite years of stressing the need to think carefully about words and values and framing, about message and messenger, there is a tendency among some of my colleagues to be concerned first about details other than the message, like organizing or holding a meeting or something. 

Lakoff’s message was direct. Campaigns are won and lost on message. Advocates who set the message agenda and are disciplined about sticking with it — Republicans were great at this until history exposed their hypocrisy — almost always win. If the message agenda is broken, campaigns generally lose. What happened to Kerry is that the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth made a direct hit on his message — a decorated war veteran running for president — and obliterated it. It took Kerry a month to formulate a response and by the time he did, the election was already decided.

Now Lakoff is out with a new book, “Thinking Points,” that replays many of the message tutorials but also ventures into a new domain: advocating for a four-point strategic policy program that would make America more just and prosperous, and progessives more revered.

Frankly, I’m less concerned about what the four strategic objectives will do for progressives, and by this Lakoff means the Democrats. An old friend once told me that we have two parties in America. The stupid party and the evil party. Take your pick. The Republicans could easily embrace Lakoff’s strategic recommendations because at the grass roots, conservatives are just as keen about these idea.

But as a marker of how much momentum smart growth and the American Mode Shift have gained in the popular imagination and public policy, “Thinking Points”  is a small revelation. Of the four strategic initiatives that Lakoff recommends, two are right out of the Mode Shift play book.

The first is establishing a new agricultural production system that provides Americans healthy food. At the Michigan Land Use Institute we call this Entrepreneurial Agriculture because reshaping the food production system to produce healthy fresh food means farmers are more profitable. Communities can conserve valuable ground that adds to rural character. Less energy and no toxic chemicals are needed. People are healthier, making them happier and simultaneously reducing health care costs. “In exchange for growing healthy food for our communities and protecting the sanctity of our earth and commons for future generations we will invest in sustainable farming,” writes Lakoff.

Lakoff’s second strategic objective is a national program to build public transit systems, what he calls “transit for all.”  The energy, cost, and accessibility improvements that transit provides, along with the economic development opportunities are well understood. Investing the $70 billion that it costs the United States to import oil each year in rapid transit design and construction would yield countless social and economic benefits. It is possible only if a coaliton of untraditional allies, among them environmentalists, labor, economists, energy, and national security interests cross ideological boundaries and work together. “The most effective long-term strategies start with the most commonplace activities: eating, traveling to work, and working in a business. Home is where we live. Start there.”  

Given Lakoff’s standing among Democrats, don’t be surprised to hear some of their presidential candidates talking about these ideas this year and next. By the way, they might also be interested in Lakoff’s other strategic objectives, which are related to the first two. They are clean elections and ethical business.

Live Maps And New Perspectives

My writer’s life occurs principally in two media arenas. One is the reporting I do for the New York Times and other mainstream press that involves structuring the gathered facts into a narrative that is purposefully designed not to have a point of view. My focus is delivering expertise in a 1,000 to 3,000 word package distinguished by studied detachment. 

The other arena is the public interest journalism I prepare for the Michigan Land Use Institute. The idea is to dig just as hard for facts and knowledge but to deploy a different part of my intelligence, spirit, and experience to the outcome. In public interest writing, unlike reporting for the mainstream media, a primary goal is develop sufficient perspective to provide understanding, to inspire, to motivate, and to tell entirely new narratives about what is possible when smart people embrace a new idea.

I find that at the ripe age of 50 I’ve attained an ease in simultaneously stepping through both worlds. What’s interesting, though, is the difference in how I start projects.

My assignments for the mainstream media generally begin with a couple of phone calls and an hour or two with Internet search engines. But with the public interest work, which involves joining land and communities, I start with a flyover on Google Earth. As a tool for discerning patterns on the land, I haven’t found one better.

saugatuckdunes.jpgLate last month I began a project with a group of advocates in the Saugatuck region that involves making the case to conserve about 20 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline between Holland and Douglas, much of it undeveloped and among the most surpassingly beautiful stretches of sand and freshwater dunes in Michigan. The first important product of the project is a white paper I’m preparing that will, among other things, make the case that conserving the natural character of the coast line is an economic imperative that helps to ensure the region’s competitiveness in this century. The other major point I anticipate making is that the natural coastline and the rural lands just inland form a logical region, and that preserving its integrity will require local governments to see it that way and collaborate. 

The essence of both points is made clear on Google Earth, especially if you have the Virtual Earth 3d plug-in from Microsoft. Sweeping across the Saugatuck region on Google Earth reveals a panorama of blue water, dun colored dunes, and green forest that surround the inviting villages of Douglas and Saugatuck. No other Lake Michigan shoreline this close to Chicago provides such a clear distinction between the natural landscape and two human communities. That’s why so many people in Saugatuck, Douglas, and the surrounding townships are intent on ensuring that this very special place retains its character. 

As part of my research I wanted to see how to better apply the Google Earth capacity, and found the Live Maps/Virtual Earth team’s blog, which describes how technicians and intellectuals and planners and others are using the technology. Check this site out for gaining insight into a tool available to anybody and not possible for ordinary Joes like me until this century.

Here’s a great application of Live Maps to display Detroit’s history and historic sites.

The point is that the American Mode Shift is under way, in part because technology is providing us with new tools to develop fresh perspectives about where we live, and what we are doing to diminish or improve our places.

New Urbanism’s Mecca Is 25


In 2002, when he was still the governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening invited a handful of Smart Growth leaders from around the country to join him for a three-day talk fest at Seaside, the famous Florida Gulf Coast resort community that served as the weirdly perfect set of the 1998 Jim Carrey film, The Truman Show. I attended the weekend, serving as the message and media guy for a gathering that also included Andres Duany, the architect and co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, Ron Sims, the executive of King County, Washington, Harriet Tregoning of the Maryland Planning Office, Don Chen of Smart Growth America, Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink in Oakland, and Scott Bernstein, the founder and resident guru of the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago.

The conversation generally focused on how to collaborate in order to build a more secure and visible national movement around the principles and values of Smart Growth. We spent the days in an airy, light-filled, cream pastel drawing room on the second floor of a stunning Seaside home. It was early winter, but every day the sun shined warm and welcoming through arched windows. I swam in a pool as Caribbean clear and refreshing as a beach in Aruba. We strolled narrow streets shaded by palms and one breathtaking house after another. 

The setting encouraged fulsome discussion that focused on design and policy. How could we help communities get more comfortable with that marriage? When you put that many energetic activists of national stature in one room, and get them to relax as Seaside did, the atmospheric molecules vibrate differently. I had the clear sense that regardless of what came out of the intimate conference (and nothing really did) the days spent in active dialogue reflected the quickening intellectual energy that Smart Growth was generating across the country. A mode shift was underway. Some of the people who’d helped to make it happen had a rare three days to share ideas. 

The beautiful place where the event occurred served its part by proving that a new community, well-designed and carefully constructed, adds its measure of value to the human experience. Had the weekend unfolded in a windowless room in an edge city Marriott, nothing like the rich experience we all enjoyed could have occurred.

This year Seaside marks its 25th anniversary, and the value of its homes and property are rising at a rate much faster than conventional Gulf Coast developments. It has grown more beautiful with age, and more durable. That is true in other New Urbanist communities, including The New Neighborhood in Empire, Michigan, near where I live. The New Neighborhood is an extension of Empire’s old neighborhoods, a short walk from the Lake Michigan shoreline. I learned this week that the New Neighborhood is selling more affordable lots and homes than any other development in Leelanau County. The New Neighborhood is one of a number of New Urbanist developments in this cold and snowy region of northern Michigan. The fact that they exist at all owes almost everything to Seaside’s successful design, construction, and marketing of a new idea in a warm, blue, and sunny place more than two decades and 1,000 miles away. 


Flip: Google and Congestion


This fourth installment of Flip, which tracks keen new convergences between urban affairs and new media technology, was suggested by Joe Mielke, an IT professional and a colleague at the Michigan Land Use Institute. It’s Google’s recently introduced tool to track  urban congestion in real time, and available now in New York. Click the traffic link on the top right of the page.

The applications for this tool are immeasurable. If you’re swinging up the New Jersey Thruway from D.C. it’s possible now to call this tool up on your Blackberry. Lincoln Tunnel looks tight? Try the Holland or the GW Bridge. Better yet, you’re in Philadelphia and need to get to New York. Traffic is tough. Take Amtrak out of 30th Street Station. 

I’m looking longer term. The same technology that enables Google to measure traffic flow over such a large region could also be applied to new construction permits, and new homes and businesses actually built. The GIS information systems already provide the software capacity. Data is available in many jurisdictions on a weekly and monthly basis. Google could tie the systems and data together to give residents an accurate picture of development patterns over time. Each new building could be represented by a tiny blue dot that appears with every permit approval. Over time the various constellations of dots would indicate the speed, location, and density of new development, a more graphic and urgent picture in most cases than residents can obtain by just looking around.

Wonder why traffic is heavy and getting worse? It’s not just the number of vehicles. It’s where they come from. Google’s creativity and technical capacity could add a new narrative that prompts greater public insight into the where, how, and why of development trends and of traffic.

Great Western Train Race, C’mon Michigan


More on that train race out west that I wrote about earlier this month. Metro, the transit agency in Phoenix, is asking the state for $1.7 billion to accelerate construction on the 57-mile light rail system that is being built, and to add more than 20 new miles to the system by 2027. This according to the Arizona Republic.

That’s the very same strategy that Salt Lake City voters approved in November when they raised the sales tax to speed up construction and add new lines to a 45-mile light rail system, and an 88-mile commuter rail network. The $3.1 billion system is so popular that suburbs that fought its development are clamoring to organize constituents and build even more train lines (see pix.)

In both places, just as here in Michigan, there was plenty of skepticism about the value of light rail, whether people would make the mode shift from their cars to a train, and whether the investment would pay economic dividends. And in both western cities the answers are that trains are more popular than anticipated, and are encouraging $billions in new housing, retail, office, and recreational investments. As an icon of a region’s will to succeed as an energy efficient, environmentally-conscious, modern, and prosperous place, rail rapid transit has few equals.

Look at Utah: low unemployment, rising job numbers and incomes, well-educated workforce, mecca for young people, vibrant, and building the West’s second largest regional rail system next to Denver’s.

Look at Michigan: nation’s highest unemployment, rapidly diminishing job numbers and personal income, workforce not yet convinced that college degrees are worth the trouble, treats its brightest young people as a primary export, troubled spiritually, and still arguing about whether rail transit has a place.

In an interview on Michigan Radio earlier this month, Michigan’s Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm said that public transit, and especially trains, were a “necessary” investment for the state to make to be competitive in the global economy. A starter line that links Ann Arbor with Detroit, and the suburbs in between, is now teed up for regional and state approval. There is $100 million in federal funding to complete the engineering and design stages and start construction. The  familiar crticisms about cost, popularity, wise investment and the like surround the proposal. The typical critics — Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, House Republican Leader Craig DeRoche among others — have aligned to derail the idea.       

But for the first time in years, there also is a political opening that makes sense. Gov. Granholm says she wants more transit. And state Representative Marie Donigan, a Democrat of Royal Oak, was appointed chair of the new House Public Transit Subcommittee. Marie is southeast Michigan’s most prominent elected transit advocate. Get in touch with her at and tell her you want to help.