For the past several years, Nashville has made Forbes’ annual list of America’s Fastest-Growing Cities based on growth of population, employment, wages and economic output. However, good growth can bring bad traffic, and each year, Nashvillians spend an average of 34 hours sitting in traffic. In response to the challenges and opportunities associated with Nashville’s growing population, Metro Nashville developed Let’s Move Nashville, a transit improvement plan that proposed an integrated regional transportation system, including bus rapid transit routes and light rail transit, to accommodate the needs of Nashville’s rapidly growing metropolitan area.
As one of those locals who spends at least 34 hours a year sitting in traffic, I felt that most fellow Nashvillians would surely vote Yes for the proposed transit plan in last spring’s referendum. On May 1, however, the ballot box revealed otherwise, and I was left wondering why. In this post, I share some thoughts from family and friends that provided me with some food for thought.
Out of the Mouth of Babes
My first inkling that the transit plan vote might not go as I expected came with an unexpected question from my 7-year-old daughter: “Mom, are you voting for the transit plan or against it?” We hadn’t discussed the proposed plan at home, so I was impressed that she was even aware of the vote. With a huge smile on my face, I proudly told her that I had voted early and that I had most definitely voted for the transit plan. With an equally big grin, she informed me that she was against the transit plan and I asked her why. She simply said that everybody was against it—at least all of her friends didn’t support it. And at 7 years of age, she bluntly left it at that.
My child’s awareness of the upcoming transit vote made me think about the adults who live in my ZIP code area. Some of them share my daily commute in and out of downtown Nashville, which averages an hour each way—on a good day. Surely, they wouldn’t vote against the transit plan, I thought to myself, as I braved the morning rush hour, looking forward to the day when the commute would be easier. However, the very next day, my daughter was happy to give me her best “I-told-you-so” look as the polling results indicated that the transit initiative would not pass.
Fitting into the Big Picture
On the Sunday following Election Day, I was met with another round of “I-told-you-so” looks as I visited with my father and stepmother in their home in East Nashville—one of the fastest-growing areas in the city. My parents have enjoyed living in the Inglewood community for more than 35 years, but over recent years have been overwhelmed with offers to buy them out. With such close ties to the community, they are worried about the area’s explosive growth and what it might ultimately mean for them.
As I listened to them express their concerns about the transit plan, I was surprised that their biggest complaint wasn’t about taxes. They didn’t mind their taxes being raised as long as the plan did enough to fix Middle Tennessee’s transit issues as a whole. Their main concern was the plan’s reach, and that it appeared to only address traffic issues on certain inner-city streets, such as the ones closer to public venues, rather than the outer edges of the city.
As I listened further, I realized they understood the transit initiative better than I thought they did. They were aware of the connection between affordable housing and transit and recognized that transit lines would bring more development to the area, especially at the transit hubs. As an architect, I am excited to see growth and upgrades in their neighborhood. But I’m not looking at it from a homeowner’s point of view. Where I see beautiful homes, my parents see cookie-cutter development that replaced the houses of their now-gone neighbors and friends. Simply put, they didn’t see themselves fitting into the big picture.
A Silver Lining
After my conversation with my parents, I was tempted to write off their comments because sometimes people can be set in their ways and unwilling to change, especially when they have so many years invested in their community. However, a dinner with friends who are much younger than my parents—and even younger than me—made me think again. Like me, these friends live on the outskirts of Nashville. Their ethnic background is different from mine, but if I was blindfolded and didn’t know the difference in their voices, I could have sworn I was discussing the subject again with my parents.
Their sentiments echoed my parents’ concerns, and it occurred to me that this is what empathy looks like. They weren’t in my parents’ shoes, yet they stood in solidarity with them and had expressed that with their vote. And it got me thinking—did empathy have an impact on the vote? If it did, I might not have found a solution but at the very least identified a silver lining.
Our “table talk” became the catalyst for a little self-introspection, which led me to an “aha” moment. Being a project architect has not only given me a greater appreciation for valuing the opinion of others, it has also evoked a greater sense of empathy within me in terms of implementing solutions to concerns associated with a project through what we refer to as illustrated design concepts. Sometimes that involves making modifications to a design concept that I have poured my heart and soul into. I can’t think of many architects who actually enjoy doing this, but I’ve come to learn that it is a necessary part of a process that results in an appropriate, compassionate, and perhaps most importantly, truthful design solution. This especially applies to projects that have a community impact, which I explore in Part I of this blog post series Equity in Communities.
A Radical Force for Change
Along with spurring self-reflection, hearing my friends’ thoughts that night left me feeling hopeful about the good things that empathy and compassion could bring to the plate in devising a traffic improvement plan that everyone can buy into. I personally believe that empathy and its close counterpart compassion should always be capitalized on, as these traits can be a radical force for equity that stimulates both social and economic change.
I am looking forward to continuing the process of addressing our transit challenges and ultimately to embracing a transit plan that accommodates the wide spectrum of age, gender, and ethnic and socioeconomic differences. A plan that is holistic, even-handed and broad-based, and will unite us all in the common goal of growing in a way that demonstrates compassion.