A Placemaking Journal

Popsicles and the Importance of Simplicity

Back in June, I wrote a piece about how, compared to sprawl, smart growth produces places better suited to raising children. The overall takeaway was simple: When kids are able to navigate the world around them, manage conflicts, make decisions, screw up and recover, they’re better off for it. And place is a big contributor to that. Attracting families to life in the city can be a difficult endeavor. But given the stakes, it’s a critical one.

Over the course of the post, I touched on a lot of different things. Vancouver, and the challenges they faced with their own smart growth efforts. Buying happiness, helicopter parenting and fragile, teacup children. The value of independence, and the need to align political and market forces to make things happen. And, oh yeah. Popsicles.

Which idea do you think actually went somewhere?

The "popsicle test." The simplest ideas are usually the ones that take off.

If you guessed popsicles, consider yourself a winner. That’s because, two months after I resurrected the old idea (and not my own) of the “popsicle test” — the ability of an 8 year old to safely get somewhere to buy a popsicle, then make it home before it melts — as the measure of a good neighborhood, Kaid Benfield used it, along with the notion of good trick-or-treating, for his own exploration on the NRDC Switchboard. As many of you know, Kaid is also a contributor to The Atlantic, and they chose to republish the post a day or two after that.

Once something hits The Atlantic, you make the leap from smart growth geekdom to a broader audience, and that’s when the “popsicle test” caught the attention of Lenore Skenazy, champion of the Free Range Kids advocacy movement, who featured it on her own blog. That transitioned it to an idea less about planning and more about parenting.

Parenting, of course, represents a lot more potentially interested people, which is probably why the “popsicle test,” a tiny supporting example from my original post on a much larger topic, was ultimately featured on Boing Boing, the widely-read “directory of wonderful things” and go-to blog for folks of all stripes.

So why am I rehashing the details? Because they contain a valuable lesson for those of us working in the trenches of smart growth and sustainability. So long as we’re talking to each other — and, admittedly, that’s part of the process — all the secret handshakes of wonky language are accepted. Even preferred, sometimes. But that same language presents a formidable barrier to wider interest and wider interest is where movements really take shape.

In short, very few people care about the details as much as we do. They don’t care about the theory. Or the research. Or the elegance of the solution. They have little patience for metrics and even less for debating them.

Instead, they care about their families and the people around them. They care about their health and the money they earn. And, most importantly, they care about their time and how they’re spending it.

We may enjoy the rigors of placemaking but real progress gets made outside the walls of our comfortable silos. So keep it simple. Forget about the full course meal and treat people to tasty little ideas they can share with their friends.

Treat ‘em to popsicles.

–Scott Doyon

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