Nate Wessel


October 2018

Over the last few years, I’ve taken to noting with calm but definite smugness the ever so human tendency to overcorrect. I’ve done it myself – where I learned the lesson – and indeed have acknowledged my own flaws to some extent.

I was raised in the suburbs and hated much of it. Most of my work to date has been dedicated to building cities to the exclusion, to the depreciation, of everything suburban, everything automotive. I’m aware that left to my own devices, I would almost certainly overshoot the goal and lose something valuable by finally destroying my hated object.

From the engineering and science that runs in my family I turned to art and design in college. I even married an artist. Boy did my dad have a hard time teaching me math.

I reacted against an upper-middle class upbringing that did me so much good to a kind of unhelpful frugality that spurns any little luxury.

When I see things in history or in the news, I can calmly remark that we’ve done it again – we’ve overcorrected. We went from establishment to anti-establishment with no period of moderate reform. We went from the ills of the industrial city to full-on no cities at all. We go from binge to diet, from abstention to orgy, seemingly every time. I thought by offering that warning to others, I would remind myself.

But I realized yesterday that I’d swung again. I knew that I’d reacted against parts of my undergrad planning education, against what I perceived as a lack of rigor, to an interest in what became known to me as GIS and spatial data science. It seems now that I pushed off from that point and overshot, again. I wrote a blog that applied GIS to local planning issues. That blog connected me to a master’s degree in Geography. I kept having fun with this stuff and started being encouraged and paid for my work! Yay! I launched straight into a PhD (more GIS!!!!) and then I hit a wall. I’ve been struggling against that wall for a few years now without making much progress.

I now find myself working with GIS every day, building an incredibly, stupendously solid empirical case for the tiniest of the things I wanted to say – but I’m no longer sure why I want to say them. I got into this because I wanted to bring rigor to the world around me – to insist that people back up their outlandish claims with facts. Local urban planning issues are stuffed full of bullshit. For a while, I got good at calling it out and I loved that! And then I seem to have went straight to the top of the niche I carved out for myself… where, as it happens, people no longer made outlandish claims. People with doctorates, most of them, far from spinning out non-sense, actually adhere quite closely to what the data will back up and end up making pretty moderate, even painfully modest claims.

The view from the top is quite reasonable, and there’s nothing left to do!

Perhaps there’s a geography lesson in here: people are effected by their environments. Or to put that in less general terms, I am.