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Rethinking Public Participation for Smart Growth
Madison, WI is not afraid of density. Flickr photo from RethinkCollegePark.

Madison, WI is not afraid of density. Flickr photo from RethinkCollegePark.

In an interview conducted by Builder Magazine (via, American New Urbanist Andrés Duany, co-author of the recently released Smart Growth Manual, argues that public participation is one of the greatest impediments to smart growth. From the interview:

“If you ask people what they want, they don’t want density. They don’t want mixed-use. They don’t want transit. They don’t even want a bike path in their back yard. They don’t want a grid that connects, they want cul-de-sacs. They can’t see the long term benefits of walkable neighborhoods with a greater diversity of housing types. This book is a quick read and is dedicated explicitly to them. It’s for the people, not for planning professionals.”

He is referring to the coalition of NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yarders) and NIMTOOs (Not in My Term Of Officers) who inevitably throw up major road blocks to LULUs (Locally Unwanted Land Uses). This alphabet soup of acronyms goes a  long way towards ensuring status quo pattern of suburbanization in almost every metropolitan area in the United States.

Part of the problem is the scale at which decisions are made. As Duany points out later in his interview:

“There is a theory of subsidiarity that considers at what level a decision is properly made. Most of today’s planning decisions–large and small–are made at the wrong level. Take transit. You do not ask the neighbor next to a 16-mile bikeway whether they want a bikeway in their back yard because they will say no. That’s a decision that needs to be made at the regional level. Conversely, let’s say you want to have free-range chickens to provide eggs for you and your neighbors. Right now that’s controlled by municipal ordinance. City zoning codes say no chickens, when really this is a decision that should be made at the block level, because chickens affect the block, not the whole city. Then you have municipalities enforcing rules about what color you can paint your house, which is ridiculous. That’s the wrong level of decision making.”

Ironically, the only thing people seem to hate more than sprawl is density. The crux of the matter seems to be that democracy in planning leads to parochial interests winning out over sound public policy. Homeowners satisfy their own immediate interests at the expense of the welfare of entire regions. States like Oregon, Florida, and New Jersey have responded to this problem, each with varying degrees of success, by usurping local planning decisions and bringing the decision making process to a regional level. These programs also, incidentally,  institutionalize public participation.

Many are tempted to move to a less democratic, more dictatorial approach to planning. Duany warns against such a tendancy:

“It has to be a choice. When you make smart growth mandatory, it crashes. Studies show that 70% of people want smart growth, which is great. But there are still the 30% who are really happy with their cul-de-sacs and McMansions and long commutes. And because one-third of Americans explicitly like things the way they are, you cannot eliminate that option. Reform doesn’t work when you try to exterminate conventional suburbia. To be more effective, all you need to do is level the playing field and then let the market operate.”

So we are left with two irreconcilable facts: 1) citizen participation as an anathema to smart growth, and 2) citizen participation as a necessary prerequisite of smart growth. How can we reconcile this? One approach I took in college was to create a community group and user-friendly Web site that sought to build a constituency of citizens  that fought vigorously for well-designed, dense infill projects and confronted NIMBYism. The group, named Rethink College Park and inspired by the Envision Utah Project, is part-smart growth advocacy community group and part-journalism project.

Although the group’s primary function is to maintain a blog, the project’s impact spans far beyond the Internet. Rethink College Park sets the debate in local traditional news outlets and has succeeded in instigating substantive policy change by taking planning out of backrooms and bringing it under public scrutiny. The group’s members and I use the site as a sounding board to communicate smart growth concepts to the public and shape specific projects such as student housing proposals, a major mixed-use redevelopment and a long planned light rail system. In 2008, Planetizen named Rethink College Park one of the web’s top 10 planning websites.

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  • NIMBYs, NIMTOOs and LULUs. The problem of public participation.

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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  • Christopher

    For better or worse, cycling advocacy has gotten intertwined with the environmental movement, which has been aggressively hostile to anyone right of center. This is a pity for everyone involved, because, as the original poster points out, there is plenty of common ground with the aims and/or the outcomes of a strong bike policy. Examples: cutting back on driving decreases the demand for foreign oil. Conservatives should like that because they don’t like having to be involved in foreign entanglements, and liberals should like that because they favor peace at all costs (yes, I’m generalizing here, but work with me). But instead of saying "let’s stick it to those oil-drilling jerks in the Middle East by riding our bikes", cycling advocates tend to say "you’re killing the planet by driving your SUV." I would suggest that cycling advocates would make a stronger case for better cycling infrastructure, stronger protections, etc., by showing how things that are good for cyclists are good for the things conservatives like. Example: neighborhood streets that are designed to be safe for cyclists are also safer for families with children.

    Going on and on about how cycling is the solution for global warming isn’t going to change any minds. A little less preaching to the choir and a little more creative outreach would go a long way to achieving the goals of cycling advocacy.

    This comment was originally posted on Streetsblog

  • Conservatives saying one thing but doing another? I’m shocked.

    Next you’ll tell me that liberals also enact policy that contradicts their positions!

    This comment was originally posted on Streetsblog

  • David_K

    Kaja is right right. "Conservatives" (like Bush) are all about profligate spending of resources, building roads, and expanding government in the name of national security. "Liberals" (like Obama) are much the same, frankly. The labels are meaningless.

    That said, they DO mean something, because our country is polarized around these same vacuos labels. Why don’t self-labeled mainstream "conservatives" want to conserve resources, and have the satisfaction of moving about under their own power? I think it’s because they are intellectual sham artists in love with the myth of the big wheels on the free, open road.

    Here is what one such "conservative" has to say about it (this article just kills me):

    This comment was originally posted on Streetsblog

  • paulebob

    Preposterous! Walking and biking is no more a political persuation than is eating and sleeping. But then someone would probably ask if you sleep on your right or left side. You can blog anything, but that doesn’t make it worth the effort to read.

    This comment was originally posted on Streetsblog

  • > So why aren’t more conservatives supporting bike and ped infrastructure?

    Because the term is about as meaningless as has been ‘liberal’ ever since Wilson.

    Most of the same ‘conservatives’ who eschew bicycling and depend on automobiles also voted for Bush twice and laughed at Ron Paul while he was predicting the Great Contraction. Republicans they certainly are; conservatives they are not.

    This comment was originally posted on Streetsblog

  • That reminds me of a scene in "Back To The Future III", where one of the characters asks something like "Walk for exercise? Why? We walk just to get someplace.".

    This comment was originally posted on Streetsblog