Thursday, May 5, 2011

Last Response for Today on the State of Planning

I've received a few more responses and critiques of what I've suggested today about the past, present, and future of the planning process and profession that are perfectly logical, however defensive of the idealism within which the current state of public planning operates. Without quoting the words of others, assume my words below are in a response to the presentation of a any excellent planning document. Be it a Comprehensive Plan or similar document or the North Texas 2050 plan or whatever it is called. /disengage directed dismissive tone. People may be tired of documents and plans or they may be tired of leaders not following that work. Either is evidence of a broken process. I go on:
I don't disagree with anything you've said there. But to play devil's advocate, at the end of the day, what do you have? A document. Its quality is beside the point if it yields no action. It is even potentially more destructive if inaction or inability to affect change poisons the entire public process and worse yet the good intentions of planners/designers.

Are a couple thousand people really enough to determine the vision for a city of 6 million? Let's say for a second that mayors (of either city) aren't kowtowing to business interests that are precisely geared to status quo. If I'm mayor, I can say, "well, that is just 6,000 people. I'm responding to the needs of the other 99.9%." Couldn't it also be that those empowered to participate in such a process are self-selected to some extent? And the results were a foregone conclusion? So then they turn the results back over to city staff and consultants (who eventually disappear) and nothing happens. The citizenry (who participated) expected results. But for somebody else to deliver those results. Meanwhile, their neighbor had no idea about it. And since nothing happens b/c of leadership at the top (for either reason expressed above), everybody is turned off and cynical.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for walkable, sustainable urbanism too, but I want a process that works and manifests real change.

What HAS worked and what is virally spreading across the globe, is citizen participation. Not just in process. But in action. Where governments have failed neighborhoods, citizens are acting as urban vigilantes. In some cases it is becoming policy, and that is what I'm recommending.

Then, through working together, the ideas and ideals spread virally through emergent community. Because people are yearning to come back together from atomized, fractured, and fragmented communities. We want to participate, but the current process is off-putting because it has failed us too often. Once those ideals spread and become common goals, we start electing the leaders who arise during that process. See Oak Cliff, they very well might elect Scott Griggs City Councilperson next week. And he's been instrumental in all of it.

When someone asked me once, "could this work in such and such part of North Dallas. What if they didn't want it?" I said "Great. Let them be the masters of their own destiny. Meanwhile, in other neighborhoods one-by-one, leaders are emerging and carrying out similar courses of action to make their hoods more walkable, more amenable to community, and local businesses at the neighborhood level. Eventually those that didn't want it will see the results and want it themselves. It is the necessary competition amongst neighborhoods and cities, that we, w/ COG, have been all too quick to gloss over. As soon as Dallas decides, "you know what, screw these freeways allowing the 'burbs to leach off of us." Population will return to the core. Because all of a sudden driving an hour each way from Frisco is no longer a product of rational choice.

It is an issue of appropriate scale of governance and efficacy of such and works in a similar manner to the study outlined in Ed Glaeser's book Triumph of the City. Groups expected to interact and cooperate in order to accomplish a task, invariably broke down. Groups that worked in person outperformed the online avatars in every case. I'm not saying we should all interact online, but that city-wide problems can't be worked out by the entire populous or even charrettes of a few thousand people.

At the end of the day, democracy works best at the neighborhood level. Where we're all stakeholders, share certain commonalities, want the best for it, and can work things out face to face. It breaks down at the larger, more abstract level where we become a representative democracy. We either elect the right leaders now, or the shit hits the fan from debt (financial, environmental, and social) accumulated through short-term only thinking and action and perhaps someday we realize the errors of our ways and finally get the right leader...or we continue to flounder and flounder away as Detroit has.

What plagued the rust belt was a monoculture of industry. We, in the Sun Belt have a monoculture of place at a time where Quality of Life is the most important factor in where businesses AND perhaps more importantly those with the talent, means, or ability to start/grow the businesses of the future choose to locate. I've been predicting for some time that the Rust Belt's current calamitous situation of figuring out how to downscale/contract is our future unless we get the right leadership. It's happening to some extent (in both Detroit and Dallas) new leadership is bubbling up through the ranks from this very process of emerging and cultivating the new economy and new city with it.

The solution to monoculture is allowing each neighborhood to come together and sort out its own future (while aided and abetted by the resources of the city, the commonwealth -- far cheaper than new/big roads everywhere and expensive consultants or engineering plans), as an expression of those that live within it. A central vision will never do that. More importantly, central decisions on transportation and zoning suffocate it.

Respectfully and appreciative,

patrick kennedy