Thursday, May 5, 2011

Retort and Expound

I've had a few responses via email and by David Crossley of Houston Tomorrow in the comments, so I wanted to expand on my previous post for mass consumption, "More Actions, Less 'Plans'":

My worry is that early public participation, the kind that drives Comp Plans is largely useless and not at all democratic. Furthermore, if a true cross-section or plurality was to be engaged this early in the process, more often than not they would choose status quo or somehow disrupt the process. That may be more democratic, but is it feasible or practical? And why are we asking each neighborhood to determine what other neighborhoods should or shouldn't be doing? Each neighborhood shouldn't be determining the fate of other neighborhoods. What we end up with in comp plans, I find to be useless largely and expensive excuses to justify what cities were planning to do anyway. Is that really democratic? Is it an efficient use of public cash-money? Instead, focus the democratic process on actions and at the local level.

As for the line in the graph, there has to be upfront legwork by planners in service of a broader vision established by elected representatives. I created that graphic for our proposal because there had to be upfront planning and outreach work to determine what corridors would be ideal for complete street/better block conversions. Which were overly wide? Which have a framework of buildings in place that are ready made for investment and temporary pop-up shops? Which have an active, engaged residential base that would be amenable to such things rather than reflexive NIMBYism? Then there had to be outreach, finding the leaders in each community and working with them to determine potential level of public participation.

Furthermore, there is the broader aspect of advanced public leadership. We too often suffer from inaction by leaders who don't really know which way the public wind blows or are too spineless to actually lead. We elect leaders to lead. They ought to understand the implications of their actions on urbanism and the city's ability to function, to foment, a city's purpose, based on those actions. Many bend over backwards for state/federal highway dollars. Has that helped or hurt cities? Did cities have a democratic say? In some cases, but those referendums are so corrupted by money on one of the two sides dependent upon the action.

What cities are ahead right now? Portland, because a republican governor decided agriculture and natural land were state resources that should be protected. New York b/c Bloomberg decided he wanted the cleanest, greenest city in the world and hired the right people to carry it out. Vancouver because they decided against short-term financial incentives to build highways throughout their city in order to protect neighborhoods and long-term viability/resiliency. Copenhagen -- because they decided to systematically remove car travel lanes and parking spaces and such a slow, consistent increment that barely anybody noticed until the entire city was transformed fifty years later.

The majority of our leadership (in the SunBelt) has been inept, spineless, or even corrupt. Cheerleaders for short-term monuments as avatars of actual leadership, great amounts of public expenditure with very little return on investment. Nothing that implements real change or real positive outcomes. Instead, all a bunch of stuff that saddles future generations with baggage, debt, upkeep, and impedimenta, rather than enriching and empowering them.

There has to be top down leadership. Good leadership ideally, but those cities that elect bad leaders will get bad cities. They'll fall behind in the competition amongst cities (how does that saying go? You get the leaders you deserve?).

Democratic action has to be focused, where it can be direct, decisive, and actionable. At a small enough scale where you know who you're interacting with and can resolve differences in a civilized society with shared vision/goals. Or else, people move to a different neighborhood. Which has its own vision and physical expression. We self-organize like that. And that is not necessarily a bad thing as long as they're still connected into a broader system, not quarantined by socio-economic strata, and have real choice -- in both housing and transportation, aka opportunity to participate in the local economy, to be real citizens and communitarians.