Thursday, October 20, 2011

A planning and 'public input' dilemma

Is it just me, or have others also been spotting an increasing trickle of  articles that might be viewed as anti-planning. Consider this one: "The false hope of comprehensive planning," from Michael Lewyn, an assistant professor at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Fla., on the website.

Lewyn uses the Jacksonville comprehensive plan to point out that a city plan can be a sprawl-promoter or a sprawl-fighter. The devil is in the details. Just having a comprehensive plan for your city doesn't mean your city will necessarily grow in a prudent way. This has been one of my concerns about Charlotte and much of this metro region. The city's plans say all kinds of wonderful things, but the underlying zoning ordinances allow much that the plans don't call for examples being the very suburban-style, highway-oriented retail development along North Tryon Street, which has been a designated light rail corridor since 1998.

But how can planners even hope to do a good job of listening to their communities AND promoting sensible provisions for growth, when apparently the overwhelming majority of Americans don't want to see ANY development?

Andres Duany, the visionary architect and planner who was instrumental in founding New Urbanism and in changing the way many professionals write zoning codes and transportation plans, has been pooh-poohing the idea of too much public involvement, especially when the NIMBYs carry too much weight (not traditionally a problem in development-happy Charlotte, let me add). In this piece in January's Architect magazine he discusses the relative merits of top-down planning (more efficient) and bottom-up planning (involves people but takes a lot longer and is more expensive. Here is a counterpoint from Della Rucker, in NewGeography, who still trusts the public to know what's best in the end.
 But what if the public really doesn't want any development at all? A survey from The Saint Index found that 79 percent of Americans said their hometown is fine the way it is or already over-developed. Some 86 percent of suburban Americans don't want new development in their community. The anti-development sentiment is the highest in six years of Saint Index surveys.

So if you try to involve the community and listen to what they want, do you end up with a plan that forbids growth? How smart is that? Should planners heed community wishes, even if they know what the community wants is impossible or imprudent?  If the community wants cul-de-sacs and single-family subdivisions and no retail near where they live and also hates traffic congestion (the inevitable result of spread-out development that requires you to drive everywhere, and of cul-de-sac street patterns that funnel everyone onto a few arterials), what's a planner to do?

Duany used to say that people hate growth because for the past 50 years it's mostly been soul-searingly ugly and has, indeed, made life more unpleasant for the neighbors. I think he's onto something. When people today imagine "development" the image they have is  big-box strip centers, single-family subdivisions, grassy and boring office parks or apartment complexes scattered around a site like dead earthworms. No wonder they're NIMBYs.

The challenge for planners, it seems, is first to educate people on the repercussions of their choices and then, to show them choices for other ways to develop: tree-lined urban streets, with shops and shop windows on the sidewalks, to choose one example. But the planners can't stop there. Step Three has to be to make sure the supporting ordinances and standards require the good and disallow the bad. Without Step Three, too many plans will, as Lewyn points out, produce development that pleases neither the planners nor the NIMBYs.