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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