Saturday, April 5

Public energy, professional wisdom

Two recent opinion pieces for Planetizen reveal an interesting tension over the extent of public involvement in the planning process. This issue is especially relevant after the rise of Web 2.0, when you have random citizens with no formal experience pontificating excitedly about complicated land use issues. Is this a good or bad thing for communities?

In Two Things People Hate: Density and Sprawl, Barbara Faga wrote,

"We’ve been conducting public meetings for years. And it used to be easier. Present the plan. Discuss the plan. Talk about how your plan is better for the neighborhood/community/city/region and provide the conclusion. But things have changed. When did the public become planning experts? People appear at public meetings and talk about density and land use. They know how many units per acre are good…and bad. Of course, they tend to be wrong, as they do not discuss design. Still, public meetings have become the forum for the public to debate density with experienced planners and designers."

Her view of planning emphasizes the technical expertise and centralized order of the profession. It would be absurd for an engineer to solicit public comment on how to build a bridge, so why would planners democratize the decision of what density is appropriate for good design. There has to be some way out of the gridlock that comes with hundreds of different voices all yelling out their own agenda.

Another planner, Scott Page, swings the emphasis in the other direction with DIY Urbanism.

"I think many planners, in principle, agree that public involvement and grass-roots approaches to planning are necessary. The emphasis on the sheer numbers of people a plan "includes" is only one recent example of our profession’s emphasis on public involvement. But I think deep down, many colleagues see a distinctive split between involving the public and empowering them to implement. Involving is necessary and important to get any plan endorsed. But once that plan is complete, the public (residents, business owners, local stakeholders) is many times not regarded as an implementation partner except perhaps in roles of advocacy...

In essence, a little anarchy (as in less centralized governing) ... would be good for society and cities in particular. It’s the DIY ethic on the community scale – self reliance and empowerment would do an immense amount of good for all communities because people would be forced to organize themselves into action."

Scott Page favors a more genuinely grassroots approach, where planners play the role of harnessing the repository of ideas and enthusiasm of the public into workable solutions. After all, the people are the ones who actually live in the community, so they should be able to impose their own values from the bottom up rather than be told by experts how to arrange themselves.

This really is an ancient and universal tension. It showed up between the writers of the Federalist papers, with Madison pushing for a robust Republicanism of participatory politics and Hamilton wanting more authority given to educated and specialized elites. A sort of balance shimmied its way into the American system of representational democracy. On the corporate level, innovative companies like Google have also struck upon a similar balance. On the one hand, they have intentionally fostered a spirit of chaos. Employees are given a remarkable amount of latitude to explore their own ideas and passions, and open source techniques open up the tableau of self-expression to the public at large. Yet, you know it's still a hierarchical corporation, not just a massive free-for-all.

How will local planners draw some order out of the chaos in their communities without squelching its simmering energy?

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