Durable Growth

Must we always avoid controversy?

Walkable neighborhood in Buffalo, New York

Walkable neighborhood in Buffalo, New York

I’m on the periphery of an on-going public planning process with an element of controversy.  I won’t identify either the particulars or the principals for fear of getting sidetracked into a discussion of the specific situation, but I’ll present enough of the story to illustrate the larger point I want to make.

Based on a coming change with city-wide implications, a planner I know proposed a number of neighborhood-level changes.  He and his team had worked hard on the changes, looking for ways to maximize the services that could be provided within the city’s scant resources.

Some of the changes elicited controversy.  One in particular ignited a stormy neighborhood debate.  Unlike many controversies, this one drew responses on both sides of this issue, with some residents welcoming the change and others bitterly condemning it, many with personal and vitriolic attacks on the planner.

No polling was conducted on the matter, so I don’t know with certainty how the neighborhood as a whole viewed the change.  But my guess is that it would have followed the pattern of many planning decisions, with 5 percent in opposition, 15 percent in support, with varying levels of commitment to that support, and 80 percent either not caring or even aware of the issue.

The planner eventually backed away from the change, tiring of the rancor and fearing the impression being made on his superiors.  There were also technical reasons why the change might not have been feasible, but the infeasibility hadn’t been proved when the plug was pulled

I respect the many tasks I’ve watched the planner undertake and hope that he remains involved in planning for a long time.  And I understand that opting out of the change might have been the right move for him and for his department, so I intend no criticism of his decision.  But I’m not comfortable with a planning ethos in which ducking controversy can be a reason to avoid change.

When we conduct an election, we accept 51 percent as being sufficient to determine a winner.  But when we try to institute new public policy, we often let a loud five percent block a change, no matter how well conceived that change might be.

The reality is that there are few matters, including whether the sun will rise tomorrow morning, for which a dissenting five percent can’t be found.   So, as long as we let a vociferous five percent derail public policy, the fate of our cities becomes dependent on the fickleness of whether the dissenting five percent can be energized to become a vociferous five percent on a specific issue.

That’s no way to run a city.

This issue matters to urbanists because many of the changes we espouse have built-in adversaries.

Set aside pavement width for bike lanes?  We can’t reduce the lane widths for cars.

Add downtown parking meters?  Most downtown businesses would immediately fold.

Reduce parking requirements?  The curbs for blocks around would be jammed with an overflow of new cars.

Set aside a length of curb for a new bus stop?  We can’t lose a single parking place.

Put multi-family homes within a walkable distance of downtown and transit?  No one will walk so we’ll only jam the already crowded streets.

There are good and valid responses to all of those concerns.  Indeed, urbanists welcome the opportunity to have frank conversations on subjects like this.  But if the future of urbanism relies on winning over the final and most obstreperous five percent, there may not be a future.  Or at least it will be delayed far longer that it should be.

I’m not suggesting that a planning elite should be allowed to impose new development without garnering broad public support.  Good public policy requires public involvement.  But deferring to a five percent who doesn’t choose to listen or to learn doesn’t serve anyone.

The future demands that we sometimes overrule a minority, no matter how loud and obnoxious they may be.As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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