Planning in Public

In the postmodern era and beyond, public engagement has taken center stage in most theories of planning.

The public often have opinions that planners either don’t agree with or don’t understand. These opinions are usually called “NIMBYism,” or Not In My Backyard-ism. The perpetual problem seems to be that people just don’t like change. Any change.

In Gallatin, we have a lot of residents who’ve moved from elsewhere and specifically chose to live here because of the scenic natural beauty and slower way of life. It’s understandable, then, why they’re mad when they see subdivisions sprout from former wheat fields and engineered roads spread like kudzu across former greenspace. This isn’t what they signed up for, they reason.

I think planners hear this kind of stuff so much that we begin to be desensitized to it and create self-defense mechanisms, almost like we’ve got PTSD. “Oh yeah, don’t like growth? Tell that to the folks you moved next to when you came here!” “Change is the only constant!”

I don’t think this is right, though. If we could step back a second, we might realize we’ve developed a bit of Stockholm Syndrome. That’s when victims begin to idenitify with their captives/oppressors. We’ve seen the mal-regulated (I don’t say un-regulated: it’s regulated, alright, just in the wrong way) land development market pulverize our vision of the healthy, sustainable community so many times that we’ve begun to rationalize it. Beats being agitated all the time, right?

Right, but not if we want things to change. That development on the edge of town that’s about to devour old McDonald’s farm? Nobody likes it, of course. The neighbors have shown up in mass to protest it. All the usual complaints: traffic, schools, crime, loss of scenic beauty. We say, “Hey, the developer’s within Code. It’s his right.”

But in the bigger picture, the neighbors are right. Any land regulation regime that makes it easier to buy up a farm and turn it into an island of single-family monoculture than to infill the same product into an existing urbanized area is not functioning correctly. Sure, neighbors within cities also complain when things get denser. But we have to start shifting the expectations of people.

I mean in this way: growth has to go somewhere. We all partially benefit from the growth–more jobs, more stores and restaurants, more events. Through the comprehensive planning process, we need to make sure central urban areas understand: more density and more development is coming. This is how we save farmland, this is how we maximize the return on our infrastructure investments, and this is how we create the synergistic mixed use neighborhoods that the market is moving toward anyway.

Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns advocates for allowing each area to incrementally upzone to the next level of intensity. For a turn-of-the-century streetcar neighborhood, that would look like adding missing middle housing and corner stores. But for a cornfield? That might be an upzone to a 2-acre estate lot. Low density on the fringes is GOOD.

This is why I got into city planning. What is one well-designed site worth if it’s not at the right location? In the right relation to all the other well-designed sites? This is an ongoing problem to be solved, and we need the public on our side to do it. Let’s present them with a compelling vision.

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