If we had a local version of Crosscut, a recent post by Rob Richards would deserve banner-headline prominence. In “The Process is the Thing,” he argues that creating “good” density requires good process. That effectively means curtailing the power of developers and planners.
This is a pretty subversive perspective. You’ve heard of the military-industrial complex dominating U.S. foreign policy? A similar dynamic plays out with local land-use planning. All too often a planner-developer complex primarily serves the narrow interests of the local growth machine rather than the larger — and long-term — common good. Richards’ focus on empowering the citizenry would effectively shift power away from the planner-developer complex.
Participatory planning isn’t a fringe idea
It would be easy to brush aside his perspective as that of an environmental extremist. But that wouldn’t be fair. Richards links his argument to that of Jane Jacobs, one of the planning field’s most influential voices in the last half century.
Jacobs’ participatory-oriented approach has been embraced by other prominent land-use experts such as John Forester of Cornell University. He has authored planning textbooks such as Planning in the Face of Power (1989), The Deliberative Practitioner (1999) and Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes (2009).
Indeed, Jacobs and Forester are such big names in the planning field that I would be shocked if there were any planners within Thurston County who hadn’t read at least some of their books and been asked by their professors to engage the meta-question: How should power be distributed in the planning process?
Ideals are hard to live up to
I had a planning professor who once lamented that so many young people entered graduate school with high ideals — only to find them dashed against the rocks of business-as-usual once they got their first job.
That’s why it is important to avoid blaming individuals and instead explore the systemic reasons why a planning process has taken citizen-involvement short cuts. As a case in point, the political economy of development can make it very hard for a planner to do more than mitigate its most egregious impacts.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, sociologist Harvey Molotch has argued that local politics is dominated by a growth machine. The activist group Controlling Growth In Our Communities summarizes this phenomenon: “The Growth Machine wants land to be used in ways that maximize the economic returns to its members. The Growth Machine does not care that its plans will lower the quality-of-life for current citizens or make the community less sustainable.”
How to best respond to the growth machine?
Controlling Growth further argues that “citizens cannot depend on our government officials to control land use for our common benefit because these officials protect the rights of property owners (i.e., Growth Machine) over the rights of current residents.” So this citizen’s group places an emphasis on legal resistance, such as through the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.
I suspect that Rob Richards may have a less legalistic — and pessimistic — attitude. He concludes his essay by stating that, “We know what we want our neighborhoods to look like, and we know what it’ll take to get us there. We just have to step up and take our place.”
My experience has been that it is harder for a neighborhood to coalesce around a common vision than Richards suggests. But it is a worthy undertaking. And it is more likely to succeed if planners saw themselves as facilitators of good process rather than social engineers determined to enforce a top-down policy, such as Sustainable Thurston’s ham-handed emphasis on planning for 170,000 new residents regardless of the environmental, social and financial consequences.
If you think it’s hard to change things in Olympia . . .
Sustainable Thurston could have turned out very differently if the staff of the Thurston Regional Planning Council had taken to heart the participatory planning approaches of Jacobs and Forester. Indeed, I’ve heard second-hand reports that not everyone was happy with the direction of this initiative, e.g., one planner allegedly described it as “the orderly destruction of the environment” — all under the orwellian name of sustainability.
If you think that Olympia’s neighborhoods lack adequate land-use powers, they have greater standing than those in unincorporated portions of the county. A proposed home-rule charter in the late-1980s would have at least partially addressed that problem. But it got demolished at the polls in part because of a last-minute negative media blitz significantly funded by out-of-county developer PACs.
This brings me back to a central theme of my writing: Citizen power requires electoral muscle that is not dependent on any one candidate. That goes for the City of Olympia just as much as it does the county.