Why Writing about Planning and Land Use is Problematic

Olympia Views brought up the topic and it gives me the perfect opportunity to discuss my thoughts, assumptions, and conclusions. In fact, Olympia Views has had several posts on the topic of planning and land use. Read and enjoy them.

There are several general difficulties that inhibit clear writing about land use and planning even within a limited locality like Olympia. It is actually one of the more challenging subjects to write about such that others might become interested in it. I have concluded that many if not most get into the arena because they’ve experienced what they consider to be a bad decision. Be that is it may, land-use and local/regional planning do not typically lend themselves to narratives that can be easily digested for general consumption. First, there are always parties involved whose interests depend on control of the narratives. Their stories are usually based on simplistic, but traditional notions of how things work or ought to work: e.g. “In order for our economy to turn around, we need builders putting up cheap housing developments,” unless of course the story on the day in question is the converse. Second, the process by which anything occurs in the built environment requires navigation through technical regulatory regimes which are often quite opaque and more difficult to transmit and receive via the written word. The latter also suffers from unsatisfactory elucidation in the newspaper articles because after all, they aren’t very interesting to read generally and often appear inflammatory if applied to a specific question. (“You mean they only need to give two months’ notice to build that toxic waste dump next door to my house?”) Unfortunately, attending the meetings is a torture so nefarious that it usually defies description (at least around this blog) and offers little help. Next, the duration of any land use or planning process is extremely long—sometimes years—which sucks the winds out of the sails of any story. (Though it is quite easy to cover events like the release of the Comprehensive Plan—especially when done with an eye to views in Olympia.) Writing about a boiling point of local land use isn’t exactly telling the real story in a way that people can meaningfully interact with the important issues. In that context, readers are observers, not participants in the process. Finally, whatever happens, someone is going to be upset about it—it’s a zero sum game. The aggrieved could be community-members who must deal with an ugly new building and increased traffic; or a spurned developer who swears never to apply for permit within the village limits again.

It’s worth considering this problem because creating an actual or virtual outlet for these kinds of issues might allow a greater number of people to become involved in the planning process; it would allow the dialogue among community members and all interested parties to raise above the stock proposals and objections (both of which I personally consider to be fairly superficial most of the time). Now that we’ve considered some of the general problems, we’ll take a deeper look in the next couple of posts.

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