The Pluralistic and Individual Foundation of Olympia

I discussed the general problems with writing about land use and planning earlier. The idea there is if we do that well, we can draw in more participants, broaden our collective vision, and through continual and sustained efforts, ultimately live in a more desirable settlement. There are several problems with this idea but all of them revolve around the idea that we all see that settlement very differently—almost as if we’re not looking at the same object at all.

Any particular geographic designation, city or town, just like any actually living organism expands, declines, rots, grows, and otherwise changes for better or for worse fluidly throughout time. This change doesn’t have a point of departure—no community has ever not been in transition in some way, shape, or form. Each community changes relentlessly if not by the births and deaths of residents, then no doubt by the structures which constitute the visual fabric. This makes thinking about our communities on a social scale difficult because each of us maintains our own individual reference point. Some of us remember a beautiful building that was torn down to make way for a parking lot. Many in our senior generation still recall memories of a Thurston County without I-5. A huge percentage of us have lived in other places and see our city as what it may someday become more than what it is now. These different reference points inhibit the foundation of a broad and comprehensive vision that a broad and comprehensive narrative requires. Without the former, people are less likely to be drawn in and participate. That is one reason that so many of the most visible participants are drawn from similar socio-economic demographic designations. They share a similar vision. The most obvious example is the business community—the profit imperative cuts through other disagreements like a red hot knife through butter. For everyone else the glacial movements of a city’s amorphous social development toward one outcome or another are seen and described differently for each person who observes them. The same land use action for example may be seen in diametric opposition to a resident trying to build a community or a developer attempting to extract value. With that in mind, consider how might someone write about land use and planning without appearing inflammatory to whosever point of view isn’t gratified. You can’t—and so you get articles about a new hotel proposal in complete isolation from the larger narrative entirely devoid of any vision at all.

There are other problems. A large segment—perhaps more than half—of the population simplistically avers that planning is unnecessary and that market mechanisms should determine what gets built, where, and how. Therefore, they hardly care to participate in the process except to the extent that their interests are imperiled. The rest of us cannot afford to get involved in these types of discussions in the first place because they are too busy raising kids, working extra jobs, looking for extra jobs or have otherwise been marginalized from participation by their socio-economic situation.  Therefore, we have a clearly divisible segment of the population involved in local land use and planning. It may or may not be representative of the larger community, but that hardly matters because in a participatory governance system, if you don’t speak up, you might as well not exist. Local politicians cannot afford to hitch their wagons to silent majorities.

We see our communities differently. We think about our communities differently. We all participate in our communities differently. It isn’t therefore, difficult to imagine why we would have trouble getting on the same page about them, or joining in some kind of process through which we are all playing the same game.

A final and perhaps most important difficulty is that development within a city, on a project-by-project basis, has reached a scale so vast financially and spatially (e.g. huge single family detached houses developments, planned villages, hundreds of housing units in a single skyscraper) that the participants (applicant or recipient) rarely desire anyone else to be involved because the moving parts involved must be coordinated with little tolerance for error in order for anyone to make any money. From this conclusion, the planning process is best left to the money-lender, the builder, and the permitting authority. In this framework, the public’s involvement should begin and end only through the permitting authority as the law allows—notice and public hearing before a neutral decision maker. I am sure there are several—across the country—exceptions to this assumption. In my experience at least, successful exceptions means an unrequired community meeting during which the drawings for the proposed project are released a little early in the hope that such an act of generosity might defray enough angry community members opponents that any opposition will fizzle out before calcification.  I believe that until the nature of our economic system changes—until development doesn’t require extracting value from the project—individual projects will never actually reflect community objectives and values.* (I am willing however to concede an exception if the developer, bank, and permitting authority were exclusively residents of the community in question—good luck on that one in this age of transnational capital and shareholders.) People don’t own and hold land for future projects in order to garner community favor. They do it to make money and any legislative or judicial action that might abridge profit opportunities on that land will be opposed regardless of the benefits to the community. Thus the conflict is crystalized into one of collective and individual rights. Again, good luck solving that one.

In the third and final part, I’ll try to reconcile these issues and revisit Olympia View’s initial question of where and how we might plan virtually.

*Most of the cities we all love in Europe were built in an epoch that did not depend on deriving profits from that building—they were usually expenses for personal or even public consumption. So they were built for different reasons and used for different reasons. John Nash was a shrewd property developer to help ease the debits to the Royal Treasury, but the Medici, Baron von Haussman and Christopher Wren weren’t required to secure income streams from the structures they built. Coincidently, their projects were almost all master-planned, but almost none under the authority of a democratically elected local government. Don’t expect anything similar from the good graces of modern developers.

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2 Responses to The Pluralistic and Individual Foundation of Olympia

  1. Larry Leveen says:

    You wrote “until the nature of our economic system changes—until development doesn’t require extracting value from the project—individual projects will never actually reflect community objectives and values.” And in your footnote you wrote “the cities we all love in Europe were built in
    an epoch that did not depend on deriving profits from that building—they were usually expenses for personal or even public consumption. So they were built for different reasons and used for different reasons.”

    Both of those statements are very intriguing, because it seems that we are stuck in a way of doing things that isn’t serving communities, and results in, as James Howard Kunstler so wisely observed, a “Geography of Nowhere” . You rightly point out that until our economic system changes, development is not likely to be conducted any differently. But what IS that change (or those changes)? I am somewhat ashamed that I do not know. I wish I did know, because I then I’d go about trying to “change the underlying formula” instead of wasting precious time and energy on stupid “firefights”. So please, kind Sir, while making your astute observations on the State of Olympia (and the world?), please enlighten us as to how you think things should and could be different. My guess is that you are not (nor purport to be) immune from the hellish dynamic that it is far easier to critique something than to provide workable solutions. From Marx to Kunstler (“Home From Nowhere” lacks the moxie of the previous book, mentioned above), I see “diagnosis” but no recommended “treatment” that adequately solves the problem.

    So what about these european cities? Can we recreate the conditions they evolved out of? Would that even be desirable — think plague, mass privation etc. (plus, to the 99% we doing that _anyway_ in our current system but this time with WiFi access)? Are we neccessarily constrained to a duality — either historic Europe or contemporary “Nowhere/Everywhere, USA”? What else is there? Alien intervention? I’ll read their blogs if I can find them, but I am worried that they don’t _just_ eat the rich….

  2. Mark Derricott says:

    I could go on forever on both of these questions, but I’ll try to keep them both to general thoughts for now. There will be much more to come on the first one, at least in future posts. Perhaps the second too, but I haven’t actually tried to organize those thoughts nearly much so I cannot promise anything.
    Off the top of my head, the differences between the U.S. West and name your Euro city can be reduced to the sources of energy (primarily wood until it became coal), and political organization. Those two are dialectically related of course. Having said that, there are very view authentic medieval cities anymore (e.g. Krakow and Rothenberg) thanks to people like Nash, Hausmann, and the Second World War so I can’t here and now try to explain how energy was distributed and people were organized based on personal experience. The answer to the question you asked is no. I don’t want to recreate a society in which it is necessary to build that way again. Furthermore, I don’t think we could reduce the historical paths those cities took to some kind of empirically deducible laws of planning. If you ran a historical model of London 100 times, in how many of them would it burn? Or another model of St. Paul’s constructed? Likewise if you ran a model of the history of Europe, in how many would a Hitler or Stalin appear? Be that as it may, I can’t say that with any shred of certainty that any particular building would have been built or any place made as we like to say around here lately. It is remarkable that so much of the ancient foundation in so many of those cities lives on. (In Seattle for example, many a beautiful structure has been razed in order to erect another bland McCondo.) On the other hand, Frankfurt is an undeniably modern city without much of its ancient architecture at all, but in its modern expression maintains so much of what we find desirable in our cities. (Our best attempt at that is Bellevue which tries to have its car cake and eat its city.) What does that say about the social ethics of the people in question? I don’t know.
    New Urbanism offers an alternative, but people oppose that for all the reasons I’ve been discussing. It’s not the panacea but it’s a step in the right direction. One huge disadvantage is of course you can’t overlay new urbanism in a downtown area easily—lots of landowners who don’t want limitations on their right to use the land etc. etc. You can do a master planned village, but if those are greenfield developments on the outskirts of town where land is available for huge master planned villages, they don’t usually result in purported benefits that urbanism is supposed to bring anyway. I’d leave this at theoretical solutions with real implementation problems. The hope that we might overcome them brings me to my brief thoughts on social change.
    This may be a myth, but it’s still inspirational. When a student asked an old Frederick Douglas what advice he would give to young people, Douglas supposedly said “agitate.”
    Social change is a complex idea and I’ll have much more to say about it, but the first thing I think we have to keep in mind is that even if we had the perfect model of a perfect society in hand, in which all were guaranteed liberty, equality, and siblighood, it would still be impossible for us to get from there. (Sisyphusian is putting it way too lightly.) Lenin’s theory was to destroy the state and he succeeded, but we know how that story ended. Mao? Not much better. It’s more personal than that: our Constitution didn’t help black people much, and most people you ask say that what is good in the Constitution is steadily eroding. I think social change ultimately happens by many people changing their behavior—and that’s the highest price we could ask anyone to pay. It’s so simple, but so untouchable. Thus, criticism may be the most powerful weapon out there. We won’t change our behavior if we don’t think about it. So if I could augment Douglas’s advice: “Think and Act.” (Protest songs are so great because they get both of those birds with a single stone. Why don’t you play us one?) So Larry, perhaps you should keep putting out the fires until you find something more productive. But as you do, make sure the four people who watch you do so know that you’re not mixing concrete, but building cathedrals.

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