Is Collaborative Planning Possible?

I wrote earlier about general problems of writing about planning and land use and about the basis of those problems which I believe arise from the widely divergent views people have about their communities. Now we can now explore conclusions and discuss what options we have in overcoming these problems.

The Atlantic uses the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative as an example of community planning gone right.

Amazingly, this distressed neighborhood began organizing to save, restore, and improve its community fabric back in the 1980s, long before “revitalization” or “smart growth” had become part of the everyday lexicon of planners and environmentalists such as yours truly. Plagued by severe disinvestment, illegal dumping of all sorts of waste, and with more than a third of its lots vacant, the Dudley residents over a period of several years got rid of the trash, stopped the dumping, gained control of the vacant properties, and undertook long-term planning based on the community’s own vision of an “urban village.”

You can read the whole story in the book, Streets of Hope. The major concession that this neighborhood group won was eminent domain in order to condemn undesirable properties which they were later put to more desirable use. Cities generally don’t hand that out willy nilly and in fact Dudley Street is one of the only examples that I know of this happening. It was granted to a severely distressed neighborhood where the city likely thought it had nothing to lose. I cannot imagine Olympia’s City Council would ever dream of doing such a thing, though as I mentioned, they’re looking at a consultant to help them optimize their use of those powers through a Community Renewal Area.

Otherwise, I have heard, read, and participated in several other examples of community planning, but they were usually hypothetical rather than actual planning. TRPC often conducts group planning sessions where for example, people use Legos to plan over a map of their city to help determine how they would like to see the city continue to develop. Unless the developer is sitting at the same table, with the land in question already under contract, it’s little more than a theoretical exercise and perhaps even a rhetorical one (e.g. “where are all the houses going to be built?”). The same goes for neighborhood scale planning. That was a relatively hot topic among the 10-15 the community members who interacted reasonably often with the OPC while I was commissioner. You can see that it even made its way in some amorphous shape into the draft Comprehensive Plan Update. I’m not sure how much more we’ll hear about that in the future.

I think we have to look at community planning from two related but separate aspects. I remove from the realm of possibilities the idea that we could “collaborate” or crowdsource to decide the details (at least from the scale I’m talking about here) involved in planning uses, heights, ingress and egress, and setbacks. There are simply too many underlying beliefs and preferences that all of us have individually. There will always be outcomes in these kinds of activities, and consequently there will always be people who will not be satisfied with them. So I find the use of the term collaborate somewhat misplaced. I never do metaphors well, but this strikes me as the classic illustration of too many cooks in the kitchen. I don’t really want the entire community pitching ingredients to the cook that the latter is bound to use in the recipe that all of us must enjoy. I’d rather take an inventory of the pantry, and call in someone who knows how to turn that kale and couscous into something I might want to eat.

On the other hand we could perhaps agree to broad visions through a collaborative, crowd-sourced process that could take place virtually. We could tell the cook what we like to eat. I suppose—and this really gets to the heart of the Olympia Views post. In fact, the city of Olympia attempted to do so a couple of years ago as part of its Imagine Olympia campaign which resulted in some of the data that city staff used to write the draft of the Comprehensive Plan Update. I attended a portion of the focus meetings, and read all the comments submitted that gave the city staff the data apparently used to create the Comprehensive Plan Update. (I wrote about the city’s use of the data earlier which was used to draft the Comprehensive Plan Update.) On the downside, I am not sure how most of those comments could result in a broad vision that most, let alone all of us would like. Broad participation in crafting a general vision has additional problems. In fact, some of the most difficult moments of the Planning Commission that I can recall were 11 people arguing over verbiage in a letter to the City Council. (We should expect that to be at least 2/11 easier going forward.) If 11 people cannot straightforwardly craft a vision, how could 50? 100? Does a comment thread or forum help? I love reading comments (excepting you know where), but I don’t know how productive reading and responding to comments is. (By the way, this Comprehensive Plan Update was released on April 2, 2012 to much fanfare culminating in a blog post on Olyblog by Thad Curtz and a sterile article on The Olympian.)

To further compound the virtual problems, the natural and perhaps inexorable tendency, like most discourse on the internet, would probably coalesce into a few intransigent ideas spread among a few different groups. These groups would then resist previously rejected, controversial, and even new ideas because they are inconsistent with the foundational basis of the particular group. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from internet discourse, it’s if you don’t like the game, you take your ball and go home, or go join or start another group comprised of people who agree with you. And it is simply amazing what makes people take their ball and run.

So can we plan virtually? Well, we can talk about planning, but being my cynical self, I don’t think these kinds of conversations will ever directly lead to the creation of the city that all of us desire. (If you think a city can be created that all of us desire, please re-read this post.)

Maybe the value of virtual planning inures singularly to the individual participant and in that by singular action, we collectively benefit. (This is the indirect route to wherever we’re trying to go.) I’ve recently accepted the idea that thoughtful interaction can, with enough time, revise previously ingrained social conclusions through thousands of little thought bubbles metaphorically arising above individual heads over a vast social scale. It may seem like this a simplistic conclusion and maybe even an intuitive one (“duh, of course people change their minds!”). But, I cannot offer proof and on a social scale, and I can’t really offer any examples. After all, there are still plenty of us who believe that an American right is access to cheap gas.

The kinds of glacial movements I am envisioning take enough time that try the patience of those who are involved in these questions. We may well be talking about generational differences. In Olympia for example, automobile use is often completely disconnected from any other questions about land use. (In the public communication of April 12, 2012 City Council meeting, all the community members who spoke about the dog park complained about fewer parking spaces in their neighborhood.) On a community-wide scale, we accept as a given the imperative of unfettered automobile use at the same time we demand a more desirable downtown. (I see that as pulling on both ends of a knotted rope.) As I’ve said earlier, only a small percentage of people of any given community will ever be involved in planning, and the majority of those get involved with it because they oppose something. If that is generally the case, I see little hope of real collaboration across divides on any platform.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel–if it isn’t an oncoming train. I recently read Daniel Kemmis’s book, Community and the Politics of Place (Thanks for recommending this two years ago, Emmett) in which Kemmis lamented the lack of real community interaction and collaboration in the public process (especially land use and planning) because we have essentially outsourced our civic responsibilities. Rather than community collaboration, we have adopted the concept of a Procedural Republic in which our only civic obligations to the polis and therefore, each other is presenting our views during our opportunity to be heard. As logic would dictate, speaking usually means an absence of listening and true collaboration requires both. (Kemmis will return to this blog in the future.) Call me a cynic again, but I think the virtual platforms are much better suited to speaking than listening thus magnifying this problem, but perhaps that will change with time. There’s not much point in bothering with land use if we believe things will never change.

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This entry was posted in Comprehensive Plan, Land Use Committee, Olympia Planning Commission, Public Hearings, Public Participation. Bookmark the permalink.

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