Up Sucker Creek

Up Sucker Creek
Photo Courtesy of the Lake Oswego Library

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Urban planning from the human side

What happens when a city is planned by a planner with a pen and a map?  

You get an unlivable city.  

If this wasn't your first thought then keep reading, because very likely you are part of the problem.  And for certain you don't live in a part of the city that is experiencing a barrage of unwelcome changes forced upon you by City Hall and its paid consultants.

This is a story about Central Planners (CP)*.

Central Planners don't think the same way you and I do.  And yet, in a so-called democracy, even a representative democracy, they are the ones with the power to shape our lives.  At the very least, they add a level of worry and agitation that doesn't need to be there.  We pay the salaries of the people who control us, and at the end of each work day, they go home to rest, and then return to start planning again the next day and the next.  The planning never slows and it never ends.

We shouldn't have to fight the people we pay to serve us - or do they?

Planning with a pen and a map
University urban planning departments are filled with courses on the social, economic, environmental and who-knows-what contexts of how cities are and should be planned.  Some of that is fine, but most of it is cutting edge theory, not based on how people really live or what they want for their lives.  Their mission is to go forth and show us a better way.   Limited living and limited lives are in our future.  The theories abound.  (There are theories for the growth of this negative world view and the rise of Utopianism, but that's another story.

Armed with a well-versed theory of smart growth, learned and repeated over and over until it sounds true, and a map of our city and region, the CP takes out his or her pen and starts to "imagine" a "vision" of what your street and mine can look like.  "Wouldn't it be great if...?" They ask each other.  After awhile they lose sight of what things cost and where the money will come from, what the neighbors want, or the likelihood their ideas will work as planned.  The map and the research numbers show them everything they need to know.

This is the state of planning today.

Planning with people  
This is a kind of planning that throws the book out the window and requires COs to check their egos at the door.  It isn't their plan.  They are the facilitators, not the creators.  The priorities are on the residents, not the crony capitalists.  The city's inhabitants are the most important concern in any planning scheme, and you can't understand or know them from a study or a book.  They are the ones who must live with the consequences, and for those of limited means, the option of packing up and moving to a better place may not be possible.  are our responsibility to watch out for - Period.

How to do planning in the 21st Century
Do what you would have done in the 19th century.  Get out and talk to people.  Go to their homes, knock on doors, invite them (in person) to coffee for a chat.  Spend a lot of time - several months or more - learning about who lives and works in the neighborhood and what they are like.  Most of all, what do the people who live there want for their neighborhood?  What do they want?  What do they like and value?  How do they live?  Do they have financial concerns?  Are they happy living or working where they do?  How can the government make their environment better without screwing things up?  At what cost?  And if there are obstacles to what the residents want, be prepared to go to bat for them!  Take on big bad Metro, lobby state legislatures, do what you can to assure that the community is protected and people can live in their homes unmolested by foreign planning concepts they do not want.  Most of all, be open and honest and treat us with the respect we deserve.  Who's city is it anyway?

What not to do:

  • Don't hire consultants without enough money and a plan to get to know the residents.  
  • Stakeholder committees should be made up primarily of residents based on their desire to be involved, not hand-picked for political reasons or for their professional or pecuniary interests.
  • Don't proceed without checking with the neighbors (yes, all of them) as much as necessary for adjustments to the plan.  The people are the creators of this plan.
  • If there is a conflict over who's needs prevail, there should be no question that residents' needs rank first.
  • Don't just put a notice in the paper or in the city newsletter or on the website.  Most people have complicated, exhausting lives and don't look at these things.  It's like talking to the same small clique and expecting new people to come to the party.  Instead do a door-to-door campaign to get neighbors to a meeting at their local school (not city hall or WEB building!).
  • Put a banner across the Main Street advertising a meeting.  Put flyers in stores and hand them out at events.  If you want more ideas, ask me!
  • Don't have those silly open houses with easels and stations for people to gawk at.  Go ahead and put them up, but have a group presentation and a long period of time for questions where everyone can hear the answers.  And don't try to obscure or deflect the truth.  

Is this a difficult way to do urban planning?
No.  It just takes a new mindset and a willingness to make openness and collaboration more than just words in a mission statement.  It takes effort to see someone else's point of view, especially when you've been trained to see things differently.

Besides, if we have a stake in making the plan that goes beyond mere tokenism of rigged stakeholder committees and public comment cards, then we will be more engaged to make sure it succeeds.

* The term Central Planner/CP is used on this blog as shorthand for a any of a number of people and professions that think they know how best to plan your city, your neighborhood and your life.  Some of them have training and degrees that advance this misconception.  

Most of the time CPs don't live where you do, and most of the time they have a financial or professional interest or political agenda in changing you live. Typically CPs live in comfortable surroundings immune from the problems they force on others, or they live in another city where they do not have to live with the consequences of their decisions.  

CPs have the power to change your life and fortune, and depending upon whether you live in the area to be planned or will profit from the planning, your life and fortunes will rise or fall with the decisions they make.  

CPs are the little-known bureaucrats, the expert consultants, the politicians and do-booder non-profit activists that work tirelessly behind the scenes to "make the world a better place" in their way of thinking.  For them this is hard work because the public (you and me) are not so easily manipulated or so stupid.  Remember that they do not live with the consequences of their decisions - their plans are for us.  The CP's biggest hurdle in planning the world are the masses - and for that they have designed a myriad of deceptions to make believe we have a say in planning decisions.  

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