Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Does community engagement stiffle good development?

As a community developer we take the lead from what the community wants to see in their own backyard. But having worked in NYC for 7 years I also came to realize that communities can be their own worst enemy. What is good for the larger community is not always what happens.

Is citizen participation a good or bad for good responsible smart growth? I would have to say I have seen it go both ways where a community will kill a project that would have been a major asset in the future, but could not get beyond knee jerk and NIMBY issues. Builder has this great article with Andres Duany. He states:

Citizen participation in the planning process is probably the biggest roadblock. If you ask people what they want, they don’t want density. They don’t want mixed use. They don’t want transit. They don’t even want a bike path in their back yard. They don’t want a grid that connects, they want cul-de-sacs. They can’t see the long term benefits of walkable neighborhoods with a greater diversity of housing types. This book is a quick read and is dedicated explicitly to them. It’s for the people, not for planning professionals.

There is a theory of subsidiarity that considers at what level a decision is properly made. Most of today’s planning decisions--large and small--are made at the wrong level. Take transit. You do not ask the neighbor next to a 16-mile bikeway whether they want a bikeway in their back yard because they will say no. That’s a decision that needs to be made at the regional level. Conversely, let’s say you want to have free-range chickens to provide eggs for you and your neighbors. Right now that’s controlled by municipal ordinance. City zoning codes say no chickens, when really this is a decision that should be made at the block level, because chickens affect the block, not the whole city. Then you have municipalities enforcing rules about what color you can paint your house, which is ridiculous. That’s the wrong level of decision making.

I see how this can go both ways, but you do have to realize that you can't please everyone in the planning process. You might just have to break some eggs to make an omelet.

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