Friday, February 10, 2012

Regional Planning Revisited

A few weeks ago, I talked at length about the One Bay Area regional planning effort, especially the attempts by dissidents to disrupt the meeting I attended in Santa Rosa.  Below are a couple of updates.

First, the regional planning organizations, perhaps to collect that the public feedback that was lost in the confusion at the scheduled meetings, has set up a virtual workshop.  The on-line workshop gives the public an opportunity to weigh in on the key planning issues.  The website is only active until February 15.  If you wish to participate, you should do so soon.  If you watch the videos and slideshow before voting, which I recommend, you’ll likely spend about 25 minutes.

If you disagree with the concept of regional planning, the first question will give you the opportunity to express that opinion.  After that question, you might not find many choices within the multiple choice options that allow you to express those feelings.  However, most of the questions include boxes into which you can enter other opinions.

Second, Atlantic Cities published a thoughtful article on the role of regional planning versus Agenda 21.  To refresh your memory, Agenda 21 is a United Nations initiative to promote sustainability in the 21st century.   Some people, who are generally known by the confusing name of Agenda 21’ers, believe that regional planning is an attempt by the United Nations, aided and abetted by our federal and state governments, to impose the Agenda 21 on local communities.

The author of the Atlantic Cities piece doesn’t concur with the Agenda 21’ers, but he does argue that they shouldn’t be off-handedly dismissed either.  One point he makes is that the enthusiasm which the planners have for sustainability looks a lot like the enthusiasm that the planners of the 1950s had for urban renewal.  The mid-20th century push toward urban renewal is now generally considered a massive miscalculation, which poses the question of whether the current enthusiasm for sustainability is equally misplaced.

I believe a distinction can be drawn between the urban renewal efforts of fifty years ago and the new urbanism of today.  (I’m aware that I’m conflating sustainability and new urbanism.  They do largely overlap, but there are distinctions to be drawn between them.  It’s a subject to which I’ll return in a future post.  For today, I’ll let the conflation stand.)

Urban renewal of the 1950s was pushed by policy planners deciding how the lower and lower-middle classes should live, a group to which the planners didn’t belong.  The wishes of the people who would actually occupy the new buildings were generally ignored.

Jane Jacobs offers a marvelous example of how the planners of the 1950s insisted on creating large lawns around many of the projects, thinking that the lawns would provide a healthy place to recreate.  The tenants feared the lawns, finding them wide-open places where bullies could hold intimidate the weaker residents away from the ready intervention of law-abiding residents.   Also, the residents missed the small storefronts that had been replaced by the lawns.  It was around the stores where the neighborhood social life had safely occurred.

In contrast, new urbanism is usually supported by people who usually truly intend to live in a new urbanist setting.  (My wife and I live in a single-family home on a small lot within a six-block walk of downtown, four blocks to city hall.  We’re comfortably within what is considered the outer ring of new urbanism.  Plus, our retirement goal is to move into a downtown setting.)

But even though I can make that distinction between 1950s urbanism renewal and 21st century sustainability, I can still understand how others might easily see a parallel.  It’s a good reason for new urbanists to remain sensitive to how their enthusiasm is projected.

 I recommend the article.  I also recommend the links that it offers, including the United Nations documents that comprise Agenda 21 and the American Planning Association attempt to separate myths from facts.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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