Monday, April 9, 2012

Building Community Consensus about Density

Spreading urbanism into towns and suburbs will usually increase density. That aspect of urbanism will often cause opposition. Thus far, we’ve talked about the objections that have been raised by groups that have philosophical problems with increasing density, such as the Agenda 21ers. But more significant opposition for most projects is from the local community. Even when a community has a shared vision of urbanism and increasing density, consensus around a specific project can be difficult.

These issues were highlighted in a recent Urban Land Institute program, “How to Add Density to Affluent Communities”. The session was held in the new library in downtown Lafayette. Most of the content pertained to Lafayette, which is more affluent than many North Bay communities. But many of the lessons that were offered still had broad pertinence.

The speakers, Lafayette City Manager Steve Falk, Matt Branagh of Branagh Development, and Rick Dishnica of Dishnica Company, LLC, collectively made the following points:

1. Community consensus is essential. But as essential as it might be, it can still be hard to reach and requires good facilitation skills.

2. Community consensus can be aided if desirable trade-offs are identified and implemented. In Lafayette, increased density in the downtown core is seen as the cost of the most restrictive ridgeline protection ordinance in the state. The Lafayette community is willing to accept that trade.

3. Even when there is a community consensus, individual projects will still have hurdles to overcome. It is easy for the community to say “We support increased density in general, but not when it looks like that project.”

I think all three points are sound. But when I try to mentally apply the process to the North Bay, I bump into a problem. To build and to continue to support a consensus, long-range city planning staffs are probably the key element. Not the planners who are engaged in day-to-day entitlement processing, but the planners who engage the communities in discussions about long-range visions.

And yet, in the days before the ongoing economic downturn, many cities increasingly tried to tie planning department funding to entitlement proceeds, directing fewer general fund dollars toward long-range planning. That trend was exacerbated by the downturn, which put crushing pressures on the general funds.

I don’t have a solution. I understand the financial pressures under which cities are now working. It wouldn’t be fair to cavalierly call for more funds for long-range planning.

But at the same, it’s essential to recognize the conflict. A crucial tool that we need to begin digging out of the economic hard times, planning staff who is ready and willing to help build community consensus, is a tool that isn’t available because of the hard times.

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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