Monday, August 31, 2015

Managing the Clash of Order and Anarchy

The acknowledgement page of the Petaluma Station Area Master Plan lists my name near the top of the Citizens Advisory Committee, behind only the City Councilmember who chaired the committee.  (The placement of names reflects the alphabet, not value of contributions.)

What the committee member list doesn’t show is that, from my recollection, of the seventeen folks who were appointed to the committee, only four were present for the last meeting at which we accepted the report and recommended approval by the City Council.  It was the final stage in the gradual diminishing of the committee from the first meeting to the last.

I don’t know all the reasons why thirteen members drifted away, but I got feedback from one.  He felt that too many of the master plan decisions had been pre-determined and that the committee had little or no opportunity to change the conclusions.  I suspect that at least some of the other missing members would have expressed a similar disappointment.

Even if my particular experience on that committee was slightly different, I could empathize with the concern.  I’ve sat through many public meetings where it felt as if the only role of the public body was to rubberstamp a decision that had already been decided elsewhere, often in a room where none of the committee members were present.  (Although I should note that many of the apparently pre-ordained decisions were still appropriate.)

It’s an element of what Professor Emily Talen described at CNU 23 as the tension between order and anarchy.  In her words, the relationship between the two is “A grand manner of order provides the urban framework on which diversity and chaos can hang.”

For the Station Area Master Plan committee, order was represented by the consultant and the City staff who brought a wealth of prior experience and a clear vision of the final product to the process.  Anarchy was represented by the committee and by the general public who brought ideas that threatened to upset and redirect the process.

But this example is far from the only interface where order and anarchy meet in the land-use arena.  A few other examples are:

·         A city has an orderly expectation of downtown retail storefronts.  An entrepreneur seeks to drop a shipping container onto a vacant lot to serve as a pop-up store.

·         A parks department has a master plan to provide a balanced range of recreational and leisure activities to the community.  A coffee shop owner seeks to convert a pair of parking places in front of his store into a parklet, complete with bike racks, potted trees, and sofas.

·         A city lays out standard setbacks and architectural rules for homes in single-family neighborhoods.  A developer tackles a challenging parcel by proposing a compact neighborhood in a form not anticipated by the zoning code.

And those examples don’t even touch upon oddball adjacencies such as a comic book store next to a dinner theatre house next to a stalled building remodeling project, as shown in the photo from Johnson City, Tennessee.  No planner ever envisioned the anarchy of those types of adjoining uses.

Our old friends at StrongTowns characterize often characterize order as top-down and dumb, with anarchy being bottom-up and smart.  I can see their point, but don’t fully accept it.

To me, top-down is dumb only to the sense of being unwilling to consider new points of view.  That’s an unfortunate shortcoming, but order still carries a lot of accumulated wisdom.  Having a minimum sewer size of six inches, an optimal household water pressure of 80 pounds per square inch, and a maximum road grade of 18 percent may be boring, top-down standards, but they work far better than if we make those values subject to public consensus.

Meanwhile, bottom-up can sometimes offer helpful new perspectives, but if the public is left alone with a blank map and no sense of the practical, a land plan of purple unicorns browsing in a field of candy canes next to a babbling brook of cherry soda is often the result.

In my experience, the best results always come when anarchy suggests an idea far outside of the box.  Order gives a good reason why the idea is impractical, but takes up the thread of the idea and proposes and alternative that is a great step forward.  The best processes come with both order and anarchy represented at the table and mutually respectful.

Which brings me back around to the Petaluma Station Area Master Plan and my small attempt to be an agent of anarchy.

I came onto the committee with three pet ideas, one about a changed city policy that would lead to a better mixture of residential uses in urban settings, another about a district that could complement the station area, and a third about a neighborhood that could be adversely impacted by new development, making proactive mitigations appropriate.

But I knew enough not to toss my ideas into the maelstrom of general public comments where good and bad ideas are quickly swirled and then lost forever.  Instead, I bided my time, waiting for the right moments for one-on-one conversations with the members of consultant team would I thought would be amenable to my ideas.  I found my openings, made my 60-second pitches, and waited for responses.

When those responses came, the general form was that after consultation with the remainder of the project team and City staff, the ideas, however intriguing, weren’t something that could be considered with the current project scope, budget, and/or mindset.  Order had managed to repel even a carefully planned campaign by anarchy.

Unlike many of my fellow committee members, I didn’t choose to cease my participation.  Instead, I stayed on, working in good faith to make the final report as good as possible, and still looking for opportunities to add a bit of anarchy to the process.  Above all, anarchy must be persistent.

Although I find it unsatisfying, that’s really the only conclusion I can bring to this subject.  Both order and anarchy can bring value to land use planning and to most decisions regardless of the subject.  Any process that seeks to optimize its outcome must find a way to balance the two.

Having introduced order versus anarchy into the conversation, I expect the two are a theme that will often be cited in future posts.

I recently spent a morning becoming reacquainted with one of my favorite rock bands.  Perhaps not surprisingly, my musings about the band soon led me to an insight about urbanism.  I’ll share the train of thought in my next post.

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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