Monday, April 18, 2016

Finding the Elusive Public Input Sweet Spot

Walkable urban setting in Napa
In my last post, I wrote that public input can sometimes go awry, with concerns about flawed ideas triggering rules that consume both good and bad ideas.

The examples I cited were from my personal history with small-scale hydroelectric projects.  In that field, logically dubious demands for “cumulative impact” studies, raised by those who had legitimate concerns about projects proposed in inappropriate locations but lacked a bigger perspective, bogged down the review process such that few power projects, even the good ones that could have slowed climate change, moved ahead.

I then expressed a concern that something similar could happen to walkable urbanism if a long list of projects, undifferentiated as to their impacts on traffic, water usage, or other local hot buttons, triggered a public demand to slow all development.

A new reader to this blog might interpret my concern as a preference for little or no public input.

That interpretation would be wrong.

Long-time readers know that I encourage public input.  Indeed, a primary thrust of this blog is trying to motivate people to participate in the land-use process, hopefully in support of walkable urban development. 

But that motivation can be difficult to incite because effective public participation isn’t easy.  Instead, it often stumbles on three hurdles, education, persistence, and opportunity.  I’ll expand on the three.

Education: I’ve long been intrigued how the general public decides the range of topics on which they can make useful comments.  As a civil engineer, I’ve described the phenomenon as “Everyone has an opinion on roundabouts, but no one ever comments on sewer sizing.”

From an engineering perspective, the design difficulties of the two are roughly similar.  A young engineer with moderate competence and a few years of experience can do a reasonable job with either.  But the public feels that they can make helpful input on roundabouts, while staying away from sewer design.

I understand why there’s a difference.  As drivers, the public thinks they understand roadways, but prefers not to think about sewers.  (In a recent public meeting, I made a mild jest about sewer flows.  The City Councilmember sitting next to me commented acidly, “Thanks for putting that image in our heads.”)

But the fact that the general public thinks it understands driving doesn’t make it so.  A good example, although far from the only one, is induced traffic, the theory that there is latent traffic demand awaiting reduced congestion before coming forth.  The theory explains why new roads, even in communities that are demographically and economically stable, quickly fill and become as congested as older roads

This theory has been understood and applied in Europe for decades, but is only now gaining traction in the U.S., in large part because many didn’t find it intuitive.

(Of course, engineering isn’t the only field of endeavor in which the willingness of the public to offer opinions doesn’t map well with their knowledge.  Lots of folks have opinions on vaccines, but no one weighs in on transplant rejection drugs, although both deal with the immune system.  I’ll leave it as a party game for readers to come up with examples in other fields.)

When it comes to public input, an under-informed public can still be effective, but may end up being effective on the wrong points, helping to effect “solutions”, such as cumulative impact studies, that ultimately work contrary to the public good.

To make the world better through public advocacy, one must not only be willing to make one’s voice heard, but to also make sure that one is saying something that advances the common good.

By saying this, I’m not setting myself forth as the fount of urbanist knowledge.  Far from it.  Instead, I find myself learning something new every day, often challenging or modifying earlier beliefs.  This blog isn’t a source of ultimate knowledge.  It’s a cooperative effort between readers and me to continue working toward better and more complete knowledge of land use that can be used for public involvement.

Persistence: No matter how ill-conceived, there’s one advantage to making a ruckus on a single point such as cumulative impact studies.  Because it doesn’t require interaction with the current processes, one can choose any time to make the argument.  If enough supporters can be secured, new rules can be implemented relatively quickly and the proponents can soon move onto other challenges, usually without a look back at the carnage left behind.

But working within the system, choosing to support “good” projects and to oppose “bad” ones, requires a different timescale.  It requires constant attention to the process and careful scheming about the right moment to put a drop of oil in the right place to change the outcome.  It requires persistence.

In my time of actively promoting urbanism, I’ve worked with a lot of people who bought into urbanism and vowed to make a difference.   Then they realized the glacial pace at which true change, not superficial disruption but true change, is effected and soon wandered away.

I don’t necessarily blame them.  It is hard to sit through weeks and months of city council, planning commission, and advisory committee meetings, waiting for the exact moment to make the right pitch.  But it’s how good projects, those tailored to best serve the public good, get moved along.    

Opportunity: Over time, I’ve had the chance to chat with many North Bay municipal officials about the land-use process and public input.  Although far from unanimous, one response that arises occasionally and concerns me greatly is unease with public input and a preference to defer it to the end, after city staff has had months or years to polish the project, leaving only a few intractable issues for public decision.

The problem with that approach is that many good ideas may have been left on the cutting room floor before the public ever has a chance to touch the project.

Perhaps an 80-unit apartment project has been trimmed to 40 units to reduce massing, although pedestrian vitality would have been served by the greater number.

Perhaps the parking count has been bumped to avoid parking management issues, although the public would have preferred to encourage non-auto travel.

Perhaps an opportunity to provide a convenient connection to a bus stop has been lost.

If the public is excluded from the process until the final approvals, we’ll almost certainly get development that looks much like what we’ve always gotten.  And in a world where climate change and municipal fiscal collapse are hanging on the horizon, continuing the status quo shouldn’t be our aim.

So, earlier and more significant public input should be the goal.  But of course, that participation in the early stages of a project should be calm, temperate, and cognizant of the political and financial realities of development.  The goal should be cooperative problem-solving, not the bashing of developers or city staff.

So there’s my philosophy.  I believe greatly in public input.  Indeed, I consider that opportunities for public input are essential to healthy cities.  But that input must come with education and persistence.  And my fear is that video that triggered the rumination in this post and the preceding one, although not the intention of the videographer, didn’t promote opportunity, education, or persistence.

My next two posts have long been planned to touch on a recent week of community involvement and on a restart for Petaluma Urban Chat.  However, I now see that each topic has become a logical continuation of the threads above.  So the topics will remain as planned, but will be woven into a bigger tapestry.

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

1 comment:

  1. You mentioned in another post about Urban Chat some books the group read. Can you please recommend some of them here?