This fall, California's Strategic Growth Council will release a preliminary assessment about SB 375's implementation to date. So now is a good time to step back and deeply reflect on how we are running public participation processes in this state, especially legislatively mandated ones. We need to consider how legislative requirements like those for the SB 375 regional planning process may help or hinder meaningful public engagement.
Public process design is critical when participants are ideologically divided and do not trust each other or the public agencies in charge. It can be important to seek out areas of common ground. For example, all of us in a process may not able to agree on whether climate change exists, but we might be able to agree that hybrid vehicles should pay their fair share for road costs. We may not be able to agree on whether high density housing is beneficial in most circumstances, but we could do joint fact-finding to assess impacts on property rights, property values and public services like schools, police and fire departments.
In the course of my research on contested regional planning issues in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Atlanta, Georgia, surprising areas of convergence emerged.
In the Bay Area, Tea Party and property rights activists came in force to block regional planning meetings run by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments to develop the region's first Sustainable Communities Plan, known as Plan Bay Area. These activists were not alone in opposition, as plaintiffs from across the political spectrum filed four lawsuits against the plan: two with connections to Tea Party and property rights activists, one brought by the Building Industry Association Bay Area, and one was by environmental organizations. And in the progressive left stronghold of Marin County, citizens not affiliated with Tea Party or property rights groups have raised Cain against cities that adopted higher density development areas in order to access regional funds available through the plan.
(On early Tea Party and property rights activists' opposition to SB 375 see http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3011. On the initial Plan Bay Area lawsuits see http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3403. On the suits' partial resolution this year see http://www.planetizen.com/articles/node-69937, http://www.planetizen.com/articles/node-70187 and the Mercury News at http://bit.ly/1rngVsh.)
In Atlanta, Tea Party and property rights activists led the opposition to a regional sales tax proposal before the voters in 2012. The measure would have dedicated half of the estimated funds generated to public transit projects. An unexpected loose coalition of strange bedfellows emerged: Sierra Club and NAACP leaders joined the opposition, in part because they felt the proposed transit projects were not the ones the area needed. Although it is hard to say what impact the coalition had on the measure, the tax failed tremendously with 63% of the votes in opposition.
When examining the two contentious regions, I found four points of convergence between conservative activists and planning scholars, largely over transport policy and process matters, that warrant planners' attention. These align generally with progressive activists' positions even though the divergent sides come to planning from different vantage points.
First, the most surprising area of agreement was in Atlanta when on a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee. Conservative activists supported this fee as a replacement for the gas tax if major administrative and privacy challenges were overcome. Like researchers who argue for fees based on vehicle miles traveled, conservative activists are concerned that drivers of electric and hybrid vehicles are not paying their full share of costs to the transport system. Progressives often advocate for this fee transition too, but with the hope that funding could be directed to transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects.
Second, conservative activists in both the Bay Area and Atlanta questioned the wisdom of running costly rail lines in low-density areas – another area where they align with researchers who caution that mass transit needs a sufficient mass of residents and jobs to generate transit riders or the system will have little use. Instead, these activists, researchers – and often progressive counterparts too – view Bus Rapid Transit service as a viable less expensive option, particularly when a local area does not have the density to support rail. Thus, where we may think that conservative activists oppose transit outright, those I interviewed offered a more nuanced understanding. Like researchers, they looked to development densities for ridership generation and found it important to weigh project costs.
Third, activists in both regions questioned the authenticity of the planning process and whether planners went through the motions to arrive at a predetermined outcome. Planners involved likewise questioned the activists' motivations and actions. Planning scholars and progressive activists have debated for decades whether large-scale planning processes with public meetings and hearings are meaningful formats for gaining genuine public input.
Fourth, in Atlanta, activists across the political spectrum opposed the 2012 sales tax proposal because it was a regressive across-the-board tax rather than a user fee. Transportation scholars similarly have cautioned against sales taxes to fund infrastructure. They also argue that in California, where local sales taxes for transport run rampant, the state should move to a user fee system.
A way forward for planning efforts when the citizenry are divided along ideological lines could begin with participants seeking to find areas of common ground like the ones outlined above.
Planners could draw from the political theory of agonism to reframe their approach to civic engagement. In agonistic contexts, actors come to consider their opposition as legitimate adversaries rather than as enemies unworthy of engagement. In such moments, actors retain their core values and identities but they may also find limited common ground with others, or agree to disagree. Group consensus is not a goal, but compromise through bargaining and negotiations may occur. Debates can be informed by analyses jointly developed between activists and planners that examine, for example, the range of potential property rights impacts and the full-lifecycle costs of projects and plans.
While challenging, it may be worthwhile to establish the long-term objective of transitioning from highly antagonistic, counterproductive encounters to interactions of agonistic debate.
In the long run, the state may be well served by looking to areas of convergence as key to a comprehensive examination of SB 375's public participation and general requirements. Current law and practice push regions to adopt plans that can be vulnerable to lawsuits if they are supported only by weak consensus. Such plans may be barely able to hold together over time. We wouldn't ship a package long-distance in crumpled wrapping and fraying tape. Likewise, we need solid community negotiations to keep plans from coming apart.
Dr. Karen Trapenberg Frick is Assistant Adjunct Professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. She is Co-Director of the UC Transportation Center and Assistant Director of the UC Transportation Center on Economic Competitiveness in Transportation (UCCONNECT). Her research focuses on the politics and planning of transport infrastructure. Recent projects have included a study of Tea Party and property rights activists' perspectives on planning and planners' responses.
Links and references:
For more on the research discussed above, see Dr. Karen Trapenberg Frick's papers in the Journal of the American Planning Association at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01944363.2013.885312 and in Urban Studies at http://usj.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/04/07/0042098014528397.
For preliminary findings from the Strategic Growth Council on self-assessments by Metropolitan Planning Organizations on their SB 375 planning processes, see http://www.sgc.ca.gov/docs/Agenda_Item_7_MPO_SCS_Self-Assessment_Update.pdf.
On the political theory of agonism, see: