The Public Process: How NIMBYs Encourage Suburban Sprawl

 

Now is the time to roll out new planning ideas – different codes, new public review processes, original ways of thinking. “These are revolutionary times,” new urbanism guru Andrés Duany told about 150 planners, state government officials, architects and consultants during a gathering in Sacramento on Thursday.

Most zoning codes simply perpetuate suburban sprawl and make development that is not dependent on automobiles impossible, Duany said. Yet the combination of public awareness about climate change, peak oil (the theory that oil production is on an inexorable downward trend) and the housing market bust has opened a window of opportunity to reconsider land use planning, he said. “Everything seems to be coming apart.”

California, according to Duany, has taken a step forward with SB 375, the 2008 bill that attempts to link land use planning and transportation investments in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The notion of coordinating land use and transportation “is so amazingly obvious and so amazingly radical,” he declared.

But, as everyone recognizes, SB 375 is merely one step down the road. Duany urged bold actions and experimentation during the current window of opportunity.

Based in Miami, Duany is a co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a proponent of form-based codes, and the designer of numerous urban, town center and traditional neighborhood development projects all over the world. He was brought to Sacramento by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, the Strategic Growth Council, the Department of Conservation and a number of like-minded consulting firms. The event was billed as “Beyond Counting Carbon. Making Money, Food & Neighborhoods. Sustainable Community Strategies for Leveraging California’s SB 375.”

A Planetizen poll recently ranked Duany as the number 2 urban thinker behind only Jane Jacobs. And he’s a tour de force as a public speaker. During the gathering in the Sacramento City Council chambers on Thursday, Duany spoke for 2 hours without notes and didn’t even bother to click on the PowerPoint presentation until the final 15 minutes. Duany speaks his mind and I’m betting he said something to offend or anger just about everyone at least once. Still, it’s hard to argue with his basic point, which is that the suburban growth of the last 60 years is not sustainable economically, environmentally or socially. It’s not even especially popular. Hence, “the system” needs to change.

Much of Duany's basic pitch is 20 years old: Replace Euclidian zoning with form-based codes. Build communities that are connected, compact, complete, complex and convivial. Plan for people, not cars. Avoid the monoculture of massive housing subdivisions at all cost. Some of these ideas have been around so long they have become conventional wisdom, if not conventional practice. What struck me Thursday, though, was a newer subject for Duany, and that’s process. He said the public review process is "old and sick," and must change.

“The public process is completely out of control. The public is completely berserk,” he opined.

Only a few weeks ago, I had a e-mail exchange with one of California’s leading land use lawyers in which both of us lamented Californians’ fixation with process. We don’t seem to give a damn about the final outcome as long as the process complies with all the rules. Of course, a key component of the process is public input. However, the vast majority of that input comes from vested interests – essentially, the developer and the people who live next to the proposed development site. Shouts of protest and sloganeering bombard the decision makers. No one speaks for the community as a whole.

How could things work better yet still be democratic? Duany described a process employed in Perth, Australia. When a development project is proposed, the city rounds up about 150 citizens, much like a jury pool. The city then asks this group for volunteers to participate in a review process. Maybe 50 people agree to volunteer and 30 stick out the whole process, which involves some education about land use planning and the project, a few charettes and a handful of public meetings. When it comes time for a decision on the project, a representative of the opponents gets to speak, as does a representative of the developer. But the “jury” called by the city testifies as to what it sees as best for the community as a whole. This is how Perth got a large community center located on the beach – ruining the view of wealthy coastal homeowners who naturally opposed such a project.

Would such a system be acceptable in California, the state where the term NIMBY was invented? It’s certainly worth a try. And here’s why: Most of what we need to do for the next generation – and maybe for much longer – will amount to retrofitting suburbia. That means tearing down and building lots of new stuff in people’s backyards, which means that virtually every project comes with a built in group of opponents. They can shout loud enough to block the new housing, additional job sites, transit stations, town squares, community centers and even the big box stores that could both benefit the community and help California meet its greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.

I’m not suggesting that every infill and redevelopment project is a good one. But could Perth’s process possibly result in a worse project than we would get now?

Of course, Duany had lots more to say. Although it’s not up yet, a video recording of Duany’s entire presentation and an hour-long panel discussion that followed are supposed to be posted on the Strategic Growth Council website shortly.

– Paul Shigley