Is the Agenda Set?

An increasingly common complaint voiced at local planning meetings and repeated on Tea Party blogs is that sustainable development planning efforts have pre-determined outcomes: all the big decisions have been made before citizen engagement begins. Planners and their plans, according to this criticism, are restricted in what they do by federal programs that fund their planning projects.  Moreover, smart growth and green infrastructure principles that underlie these projects come pre-defined by federal agencies such as the EPA and by national and international professional organizations such as American Planning Association and ICLIE.

These complaints are not without justification.

In my own community the politics have become heated and Tea Party activists are demanding county Board of Supervisors terminate participation in a regional “livability” planning project or face impeachment. They point to a HUD, EPA, DOT federal program that gave local planners a million dollars to promote smart growth and worry the process is rigged.

They argue, correctly in my opinion, that smart growth principles are pre-defined to include compact buildings, walkable neighborhoods, and preserving open space. “Livabilty” principles, likewise, come pre-defined as practices promoting equitable and affordable housing.  Green infrastructure principles, as another example, are already established as growth boundaries, hubs and corridors.

These “principles”—which get handed down to communities—feel like pre-determined solutions to pre-identified problems. Are the communities that participate in sustainable development planning efforts being told by outsiders which problems to solve and how to solve them?  If so, it is understandable that citizens are concerned about losing control.

In earlier blogs I contrasted how Sustainable Developers differ from Tea Partiers in the core values they hold.  Tea Partiers do not accept the Sustainable Developer worldview; they see different problems and therefore may desire different solutions.

Perhaps regional sustainable development planning efforts should start by letting citizens define the problems they want to solve. For example:

  • The US population is expected to increase by 150 million by 2050.  How many will be living in our community?  Where should we build the schools, roads, hospitals, water supply, and other infrastructure that will make these new residents welcomed, productive, thriving members of our community?
  • Is energy independence a problem?  Will rising gasoline prices make commuting unaffordable?  What development patterns will best address these challenges?
  • Are inequities in wealth, housing, and opportunity a problem in our community?  If so, how should they be addressed?  Is the problem sufficient to justify government intervention?
  • Is water becoming sufficiently scarce and polluted to justify action?  What are the most cost efficient strategies to store and filter water, prevent flooding, and protect public health?
  • What sorts of road, energy, waste, water, and information infrastructures do our community need to remain viable?  Can we afford to maintain what we have now if we continue business as usual?
  • Are we losing jobs, economic development opportunities, and community vitality to an increasingly competitive global market?   If so, how should we respond?

Many planning professionals, and apparently these federal programs, share the worldview and value set of sustainable developers. They believe that there are real and pressing problems related to how we manage water, transportation, energy, and economic development.  They also accept that smart growth principles offer effective solutions to these problems.  As a result, their programs and processes jump right to smart growth solutions and bypass local community identification of the problems communities want their planners to solve.  The local planners can’t be faulted for this, they are just beginning where they are told to begin, and where for many of us it makes sense to begin.

However, around the country local planning meetings and public hearings are being challenged by Tea Party politics.  Decisions that a few years back seemed technical and mundane are now hotly contested, drawing huge crowds and strenuous objections.  It really is a great moment in local governance—even if meetings get bogged down in overheated rhetoric and grandstanding—because people are engaged, can learn from one another, and inform decisions shaping our shared future.  Local leaders should take advantage of this rare opportunity to build new collations and break the gridlock stalling needed responses to pressing problems. One way to make this happen is to begin at the beginning, which means agreeing on the questions being asked and the problems being solved.

About admin

Hull is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability http://cligs.vt.edu/
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