Success is a funny thing, and more difficult to measure than one might immediately think. If a basketball player scores 30 points per game but destroys his team’s chemistry with a poor attitude, is he really successful? Is a presidential campaign successful if half the country doesn’t support the candidate? And is city planning only successful when it happens quickly and in lockstep with the planner’s vision?
A recent article from americancity.org looked at the issue of public participation in city planning, something that Sarasota has dealt with plenty over the past decade or so as New Urbanism has made its present felt. Charrettes—one or even multiple-day information sessions and planning workshops—are now standard operating procedure when new projects begin to develop. Surely, citizens are involved to a higher degree than ever before. But is the value of their contributions being maximized? And has increased involvement made the planning process better or worse?
Over the past two years, a growing number of voices have criticized the role of public participation in urban planning. These voices include Andrés Duany, the architect and New Urbanist, who has decried America’s “absolute orgy of public process.1 They also include Tom Campanella, who argues in essays in Planning magazine and the journal Places that, “it’s a fool’s errand to rely upon citizens to guide the planning process.”2, 3 A position justified, Campanella claims, because, “most folks lack the knowledge to make intelligent decisions about the future of our cities.” Criticism of participation is not new, but the increasingly strident tone of anti-participation sentiment should worry citizens and policy makers alike. In fact, there are good reasons to encourage participation in public processes, perhaps now more than ever.
Recent criticism of participation comes at a time when comparisons between American urban development and other models are particularly stark. This is especially true when looking at the speed and scale of new construction. Highlighting the contrast between American and Chinese cities, Thomas Friedman noted in a 2010 New York Times article that, “the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing’s South Station, a giant space-age building”.4 In his article, he notes: “With enough cheap currency, labor and capital – and authoritarianism – you can build anything in nine months.” Friedman’s argument is that the status quo approach to development in America isn’t working, a sentiment shared by Duany and Campanella, as well as a large number of other commentators. As Campanella stated in a talk at Harvard: “Just as China could use more of the American gavel of justice and democratic process, we could certainly use a bit more of that very effective Chinese sledgehammer.”
Contemporary concerns that public participation slows development bear similarity to arguments voiced in the 1970s, during the Cold War. Then, the rival economic superpower was not China, but the Soviet Union. As Joseph Stiglitz points out: “In the years immediately following World War II, there was a belief…in a tradeoff between democracy and growth. The Soviet Union, it was argued, had grown faster than the countries of the West, but in order to do so had jettisoned basic democratic rights.”5 Stiglitz continues by arguing that such a tradeoff, between participation and growth, does not exist and that, in contrast, participation is a key element of sustainable economic development. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that American competitiveness has been more sustainable than the Soviet Union’s over the long-term, in part due to the country’s robust democratic norms. Keeping this history in mind, is it any more prudent in the current recession to think that rolling back participation will be a boon for American cities over the long term?
Keep reading at http://americancity.org/buzz/entry/3187/