May 9, 2010

Planners and Developers as Special Interest Group

I was disappointed to find that Andres Duany, one of the writers of Suburban Nation, a book that had inspired me to rethink my views on planning years ago, has fallen into the trap of thinking that his building projects shouldn't have to work within a political process.

Here's the reporting from a recent event:

The central problem, according to Duany, is that the immediate neighbors to a proposed development are brought in to speak on behalf of the whole community. These neighbors obviously have a vested interest in what happens in their backyard, and an emotional connection to their space. They also often have a financial stake in what happens, with their life's savings tied up in their home. "We've tainted the process by not understanding that the neighbors are a special interest," says Duany. "They are not the community."

Duany, who has apparently spent too much time cloistered with clients and planners, seems to have forgotten that developers and planners are also a special interest group and not the community. His solution?

Duany's proposed solution? A randomly-chosen group of citizens, brought in to represent the community similar to the jury system. Evidently such a system is alive and well in Perth, Australia, where a group of community members is chosen randomly, brought up to speed on the issues, and asked to give input on how development should occur.

That makes a lot of sense if you're a developer - you remove people whose stake in a project might be opposing you, and get to focus your resources on convincing a much smaller group of people. It also conveniently removes the political side of these questions, the risk that elected officials take by having to decide on such things.

I mean, after all, what's the alternative?

Without such a process, Duany says, the process is taken over by "a bunch of little mobs, invited in by idiot public planners."

Duany may be "impeccably groomed", but apparently he has little understanding of the supposed public process of American government. Perhaps he misses the grand days of Robert Moses, when unaccountable officials could approve projects, demolish neighborhoods, and provide just enough insulation for elected officials that they didn't face the consequences of their decisions? Admittedly, Moses would likely have found even a small jury of random people an unacceptable annoyance in his view of the world, but I don't think this would particularly have gotten in his way.

Duany needs to remember that he's part of an especially privileged special interest group, one against which loosely coordinated neighbors who are rarely able to focus full-time resources or finances have pretty lousy odds.

Update: Duany seems to be aiming for "cranky old man" generally - his latest interview with The Atlantic practically screams "hey you kids, get off of my lawn", which I guess might mean he's a NIMBY:

There's this generation who grew up in the suburbs, for whom the suburbs have no magic. The mall has no magic. They're the ones that have discovered the city. Problem is, they're also destroying the city. The teenagers and young people in Miami come in from the suburbs to the few town centers we have, and they come in like locusts. They make traffic congestion all night; they come in and take up the parking. They ruin the retail and they ruin the restaurants, because they have different habits then older folks. I have seen it. They're basically eating up the first-rate urbanism. They have this techno music, and the food cheapens, and they run in packs, great social packs, and they take over a place and ruin it and go somewhere else.

I've known for 10 years about this destructive monoculture that's condensed in the suburbs. These people would normally be buying real estate by now. And we designed for them. We kept saying, "Aha, these kids, between 24 and 35, will be buying real estate." Guess what? They aren't. Because they can't afford it. But they're still using the cities--they're renting and so forth. The Gen-Xers also discovered the cities; they're buying in a proper way. The Millennials are the ones we're talking about. And they love cities desperately. And they're loving them to death.

None of that, of course, is a problem I've noticed too much in Dryden. I do get occasional techno from cars passing by, and Ithaca is so loaded with students that I don't think these issues would even be noticeable there.

Posted by simon at May 9, 2010 2:02 PM in ,
Note on photos


Mary Ann said:

You're gonna love the upcoming debate about whether special use permits should be approved by the elected Town Board with no special training, or by the Planning Board appointed by the Town Board and required to participate in a few hours of specialized training each year.