American new urbanist Andrés Duany rarely pulls his punches. He has alienated some with the brashness of his message, but to me it's music to my ears. Recently Duany was interviewed by Builder magazine, a trade publication read by home builders, and others with an interest in residential development.
BUILDER: What is the biggest impediment to smart growth?
DUANY: Citizen participation in the planning process is probably the biggest roadblock. If you ask people what they want, they don’t want density. They don’t want mixed use. They don’t want transit. They don’t even want a bike path in their back yard. They don’t want a grid that connects, they want cul-de-sacs. They can’t see the long term benefits of walkable neighborhoods with a greater diversity of housing types.
For those in every city and town who might have attended a public meeting on the future of their community, comments like these might seem like an insult. Surely, this guy from Florida is full of it. We won't have this guy telling us what to so with our communities, right??!!
Well, if you've watched closely some of the debate within the City of Vancouver around neighbourhood development, you might agree with Duany's statement. Arguably, the public consultation process in this city is currently on life support. There are a few reasons for this that I can list, and I'm sure others can weigh in with their own.
For one, the fact that the city's Planning Department is grossly understaffed at this time, with unfilled headcount for around two dozen positions, might have a part in this. The current city council must also share some of the blame. After campaigning on the promise of improving public process, they've retreated from more neighbourhood participation. This is because of Vision's populist style of politicking, and their steadfast avoidance of controversy.
There has also been considerable mischief making by public groups and individuals claiming to represent neighbourhood interests, when in fact they stand for the views of only a few. And the fact is that the City has failed to respond to this phenomenon.
Duany cautions against cities dictating smart growth upon communities where there is resistance to it.
BUILDER: Can smart growth gain traction if it is merely a choice, or must it be mandated?
DUANY: It has to be a choice. When you make smart growth mandatory, it crashes. Studies show that 70% of people want smart growth, which is great. But there are still the 30% who are really happy with their cul-de-sacs and McMansions and long commutes. And because one-third of Americans explicitly like things the way they are, you cannot eliminate that option. Reform doesn’t work when you try to exterminate conventional suburbia. To be more effective, all you need to do is level the playing field and then let the market operate.
In a speech made to hundreds here in Vancouver in 2008, Duany explained the reasons why public consultation has been so problematic.
The people in the single-family neighbourhoods are terrified. They're terrified they're going to lose value, they're terrified of their neighbour and their house becoming a quadraplex or a sixplex...or god knows what. You know why they're terrified? Because they have reason to be terrified.
Because we've had 30 years of codes that are too imprecise, and government that cannot be trusted, allowing incompatible buildings in single-family neighbourhoods. Eventually, that becomes hard-wired in the society. And people hate change.
By the way, people in the 1950s LOVED change. "Change – great! Get me the future, I can't wait." Now most people are terrified of the future...
It all has to do with bad planning. When a new project goes in, all they lose is open space, there's more traffic...what's in it for them?
So while Duany describes how public consulation is often at cross-purposes with sustainable growth, he also gives some important context of how we got here. It didn't happen overnight, and fixing it will not happen quickly either.
To restore that trust between cities and stakeholders will take time. But time is not on our side. Climate change, rising energy costs, and lack of affordable housing are catalysts that will drive change in our cities with stunning speed.
Fixing public consultation can happen, but it will have to be like changing a flat while the car is moving. It will be difficult, and necessary, but not impossible.
- Post by Mike