Thursday, October 25, 2007

Binge & Purge: The Secret Life of a Public Planner

Mikaela says:
You're up one minute; down the next.

Flooded with possibilities; paralyzed by the weight of collective fear; ringing with collective anger directed your way.

Your perspective zooms out to the long view, the regional plan, the big picture; you shrink down to the pettiness or short-sightedness or lack of political will or ignorance or impossibility to pull off the million tiny steps you'd have to take to get from here to there.

It's a soap opera with consequences we all have to live with. Quite literally.

This week, I am despondent in the face of stunning (if foreseeable) defeats.

Stripped of detail, it all seems to come down to the same questions:

  • What is the role of government?
  • What's the balance between laws & restrictions to protect the public interest and allowing the freedom for market interest to create the community vitality on which we all depend (because no matter what anyone says, the public interest will NEVER be able to provide it all)?
  • How do you use public projects to SPUR, not replace, private projects?
  • How can you create change to improve what's here and not freak everyone out or unthinkingly discard history or ruin what works pretty well?
  • What's the right chord to strike between putting in place controls over someone else's property to protect your own private property rights?
Try to answer the questions for yourself with the following scenarios:
  1. a neighborhood historic design overlay zone that would tell neighbors what they can/can't do with historic homes for the good of the historic district (on which part of their property values depend);
  2. a commercial design overlay zone that would tell businesses how to make the sidewalk safer and more pleasant for pedestrians and
  3. creating zoning in a rural county to protect homeowners from having a oil drilling rig put up at the fenceline between properties.
Then throw in opposition on any possible side you can imagine. Remember that people get just as frustrated with what's NOT changing as they do with what MIGHT change in the face of their belief that everything's just hunky-dory.

As a planner, you work toward solutions that everyone can live with, as well as pushing for those things that no one else is thinking about, but that you see lurking on the horizon like a pinprick hiding the rushing of an oncoming train.

And more often than not, no one's really happy with the resulting plan, because it either doesn't do enough, tries to do too much, or simply is too big to understand.

Then the guy advocating the planning effort leaves office, and it's as if you and your planning effort never blew through town.

And life goes on. The rich get richer. The poor get cancer and asthma and a cement factory across the street from their community center, which has no sidewalks, yet all the kids walk there after school because lord knows, there's nothing else for them to do, and mom and dad don't get home until after 7 because they work 2 jobs each to pay the bills that get funneled to new parks in the Heights because they're the ones screaming the loudest.


My boss actually read an article on how happy people get more annoyed at the little things that go wrong in their lives, whereas people who've routinely faced hardship just come to expect it and don't bitch all that much after a while. She thinks this explains the difference between the rich, white communities we work with who scream to get design regulations for the facade of their local Pottery Barn versus the poor, minority communities we work with who are happy if you can just stop polluting their wells, build a little more affordable housing, help create jobs, and try not to price them out of their own homes. Viva la difference!

It's exhausting and often demoralizing, and I can't imagine doing anything else. How sad is that?

The absolute worst part of it is never having the right answer. There is no right answer. There are just endless perspectives to consider and consequences of each action, intended or no, to everything you try or can't seem to change.

In the end, I think the process of planning, the conversations you have at meetings or with clients or with other professionals, is the real value of "planning." The plans mean very little when it comes right down to it. It's the ideas you consider, create, discard. It's the perspectives directly opposed to your own that confront you in the guise of your neighbor, or the local developer, or the person paying your bills. Calling attention to the issues people have is almost more than half the battle. The rest is noise and fury, signifying ... my daily life, I guess.

It could be worse.

How's that, Marjorie? Still want more???