Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Pitfalls of Public Planning Processes

South Willamette Concept Plan public workshop at the Hilyard Center in Eugene, 6/27/12. That's Robin Hostick, City of Eugene Senior Urban Design Planner, at the lower right of the photo.
I attended last Wednesday’s public workshop concerning a draft of the City of Eugene’s South Willamette Concept Plan. I haven’t participated in many such meetings in the past (shame on me) with the exception of those associated with land-use projects I’ve been involved with either professionally or as a representative for AIA-Southwestern Oregon. I was reminded of the extent to which the public involvement processes are at once both vital and problematic. 

The City’s best means to ensure inclusion of all relevant perspectives and mitigation of negative impacts is undoubtedly the direct engagement of citizenry in the planning of its shared future. Those affected by the City’s plans for the South Willamette study area have a right to be involved in the decision-making process. That being said, the meeting underscored one of the primary shortcomings of public involvement, which is that large community meetings are frequently hamstrung by the need to present too many complex issues in too little time. 

In the case of Wednesday’s meeting, the decision by the South Willamette Concept Plan team (led by City of Eugene senior urban design planners Robin Hostick and Trish Thomas) to focus the discussion upon the possible forms of future buildings in the plan study area meant that other important considerations (such as enhanced provisions for cyclists) were necessarily tabled for future meetings. This was perhaps the only practical option; the South Willamette Concept Plan will be nothing if not overwhelmingly complex and multifaceted. 

It is precisely this complexity which makes it difficult for stakeholders to adequately comprehend the virtues underlying the concept plan and its ties to the broader Envision Eugene strategies for accommodating up to 34,000 additional city residents twenty years from now. I suspect many if not most Eugeneans support in principle the efficient utilization of land within the urban growth boundary, the need to manage future growth, and the protection of natural resources. The challenge for the planners is to translate abstract concepts for compact urban development into the reality of a prescriptive plan and potentially a form-based code that would similarly enjoy widespread support. 

What I heard at the workshop suggests that, while people want to espouse support for broadly backed community goals, each individual also tends to default to more focused, personal concerns. How will implementing the South Willamette Concept Plan impact my daily commute? What effect will it have upon the value of my property? Will the plan result in the construction of a looming structure that will leave my home in perpetual shade? I witnessed a tendency by participants to compartmentalize issues, to mentally manage the concept plan by isolating their specific interests to the exclusion of other equally valid considerations. 

For example, one attendee expressed affection for her neighborhood’s current morphology of small, single-story, single-family homes on individual lots. She believes this character is worthy of preservation rather than replacement with higher density development because it is what she knows and is comfortable with. Conversely, she supported Envision Eugene’s promotion of dense urban development. Either she failed to reconcile how it would be possible to make room for tens of thousands more people within Eugene’s boundaries without densification or she did not believe it should be her worry. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, she had at minimum unwittingly isolated her preference for the status quo apart from her advocacy for compact growth. 

Another participant articulated her disdain for “ugly boxes” when citing the downside of denser, multistory development. Unfortunately, her measuring stick is most likely the past examples of poor building design that are all too numerous in cities across the country. It’s difficult to convince folks like her that the same may not be the result if the general outline of the South Willamette Area concept plan moves forward. Obviously, the onus is upon the architectural profession—not the City of Eugene—to design projects she would find attractive regardless of their size. The City needs to help stakeholders distinguish between the good bones of the concept plan and its implementation on a project-by-project basis. 

People fear what they cannot visualize or understand. They fear change. In their most virulent form, these fears are manifested as intractable NIMBYism. The complexity of the innumerable, endlessly interrelated factors involved intensifies uncertainty. There are risks inherent in both disseminating too little and too much information. With too little, organizers risk criticism for withholding knowledge essential to understanding the issues at hand. If they provide too much they hazard charges of obfuscation through inundation. 

Is the development of far-reaching studies like the South Willamette Concept Plan too ambitious? Are such plans less-than-useful tools for achieving desired outcomes? Is their fate to be so watered down the principles upon which they were founded become compromised? The answers to these questions may be “yes.” Because the public does not always respond as intended, the plans will most certainly vary from what their authors originally envisioned. Whether the number of concessions granted render these plans ineffective isn’t always predictable. 

For the city's staff, the measure of the success of the public planning process may ultimately be a modest one. Achieving the goal of engaging as many constituents as possible may be enough. Anything more would be icing on the cake. Examples might include the ability to anticipate and answer more questions than not about the plan. Or it could mean alleviating the frustrations of those who have difficulty expressing their concerns. 

I empathize with Robin and Trish as they must confront the challenges of guiding the public process for the South Willamette Area Concept Plan. Their task is clearly not an easy one. Big public meetings are not always the most useful means to reduce opposition arising from misunderstanding or disinformation. As I argued above, there’s simply too much for casual participants to learn and a scarcity of time within which to absorb it. Discussions about land use projects also too often pit disparate interests against one another. It’s easier for opponents to muster troops than it is to marshal supporters. 

I don’t profess to have a magic bullet when it comes to utilizing public processes to envision a desirable future. I do believe the success of our urban environment is contingent upon incremental, adaptive moves that build upon the triumphs and failures (large and small) of all preceding actions. I prefer to consider any current urban design vision as merely a snapshot of what we think the future could be. It is what we want for tomorrow from today’s perspective. The view from tomorrow might be very different and that would be okay. After all, the proverbial flutter of a butterfly’s wings may well set into motion an alternative future the best-laid plans cannot foretell.  

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Having participated in the workshop as well, you really captured the shortcomings of the workshop. While it's vitally important to include the public in articulating the future, the issues are so complex and involved that distilling the comments from the workshops into tangible results may not be realistic. Thanks Randy for your involvement and voice on the issues shaping Eugene.