Seattle City Council president Sally Clark made an observation last week, one that got a roomful of up-and-coming urban planners thinking. Clark was serving on a panel at an event called New Directions in Urban Planning and Design at the University of Washington's Gould Hall. It was part of an annual gathering where faculty, planning professionals, students and prospective students of the UW's Masters in Urban Planning program look at the future of the urban planning profession.
The panel was moderated by Jill Strerrett, president of the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association. Besides Clark, the panel featured Sound Transit's Joni Earl, the Downtown Seattle Association's Kate Joncas, Futurewise's Hilary Franz and me, the token male and sole mossback. We discussed the challenges ahead for the city in terms of planning, transportation and quality of life.
Clark was late (damned traffic!), but she said something that resonated. In discussing the challenges of managing the city, she observed that in her experience, people weren't afraid of change, they're afraid of loss.
It's an important distinction. NIMBYism is often attributed to people clinging selfishly to the past. But really, people often feel threatened by the new because they suspect that it will bring displacement, higher rents, a worse quality of life. The notion of progress as an unqualified good has taken a beating, and people suspect, often with some reason, that change will come at their expense.
Downside of the Environmental Impact process
As we discussed the idea further in a small breakout session, the planners and would-be planners in our group focused on Clark's observation. The Environmental Impact Statement process, said one, is all about negative impacts. Often, projects are evaluated by how much harm they do, and what can be done to mitigate the damage. Indeed, the EIS process grew out of an understanding that took shape in the 1960s when we finally began to come to terms with the toll of development on the environment.
Still, it sets up a process where tallying the benefits of a project takes a back seat to enumerating its potential harm. Then too the benefits are often articulated by those with strong self-interest in the projects, such as developers and their consultants, the same people who often shape the EIS scope in their favor. Often, the first time the public hears about some new project is when the white signs go up, harbingers of neighborhood doom. No one at the urban planning event suggested dumping the EIS, but the process does raise a legitimate question about how change is framed.
Public skepticism is often justified. A question I posed to the planners was this: Why is it that we often do the wrong thing even when we know what the right thing is? Seattle's legendary Fred Bassetti, for example, created a fabulous post-World's Fair design for Westlake Mall, but decades later we remade it into a civic mediocrity or worse. Architect Paul Thiry warned of the damage that would be done to the fabric of downtown, Capitol Hill and First Hill by digging the I-5 freeway trench and splitting the city in two. He argued for a lid. He was ignored and despite attempts to bridge the gap with an over-the-freeway park and convention center, the damage remains.
In other cases, the public itself lacked vision. We failed to vote in enough numbers for the Bogue Plan to build a civic center, for the Commons proposal for South Lake Union, and to make a regional mass transit system part of Forward Thrust, to name a few examples. It could be argued that all three failed despite having the support of planners in their respective eras as well as meeting standards of what we today believe helps to make vital, transit-friendly and sustainable cities.
There's something in the urban planning process that seems to favor mediocre or worse design decisions and short-cuts. It shouldn't be entirely surprising that many members of the public equate change with loss. Resistance to change is more than generational stubbornness; it's of a piece with our lack of trust that government will spend our money wisely, or do something good with those police drones. We've seen too many benefits of "change" flow to the haves, not the rest of us. We've seen self-interest often gussied up as community good.
Planning for a "less bad future"
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