All this talk about budget contraints, an economy in recession, and cuts to local government aid has me thinking about how we planners try to make our communities more sustainable - particularly in a financial sense. We've been highlighting the long term costs of infrastructure maintenance, the inefficiencies of low-density development patterns, the subsidization of unsustainable development patterns for many years. We keep talking about how it will catch up with us. Unfortunatley, it seems that the arguments have largely fallen on deaf ears. There are reasons for this (a constant stream of subsidies) that I've discussed in a previous post.
There are two basic ways to change a person's mind - one is through the power of persuasion based and convincing someone that an argment "makes sense". The other is to "prove" it to them by providing evidence in the form of data or other scientific information. In my experience, we as planners have tended to gravitate towards the "makes sense" arguments . This is probably due to the fact that it is a relatively easy option when compared to the expensive and often frustrating process of conducting studies or finding ways to measure the financial impacts of development decisions. After all, there are so many factors that come into play when trying to develop a clear, understandable, mathematical way to calculate the costs and benefits that a particular development will create if approved.
This is what makes land use planning so fascinating to me. It is complex. It is a bit messy. It requires thoughtful consideration of many interconnected issues. It requires a blending of both "makes sense" arguments and "data/evidence" arguments. As planners, we are required by both pragmatism and for the legitimacy of our craft to do more than simply make anecdotal arguments or bury people in calculations and numbers to defend the policies and decisions we advocate for. We must take into account not only political and social issues, but also find a way to measure and quantify and back up our claims with solid evidence.
With the evaporation of public dollars available to subsidize our current development patterns and a likelihood that it will continue - at least at a local level - we are going to need to step our our game on the data/evidence side. Not in a "throw a bunch of numbers at them" kind of way - but in a simple, practical kind of way. As in "If we approve this development, we can expect that the road will need to be patched at a cost of X each year, overlain every so many years at a cost of X and rebuilt at a cost of X in 30 years" (for a rough example, see this). On the other side we need to say "We can estimate that the tax revenue from this development will generate X over the course of that time".
Obviously, we won't be completely accurate in our estimates. And we'll have to consider other factors and expenditures in the budget as well. But these are good questions. The right questions. Questions that will get us thinking about the hard decisions we'll need to make rather than just looking for a bailout from taxpayers.