The Mailbox: Andres Duany and Public Participation

We get a lot of email at Strong Towns. Many of them are questions like the one that we are going to address with this post. I try to respond to each one and sometimes when I am done I realize that the answer would have made a good post in and of itself. The particular question we are going to talk about today refers to a discussion that I have been passionately following for a while now, so we're going to take the opportunity of Jane's email to start a new feature on the Strong Towns Blog: The Mailbox.

Dear Strong Towns:

Have you seen this post ( about Andres Duany's view of the public input process? I'm wondering what the "Strong Towns Take" is on this topic. I found the comments particularly interesting. Is it possible for "the public" (whatever we decide that to mean) to adequately/fairly represent "the public interest" (however we chose to define that). Or, as Duany and many of the comments suggest, is there too much self-interest in the public interest? Are citizen juries the best way to alleviate this?

Thanks and I look forward to reading a response, should you have the time! 

Take care, 


First, let's examine what Duany says in the article and elsewhere. As reported, Duany is calling the public process "out of control". Duany is a master of the charrette process, a very intensive way to bring the public together to examine an issue and a series of alternatives. What he has observed is that this process, which typically begins and ends with the identification of "stakeholders", has a critical flaw.

The central problem, according to Duany, is that the immediate neighbors to a proposed development are brought in to speak on behalf of the whole community. These neighbors obviously have a vested interest in what happens in their backyard, and an emotional connection to their space. They also often have a financial stake in what happens, with their life’s savings tied up in their home. "We've tainted the process by not understanding that the neighbors are a special interest," says Duany. "They are not the community."

We all understand that, with any project or issue, groups like the developer, the site owner, the Chamber of Commerce, the local chapter of the Sierra Club are all special interests. They represent a point of view that may be genuine and may be important, but our ears automatically apply a filter of sorts for their arguments based on how we perceive the special interest they represent. In other words, we give their testimony context.

The "planning process" as practiced by planners and their imitators is meant to reach beyond (not past, but beyond) and also hear the voice of the public-at-large. What is in the best interest of the community? How do we best balance competing objectives? What is to our collective long-term advantage? The notion of the planning profession is that we can reach "the public" and they can answer these questions. 

The only problem is that "the public" includes women with jobs that are too busy to attend, men that have a list of projects they need to finish up at home, families that have children that need to be at activities and many, many people that have shown up at these planner-fiascoes before only to be shouted down by the crazy neighbor. Anyone like Duany or all of us at Strong Towns can tell you that you are vastly more likely to get the crazy neighbor with the ax to grind than the pragmatic business owner or the thoughtful homemaker to show up. The latter two know that their efforts will come to little and that, most likely, all they have to gain is a bruised ego, at best, and a damaged reputation at worst.

So in the standard approach the crazy neighbor subset winds up representing "the public". What Duany is saying is absolutely true; this is a special interest that does not represent the community at large.

So why does this matter? In an interview for Builder, a trade publication of the home building association, Duany explains why the current system is failing us as he talks about his book, The Smart Growth Manual.

Question: 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. This book is a quick read and is dedicated explicitly to them. It’s for the people, not for planning professionals.

If this seems a little harsh of Duany, reconsider. He is right on. Take the issue of transit. Suburban-dwellers love the idea of transit because they believe it will relieve congestion on the highways they drive. Someone else will ride it and they will be able to get where they want to go more quickly. That argument (and a healthy ignorance of the concept of induced demand) is how commuter rail and light rail was sold to the public here in Minnesota. But put the rail line a couple blocks from your house and all of a sudden it is a planning apocolypse.

Duany himself puts this in good perspective in that same article from Builder.

Most of today’s planning decisions--large and small--are made at the wrong level. Take transit. You do not ask the neighbor next to a 16-mile bikeway whether they want a bikeway in their back yard because they will say no. That’s a decision that needs to be made at the regional level. Conversely, let’s say you want to have free-range chickens to provide eggs for you and your neighbors. Right now that’s controlled by municipal ordinance. City zoning codes say no chickens, when really this is a decision that should be made at the block level, because chickens affect the block, not the whole city. Then you have municipalities enforcing rules about what color you can paint your house, which is ridiculous. That’s the wrong level of decision making.

So for regional decision-making, how to you get a true representation of the public?

Over the past six to eight months I have been hearing Duany talk about the process he referenced in the initial article cited in this post, that being the citizen jury used recently in Perth, Australia. The concept is based on simple statistical principles known to anyone who has taken a course in survey research or probability. Democracy applied to a planning process does not require large levels of participation. It simply requires a random sample that is representative of the overall population.

This is how polling agencies work. This is how market research works. This is how much of our census data is derived. Gallup does not go out and poll 300 million Americans to find out who is likely to win the next presidential election. They take a random and statistically valid sample of the population - which is actually a number so small it would shock you - and they use this to project for the entire country. And it works.

I have been involved in public processes both as an engineer and a planner. For an engineer, the public process involves deciding on a course of action and then presenting it to the public. If you do a good job, the project goes forward. If you do poorly, the project is delayed.

For a planner, the public process involves standing up in front of a group and writing down everything people say, treating it all equally, developing consensus largely through attrition and then proceeding with a watered-down version of a plan.

As a planner/engineer hybrid, I've developed my own public process that involves a lot of small group meetings that are part Socratic-lecture and part discussion. Where it works (and it doesn't always), participants are able to challenge their own assumptions about their community and resolve their own value conflicts in a way that can be applied to future decision-making. This process is difficult, time-consuming and not easily replicated by others in the planning profession.

This is why the idea of citizen juries as advocated by Duany holds so much promise. Planners do not have all the answers. Neither do engineers. The myriad of special interests and directly-impacted parties can't do justice in and of themselves. But they all have important things to add to a public process. A citizen jury has the ability to distill all of these valuable points of view into something that will inevitably more closely resemble the "public will" than anything we do now.

As Duany (rather humbly) says in the following video:

"One has to believe in collective wisdom."

We (rather humbly) agree. We've come a long ways since the days of Robert Moses plowing highways through the burroughs of New York City. In fact, the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the other direction to where the NIMBY voice all too often rules the day. The citizen jury process is the clearest way to protect the public interest, assure a fair public process and access the true collective wisdom of all of our communities.


In the following video, Duany talks about the public process beginning at 5:46. When this video ends, click through to Part 7 to get the remainder of the discussion.


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