The public hates planners but it doesn't have to be that way.

Austin Maitland is a graduate student in urban planning at Rutgers University and shares a guest article today about bridging the gap between planners and residents.

Source: FEMA

Source: FEMA

The public hates planners. Or at least that’s the impression one would get by attending a public meeting. Whether it’s a proposed housing development on precious open space or a new shopping center on an already-congested highway, members of the American public consistently pack the town hall to express some degree of outrage and fear.

In a country built on private property rights, how did we arrive at a point where the public genuinely fears the power of a branch of local government? And what can planners do to improve municipalities while working towards a more civil public debate?

"Leave our Town Alone"

Consider the following example:

The planning board of a small town in central New Jersey was beginning their 10 year master plan update, a process mandatory under New Jersey state law. The municipality contracted with a planning firm to conduct a visioning session, both to inform the public of a proposed change to the zoning code, and to collect feedback on potential forms of development. The proposed zoning code would extend an existing mixed-use zone over an adjacent block, currently zoned for light industry. The planners brought pictures of a range of development types and invited the public to place red or green stickers on the images to indicate their opposition or support for such a development within the township.

The content of the meeting should have been largely uncontroversial; no decisions were being made, and the affected area was very small. Yet, the climate was tense. From the public’s perspective, this meeting represented a chance to fight an authoritative force descending on their sleepy little town. The planners had arrived to unleash the bulldozers and cranes of greedy developers with the intent of turning the municipality of just a few thousand people into “another Brooklyn” as one member of the public exclaimed. Another berated the change in zoning as an effort of the United Nations to spread communism and promulgate Agenda 21.

The extreme degree of paranoia was reflected in the surveys collected at the end of the meeting. Comments such as “leave our town alone,” “keep it the way it is,” and, “we don’t want any more stores” were common and referred to an immense power perceived to be in the hands of the planners.

This example is not unique to New Jersey, and it highlights two key factors driving the cycle of contention: the hubris of planners in pushing grand visions of the future, and decades of strict land-use regulation. Both have played an essential role in encouraging a sense of fear and mistrust between planners and the public. Both must be addressed in the pursuit of a stronger city.

Source: KOMUNews

Source: KOMUNews

The Need for Humility

First, planners must learn to embrace humility. In the example above, planners identified the quiet Main Street as an inherent problem. They promoted the future of the town as a denser, more walkable village with transit-oriented development defined by a mix of shops, restaurants, and housing. They presented images of bustling mixed-use corridors in Europe and larger American cities. Of course, there is a great deal of evidence supporting the planners’ claims regarding the benefits of dense, mixed-use development patterns. But for the purposes of advancing public dialogue, that doesn’t matter. The public is often not interested in being lectured about the latest trends in planning. Nor do they appreciate being told that their town is about to go through some big change in the name of progress.

The planning message has to change. This requires spending less time pushing on towns' visions for their futures; towns are composed of a diverse web of individual choices and preferences, and their growth is a function of such. Instead, planners should spend more time listening and identifying valuable points of common ground with individuals. Members of the public may not like the idea of a new mixed-use development; but they may understand the frustration when density restrictions prevent them from converting a garage to house an aging parent. The underlying problem is the same: density limits. Setting aside the flashy renderings and planning jargon, planners can more effectively build consensus and further common goals.

Only when planners embrace a more humble message can they begin to work towards addressing the second major driver of public contention: strict land use regulation.

Loosening Land Use Regulations

Decades of strict land use regulation at the local level have given an immense amount of public leverage over private development. In municipalities across the country, development is strictly regulated by height limitations, density restrictions, permitted uses, and a plethora of other regulations outlined in the zoning code.

Source: KOMUNews

Source: KOMUNews

To give some examples, zoning in much of San Francisco limits development to one- to three-family structures no taller than 40 feet. In New York City, even the highest-density residential zoning limits development to a floor-area ratio of just 10. 

Density caps further limit the number of units that developers are allowed to include in the buildings by a factor outlined in the zoning code. Even in my hometown of Ontario, NY (a small town of 10,000 people in Upstate New York), most residential zones require a minimum lot size of nearly an acre, a minimum home size of 1,200 square feet, and a garage. Regardless of size, municipal governments have a tremendous amount of power over private property owners.

Supply limitations, especially in tight markets, have effectively centralized the power of development in the hands of local planners. Supply has been so constricted, that any relief in zoning almost certainly produces development to the extent the law allows.

We saw this in the example in New Jersey. The public was afraid of new mixed-use zoning because they understood the likelihood of developers to take advantage of their prime location along a commuter rail line to New York City. The public was not protesting at the developers’ offices; they were protesting at the planners' because that’s where the power lies. The power is not diffuse across many small entrepreneurs. Rather, it is concentrated in a government that prevents private property owners from developing to sate ever-changing market demands.

Municipalities must begin to shed their strict zoning laws in favor of a system that allows a functional and dynamic marketplace of private development. Doing so would decentralize the effective power of planners and incentivize concerned citizens to seek private solutions to unpopular development. For example, rather than advocate laws banning the vast majority of private development, concerned citizens could pool private resources and purchase, at fair market value, land they wish to preserve. The price of not developing would be paid by those wishing to prevent it, rather than society as a whole. Additionally, limiting the power of planners would help mitigate the public’s sense of fear and animosity towards the planning department.

Like resolving any interpersonal conflict, improving relations between the public and planners requires give and take. Planners must embrace a more humble approach towards engaging the community by listening and relating, rather than pushing grand visions of the future. Additionally, the power to enable development must be decentralized from the planning department and placed in the hands of private developers to foster a dynamic marketplace. Neither goal can be accomplished overnight, but refocusing the role of planners to strengthen public relations is an important first step towards building stronger, more equitable cities.

(Top photo source: Coconino National Forest)

Related stories