Does the public really want dramatic change?

Last week, someone who I have a lot of respect for — one of the country’s top municipal planners and government-level thinkers — published an article on the American Conservative as part of AC’s New Urbs conversation. There were parts of the article I was not keen on, specifically when it came to the role of planners, and I expressed that in the comments. There was a response that I’d like to break down and engage our audience on.

My assertion was:

People want dramatic change, we’ve just designed our bureaucratic systems to shield us from their direct feedback, to amplify the vested voices that resist changes. Planners and others in the system do this because it’s more comfortable for them, outcomes be damned.

And the response was:

I’m not buying the “dramatic change” part. If people really wanted dramatic change, we’d already have it. That’s not reality talking, that’s your ideology talking.

I just attended a public meeting Tuesday night. There were 160 people there. They were ready to string all of us city officials up for removing two car lanes on a street that is far under-capacity, and replacing them with bike lanes. It was the ugliest public meeting that I’ve seen in 21 years of public service. The average resident likes the urban development status-quo.

The question I want to get at is this: Does the average resident want dramatic change or do they want the urban development status quo? I can definitely see both sides of this discussion, and I might even argue that the correct answer is “both,” but let me give a vigorous defense of the pro-dramatic change point of view.

I’d start by suggesting that, if 160 people are there to oppose something, and if that’s an unprecedented amount of ugly opposition, then maybe taking out two traffic lanes and replacing them with bike lanes is not the right project. It doesn’t seem like low-hanging fruit. I’d start there with my self-evaluation.

Back in 2014, I wrote an article (Stupid is as Stupid Does) that presented six sets of “do’s and do not’s” when it comes to bike lanes.

Do: Ensure that your first foray into real biking and walking transportation infrastructure will be a success by going where there is already a demonstrated demand. Don’t: Simply pick the next project on the capital improvements plan and try to convince people who are not already biking and walking that they should be.

Do: Ensure that your proposed bike lanes connect places people may want to bike to. Don’t: Simply add a bike lane to a random project where there is little demand, or even reason, to bike.

Is there demand for bike infrastructure here? If so, where were those people at the meeting with all the opposition? Did these proposed bike lanes connect places people want to be? If so, then where were those people speaking for the project? If 160 people are showing up to oppose something you are doing, and nobody—or not enough people—are showing up to support it, then you have the wrong project. And likely the wrong scale.

Let me say that in a different way: Just because people are opposing the changes you think they should want, doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want change. They just don’t want the change you are selling.

When I suggest that we’ve created bureaucratic systems to shield us planners from the direct feedback of the people in our community, this is what I mean. We tend to select projects for bureaucratic reasons—the street is scheduled to be redone, we can get a grant, it’s the next on the list—and not because there is a compelling need. We tend to scale projects beyond what immediate demand can justify—eliminate two auto lanes and put in bike lanes—because that’s the scale we work at, not because that is the scale where there is support.

And then we get mad at the people we are supposed to be serving, blame them for their ugliness and intransigence, and come to believe that the public is against all change. Stupid public!

If we were receiving direct feedback—not the indirect and painful feedback of a public meeting, where we are tasked with trying to sell the broad outlines of a theoretical project to a skeptical public, but real feedback that comes from observing people’s struggles at the block level in an effort to identify small, urgent needs—we’d propose different projects.

If we were receiving direct feedback, we’d immediately find that there are a limitless number of small things that need to be done, small but dramatic changes that will make life better for people immediately, with little to no downside.

Have an intersection where people are struggling to cross? Have a stretch where people are already biking that feels particularly unsafe? Have a gap in your streetscape that you observe people shying away from? What can we do today—right now, without a public hearing—with paint, cones, and straw bales to help those situations out?

When the sidewalks are broken, the streetlights are out, the park is strewn with trash and weeds, my neighborhood is declining in value, and my taxes are going up, I’m not going to be in the mood for the next big scheme coming out of city hall. On the other hand, if you’re out here in my neighborhood getting to know what is going on, if you’re humbly observing where my neighbors and I struggle, if you’re communicating that understanding on a personal level, and you’re constantly doing little things to lessen those struggles, I’m going to be all about change. Do it that way long enough and I’d even call the change “dramatic.”

As planners, as professionals, we’re understandably more comfortable working at a distance from the kind of direct feedback I’m describing. We’re too busy, have too many meetings, too many things we’re being asked to do, to take the time to observe struggles in this way. (Plus, we know the struggles—we have planning degrees, attend conferences, and read Planning Magazine, after all.)

As planners, as professionals, we’re also uncomfortable working with very small projects. I’d call them “hacking scale” projects. We’ve erected a bureaucratic edifice of consensus-building to shield any individual from being directly responsible for an action. The scale of the incremental project is too small for committees. It forces individual accountability; that’s what direct feedback is. The personal nature of it can be brutally painful.

Yet that is what our communities need right now. They don’t need another generation of planners proposing big projects, even if this time around we are convinced they are the “right” big projects. They don’t need to be lectured or scolded about what they should want, what is good for them. We planners have done that and we’ve created a mess of it.

It’s now time for humility. It’s time for us to get out there and acknowledge that we don’t have the answers, but we have a process for finding them, collaboratively, with the communities we serve. That process: We humbly observe where people struggle, we respond to those struggles in the smallest and most immediate way we can, we observe what happens, and we repeat these steps over and over until our neighborhoods are thriving again. And probably longer.

I reject the notion, especially in cities that have been in decline and experienced lots of struggles, that the average resident is somehow too comfortable, that they are only going to resist change. As a planner and professional, I find that to be dangerously self-serving; way too comforting. I believe people want dramatic change—they want their communities to be stronger, better places to live—and they are willing to go along with a lot to get that. But it has to serve them, not some process or bureaucratic priority.

Of course, that may just be my ideology speaking. You know, that series of insights I developed over decades of practice, where I ended up questioning not only my own work but my own motives, questioning whether I was serving the people in the communities I worked or was merely convincing myself that I was. Yeah, that ideology.

But let me know what you think. Does the average resident want dramatic change or do they want the urban development status quo?