Striking a More Sustainable Balance

Urban Design, Urban Planning

The following are my thoughts on the ethics of good community planning that serves the public interest:

For many years now, Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) opposition has stymied new projects and development via vocal and protracted public processes. These few individuals group together out of fear of change to stop improvements that would benefit the larger community. This phenomena has become such a deep ethical issue in our nation that the White House recently issued a Housing Development Toolkit (see here) to assist municipalities in taking action to enable new development in the face of this long-standing NIMBY opposition.

Design vs. process?

The role of community planning is to expertly guide both municipal and private development clients through land use decisions that build safer, stronger and more sustainable places. The planning and design tools we use to achieve this include comprehensive plans, policy documents, regulatory codes, master planning, community visioning, and urban design plans.

These techniques also must include public-engagement tools to educate and foster collaboration with key stakeholders in local communities to build the political will necessary to drive new development or redevelopment forward. Ultimately, our profession provides expert guidance to enhance the overall livability of cities, towns, and other places.

The ‘livability’ of a place, according to city planner and author Bruce Appleyard, a professor at San Diego State University, in a 2014 article in Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, is best understood as an individual’s ability to readily access opportunities to improve a citizen’s personal quality of life for living, working, playing, shopping, learning, worshiping, resting, and moving within his or her city, town, or neighborhood.

Ethical challenges

However, community planners face an ethical challenge in balancing these individual self-interests with the collective needs and interests of those many other individuals who comprise a given community, such as artists, the elderly, professionals, and even social clubs. The profession’s ethical principles, established by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), state, “The planning process must continuously pursue and faithfully serve the public interest.”

To add complexity to this balancing act, community planners also have to plan for these collective interests in terms of scale, time, and intensity. An example of balancing these challenges is revealed in planning for mobility, such as main streets, transit corridors, and bicycle lanes, as one’s personal travel inherently touches the private lives of many others along that public path. Our municipal clients, for instance, typically are concerned with the safety, air quality, noise pollution, congestion and economic viability of public thoroughfares, while our private clients tend to express concerns with safety, maintenance, time, and accessibility.

The pursuit of happiness

The definition of livability given above by Dr. Appleyard (i.e., people’s access to opportunities for the pursuit of improvements to their quality of life) is based on the pursuit-of-happiness clause in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Couple this with AICP’s code of ethics, and we can begin to think of planning for livability as a tool to justify a basic American right that can be used, for example, to build transit-oriented development (TOD) that provides an accessible mobility option that serves the greater public.

Today’s TOD development pattern is based on long-standing, traditional mixed-use, walkable villages and neighborhoods that have become cities over time. Mobility supports urbanism. The number and types of individual mobility options, from commuter rail, light-rail, streetcar and bus, to jitney, shared car, private car, bicycle and walking, determines the intensity of a given neighborhood or city and its ability to scale up or down over time.

Think of the mobility options New York City offers as opposed to San Diego. While the example above focused on mobility, community planners – seen as stewards of shaping the places we live our daily lives – also must focus as much attention on issues such as housing, jobs, parks, and services. Measuring this balance between individual specificity and collective inclusiveness is at the heart of planning for ethical livability. And, this greater common good versus the individual wishes dialog happens in every city, town, or neighborhood. It is our profession’s purpose to guide this dialog towards building more livable and sustainable places for everyone.

Design vs. process?

I agree with famed new urbanist Andres Duany, who promotes giving equal value to both design principles and public process as keys to successfully navigating this balancing act. He says that relying only on design principles that have gone untested by local public participation is coercive and lacking authority. Meanwhile, relying solely on a public process without a basis in design principles lacks structure and a credible outcome. These are important because design principles guide individuals and groups toward decisions, and the process provides the structure through which these decisions and compromises can be made.

The benefits created by balancing the rights of all people with smaller groups
are found in increasing the opportunities for everyone to improve the quality of their lives. Cities that enable new development to meet collective needs and interests, particularly since adequate housing development reduces mismatches among housing, jobs, and infrastructure spending, will find themselves in a better position to compete in the contemporary economy.

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