On the heels of this recent election season, it is a good time to reflect deeply on how we are running public participation processes. How do legislative requirements like those for the SB 375 regional planning process in California help or hinder meaningful public engagement? What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for public engagement going forward? My research on the issue sheds some light on these questions.
Public process design is critical when participants are ideologically divided and do not trust each other or the public agencies in charge. It can be important to seek out areas of common ground. For example, all of us in a process may not able to agree on whether climate change exists, but we might be able to agree that hybrid vehicles should pay their fair share for road costs. We may not be able to agree on whether high density housing is beneficial in most circumstances, but we could do joint fact-finding to assess impacts on property rights, property values and public services like schools, police and fire departments.
My research on contested regional planning issues in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Atlanta, Georgia reveals surprising areas of convergence.
In the Bay Area, Tea Party and property rights activists came in force to block regional planning meetings run by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments to develop the region’s first Sustainable Communities Plan, known as Plan Bay Area. Importantly, these activists were not alone in opposition, as plaintiffs from across the political spectrum filed four lawsuits against the plan: two with some connections to property rights activists, one brought by the Building Industry Association Bay Area, and one by environmental organizations. And in the progressive left stronghold of Marin County, citizens not affiliated with Tea Party or property rights groups have voiced objections to the regional plan and to city plans that include higher density development areas in order to access regional funds available through the plan.
In Atlanta, Tea Party and property rights activists led the opposition to a regional sales tax proposal before the voters in 2012. The measure would have dedicated half of the estimated funds generated to public transit projects. An unlikely coalition of strange bedfellows emerged: Sierra Club and NAACP leaders joined the opposition, in part because they felt the proposed transit projects were not the ones the area needed. Although it is hard to say what impact the coalition had on the measure, the tax failed badly with 63% of the votes in opposition.
When examining the two contentious regions, I found four points of convergence between conservative activists I interviewed and planners, largely over transport policy and process matters, that warrant planners’ attention. These align generally with progressive activists’ positions even though the divergent sides come to planning from different vantage points. The four points of convergence were:
- Some support for vehicle miles traveled fee (Atlanta)
- Nuanced considerations about transit (Atlanta + Bay Area)
- Skepticism of authenticity of planning process (both regions)
- Opposition to sales taxes (Atlanta + Bay Area)
For more context on these areas of convergence, click here.
A way forward for planning efforts when the citizenry are divided along ideological lines could begin with participants seeking to find areas of common ground like the ones outlined above.
Participants could draw from the political theory of agonism to reframe their approach to civic engagement. In agonistic contexts, actors come to consider their opposition as legitimate adversaries rather than as enemies unworthy of engagement. In such moments, actors retain their core values and identities but may also find limited common ground with others, or agree to disagree. Group consensus is not a goal, but compromise through bargaining and negotiations may occur.
While challenging, it may be worthwhile to incorporate processes that facilitate transitioning from highly antagonistic, counterproductive encounters to interactions of agonistic debate. Current law and practice push regions to adopt plans that can be vulnerable to lawsuits if they are supported only by weak consensus. Such plans may be barely able to hold together over time. We wouldn't ship a package long-distance in crumpled wrapping and fraying tape. Likewise, we need solid community negotiations to keep plans from coming apart.
For more on the research discussed above, see Dr. Karen Trapenberg Frick's papers in the Journal of the American Planning Association at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01944363.2013.885312 and in Urban Studies athttp://usj.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/04/07/0042098014528397.
This article first appeared in longer form in California Planning & Development Report at here.