Community Planning: Do We Know What the Problem Is?
During my time as Seattle planning director, I learned some hard lessons about the process of community debates. A community’s future is a sensitive topic.
I learned that in every community debate there are three essential but not mutually exclusive attributes: aspiration, fear and nostalgia. The aspiration issues are pretty straightforward. What should be different and what should stay the same about this place or my position in this place — region, city, neighborhood or block — if the result increases the likelihood that I, my family, the people I love, will be safer and more successful?
Fear issues are, in my experience, more complicated. My father always used to caution us, “what people do best is assume the worst.” This does indeed appear to hold true in discussions about change. In so far as in every community it is change that is constant, not stasis, there are abundant opportunities to imagine how any particular change is going to destroy life as we know it. The response to someone standing up and describing a possible change is very often to turn those words into an imagined future, assume that future to be “truth” and then fight tooth and nail to defeat that “truth.” Planners are typically harbingers of change and therefore considered suspicious at best, evil at worst. Physical changes in a neighborhood are all wrapped in concerns about gender, race and class changes that might make a community “feel” different. It is a difficult path to tread.
The third element, the one about which I learned too little too late, has to do with nostalgia. Harvard’s Svetlana Boym in her 2001 book The Future of Nostalgia, a read I recommend to anyone involved in public processes related to change, discussed two types of nostalgia. The first she called restorative. This is an attempt to return to a past that quite probably never existed but which underpins a group’s identity. Most often restorative nostalgia is the consequence of demagoguery. In its most extreme forms it can have brutal and devastating consequences as evidenced by the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, whipped into a frenzy by Slobodan Milosevic igniting racial and religious tensions that had lain more or less dormant since the 14th Century.
The second kind she discusses, reflective nostalgia, is a recognition that history and identity are key components in any society structure. We see this played out in every working class neighborhood witnessing “gentrification” and in every urban core experiencing “densification.” The important issue here is to achieve clarity on which aspects of identity matter most and to ensure that they are carried forward into the future so that those people being asked to change feel valued in the process.
If I am correct in believing that every discussion about changes in society is rooted in aspiration, fear and nostalgia, what conclusions can the planning community draw from this experience? I think it is to understand that “planning” is among the most political things that a society ever does. We focus on means such as infrastructure, buildings and economies yet too often we lose track of the desired ends. What is the purpose of these physical and social systems if they are not ultimately serving the purpose of optimizing conditions for human development over time?
Beginning with the end in mind, if planning is about achieving human success, what “means” must be addressed if planners and engineers and economists and all of us in similar professions are to be actual assets in societal success? Here I think there is one big question and four components to solving it.
The question is, do we actually know what problem we are trying to solve?
I’m quite confident that we almost always know at least one attribute of the problem but almost never understand the problem at a scale large enough to allow us to create integrated solutions that add more value at less cost. If we can first achieve clarity on the scope of the problems to be addressed, and their relative priority, the opportunity costs of addressing them will be much lower. Once we have identified the keystone issues, there are four elements that must be true of the solution:
- It must be technically feasible. We still struggle with conventional wisdom. History shows us that many of the solutions we have applied in the past are in fact the very thing that created today’s most compelling problems. Although Einstein never actually said it, the old chestnut about insanity being doing the same thing and expecting different results has never held truer.
- It must be economically viable. Not only must we be able to afford it, but the solution must also generate sustainable economic benefit for the greatest number of people possible. If not, the benefits will accrue to the few at the expense of the many, ultimately with catastrophic consequence for humanity, other species and the resources we depend upon for life.
- It must be politically acceptable. By this I don’t just mean partisan politics. There are, in any system, individuals or groups who have the capability to empower action; only occasionally are these politicians. More often they are leaders of the faith-based community, revered elders or community leaders. Whoever they may be, if we do not identify them and leverage their ability to empower action, even the best answers will not be enacted.
- The fourth truth, the one upon which the other three are contingent, is that our actions toward change have to be grounded in humility.
Why humility? Because the future is random and uncertain and the assumption that any expert in a given field is also an expert in the future is likely to take us down some expensively mistaken paths. A physicist friend of mine once told me that probabilities are problematic because once you establish one mathematically you know that it will happen, but you never know when. So, we have to be lifetime learners and never get stuck believing that yesterday’s clever answer is tomorrow’s binding solution.
Things change and both we, and our solutions, must adapt.
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