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.