Planning Report Favors Process Over Values, No Wonder No One Listens

 (inclusivecityreport)

(inclusivecityreport)

A report released last week titled “Inclusive City” outlined an extensive plan to redesign land-use policy and related community engagement in NYC. It is the result of a large working group established last year that included elected officials, community groups, professionals, and advocates all tasked with addressing the very serious issues of environmental impact, displacement pressures, and community control.

The practical goals as stated in the report are to create a more inclusive, comprehensive, and equitable land-use planning process that will ultimately allow community input in zoning decisions to build more affordable housing. It has a number of admirable recommendations, particularly around adopting New Jersey’s “cross acceptance” process of combining top-down and bottom-up planning strategies. There is a lot to like in this report in terms of process.

However, the report fails on a basic level that speaks to a broader problem in the neo-liberal technocratic model: values. First, what are the core public-minded values that can be achieved through better land-use planning? More importantly, in the larger sense, what is the role of our city self-government in defining and supporting the public good?

On closer reading, this report doesn’t have a clear answer. This harms the potential impact of the report, but it also harms our ability to identify and address the larger problems facing our city.

This is a problem that we are seeing play out at the local level and the national level with increasingly scary implications. Without clearly defined public-minded values serving as the organizing structure and source or legitimacy of our self-government, trust in that government process continues to erode dangerously. The anti-public values that fill that vacuum are even more dangerous to the public good.

As an example at the national level, most people would broadly agree that we share certain universal public-minded values: we are all created equal, no one is above or below the law, we are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These values were enshrined in the structure of our government (obviously not perfectly, consistently, or universally.)

However, the explosion of inequality over the last 40 years (you know, that whole thing about how 82% of stock is owned by 10% of Americans that made the news this week) and subsequent anger and disillusionment across many corners of the population exposed that, in practice, our national government has ceased to subscribe to those public values. When Congress talks about tax cuts or healthcare, whatever process-based discussion on benefits they turn to doesn’t ring true to most of us; rightfully so. Our national government is anti-public.

Though our national government might be failing public-minded values, not surprisingly it is very successful at supporting private profit-seeking values. But let’s be clear, favoring private interest over the public good is not an American value. Promoting the public good through the protection of private interest certainly is. That distinction has been lost in our contemporary society and we are all suffering for it.

The problem is that this erosion of pubic-minded values has coincided with the rise of technocratic methods in governing. The sophistication of processcreates the impression of greater public oversight but has actually baked in the anti-public values that undermine it.

This is my problem with the report. It first lays out a clear rationale for the problems with the current planning process: it is inconsistent across neighborhoods; it favors wealthier communities over poorer ones; it provides limited resources and recourse for neighborhood groups. It then proposes specific changes and strategies to address them that include all stakeholders. This is all true and good, but to what end? I don’t know. The process is the point of this report.

This is backwards. The values informing the process should be the point of the report. I don’t get a sense of what a better planning process will do to materially improve the major problems in the city — a lack of affordable housing leading to greater displacement, a lack of resources for public infrastructure leading to a lower quality of life and opportunity, an inability to plan ahead on climate change and other long-term issues that existentially threaten our future.

I’m not saying a better planning process won’t do that. I know it will. But I know what “better” mean to me. People reading this will say “of course the report talks about values” and, yes, it is even titled “Inclusive City” and talks about how it wants more community engagement, buy-in, and control. Inclusivity, decentralization, transparency — they certainly sound like values. But in reality, they are more Stephen Colbert “value-y” terms than actual value claims.

The authors of the report believe that a more open rezoning process is good because it encourages inclusivity. They believe that inclusivity is good because it creates more faith in government process. More faith in government process creates a shared vision for the future of the city.

Setting aside the potential challenges in executing these recommendations or if they would even address the bigger problems they aim to, none of this articulates what any of these authors think the vision of the city should be, why we should have faith in government process, and why we need that process to be inclusive.

Perhaps those values could be something like “because the city has an obligation to provide the basic foundations of prosperity. That all citizens — especially the wealthy — have an obligation to the city and each other. Because there should be more public-ownership of land and resources. Because the only way self-government has legitimacy is if it is pursuing the public good as defined by the engaged public.” That’s just one idea, but I get what a better planning process is trying to achieve then.

This report also commits another common technocratic error. It, perhaps strangely given its focus, ignores the anti-public values that in practice have created our city’s land-use problems in the first place (and presumably undermined the success of the current planning regime). It alludes to the current, flawed process but doesn’t name names as to who benefits and why. Clearly some people are benefiting under this system.

We can only really understand what this report is trying to change and if it is serious about doing so if it does challenge those that benefit from the current system. Without doing so, the process lets those actors and those anti-public values off the hook. This, unfortunately and perhaps unintentionally, reinforces the basic operating premise of anti-public values that allow that small group of private actors to benefit over the general public good in the first place.

The other related problem is that by not calling them out, the report might (again, perhaps unintentionally) allow the casual reader (or voter) to innocently assume that this report is on the pubic good side, while it’s nebulous value claims actually just allow the status quo to remain in place.

The average citizen knows how hard living in NYC is, how much inequality there is, but she can’t reasonably be expected to know how land-use policy impacts that. The authors of this report do know (or should know) but fail us by not using their expertise to articulate it and how to fix it. We need them to speak up for the public and the public good. That means speaking out against people that oppose it.

Will more community control reduce displacement? Maybe, but what is the community and who gets to define it in any given neighborhood? This report doesn’t say. Will a more inclusive planning process create a more legitimate city government? This report doesn’t say what gives government legitimacy in the first place. If it is still ultimately serving private interest over public interest, who cares if the public has a nominally greater opportunity to weigh in? The powerful will still prevail and the public will still suffer.

We only need to look at previous technocratic revolutions in NYC to see that we’ve had this problem before. In 1975 — after the fallout of Robert Moses slash and burn development era — NYC created the modern community boardmodel and ULURP process (which were again reformed in 1989.) These reforms were also about improving process and about inclusivity, decentralization, and transparency. This is the process that now needs a new process.

The city does need a new land-use process. The city needs smart, engaged, and trained people to help craft it. We are lucky that so many people are already at the public’s disposal and willing to try. But we must have public-minded values that create the legitimacy of our self-government define the goals that any process should achieve. Without them, process won’t matter. Indeed, without them, process is just a weapon used against the public.