Cities are thoroughly physical places. In seeking understanding of their behavior, we get useful information by observing what occurs tangibly and physically, instead of sailing off in some metaphysical fancies.
– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Last month I tried to engage on twitter over things that were a little too complicated to explain in 280 characters. Big mistake.
I ended-up blocking two people.
Twitter: when the light at the end of the tunnel is your house on fire.
Despite its many failings, social media remains the preferred tool of public engagement over matters of urban planning and civic discourse.
There is so much more to these topics than meets the eye, I find social media’s snapshots of a certain time and place to be marginally helpful to the discussion. When the dialogue stays on Twitter however, it is downright harmful.
To paraphrase Jane Jacobs, cities are an immense laboratory of trial and errors. The process of coming together creates an intricate social and economic order that often looks — on the surface — like disorder. When the discussion stops at the snapshot of disorder — as it does on social media — we lose the opportunity to learn from what lies below the surface. The horizon of urban planning makes it particularly vulnerable to shallow thinking since it can take 30 years to fully appreciate the repercussions of a bad decision. Not yet in sight, not yet in mind.
The planning principles that gave rise to urban sprawl and the stew of problems we are trying to fix today were devised by experts seeking urban renewal through intellectual study. Their ideas were based on how cities should work and what should be good for people. They all but shrugged off the reality of how cities actually worked.
Today, we reject this top down approach in favour of public engagement and consultation, where planning principles are based on the lived experience of the best-organized and most vocal groups of advocates, based on ideas of how cities should work and what should be good for people… as they shrug off the reality of how cities actually work. We ironed out the kinks of human contact through homogenization of purpose and an abundance of legislation. We worked diligently at eliminating friction between people of widely different needs and perspectives, eliminating in the process the possibility of adapting policy to circumstances and common sense.
You can’t eliminate friction without eliminating contact. We now find ourselves in a situation where, having managed the crap out of human contact, we now need to massage it back into policy-making through carefully choreographed public consultations. Constrained by a legislative framework designed to keep people from minding each other’s business, is it any surprise that people are skeptical that their opinion really matters?
Today, scientific studies on the “mysterious and perverse behaviors of cities” (Jane Jacobs) abound. But we are just as eager to ignore them as we were 70 years ago. Populism has replaced paternalism. The “thread of principles” that Jane Jacobs sought to identify sixty years ago in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” have long emerged as a thick rope of evidence. And yet, cities everywhere are still motoring down a path proven to be destructive to everything that makes us human like our connection to each other and to the natural world.
Ottawa — the city where I live and work as a Councillor’s Assistant — recently started a review of its Official Plan. In Ontario, Official Plans are required by the Planning Act and approved by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Official Plans coordinate a city’s growth projections with future needs, help decide where and when major infrastructure are built, provide a framework for a municipality’s zoning by-laws and regulations, and provide a nexus point for the management of local, regional and provincial interests. Ottawa’s new Official Plan is expected to take our land use policy out of the 1950s and into the 21st century, overseeing the city’s growth from 1 million to 3 million residents over the next 30 years.
The launch of the Official Plan review process last February was met with widespread indifference, most notably amongst the City Councillors sitting on the Planning Committee, prompting the Chair of Planning to ask if she was at some kind of wake.
The Official Plan’s public engagement website is bursting with discussion papers and highlight sheets explaining the critical importance of the built environment for everything from public health to climate adaptation and resiliency, the economy and infrastructure. The City hit all the right notes, talking about the need to link transportation planning and public health policy, protecting the most vulnerable, inclusionary zoning, transit-oriented development, employment poles, mixed-usage and extreme weather events.
What troubles me about our Official Plan Review and public engagement process is what it does not discuss and yet, will remain its biggest obstacles: a provincial policy statement hell bent on residential growth, the lack of political will, the need for strong leadership, the difficulty of fighting habit and inertia, the fear of the other and a taxation system that supports and subsidizes everything we know to be wrong about the built-environment.
I was reflecting on those challenges when the last round of debate over the Chateau Laurier addition wrapped all the dysfunction that will assuredly trip Ottawa in its attempt to bring the Official Plan into the 21st century in one convenient package:
– Weak leadership
– Political expediency
– Populist grandstanding
– Indecisiveness and inconsistency
– Poor communication
– Poor civic education
Having packed a lifetime of moral outrage over a privately-owned luxury hotel, it’s anyone’s guess whether or not Ottawa residents will invest a fraction of the effort into a process they can actually affect.