Austin’s City Planning – Democracy with Chinese Characteristics

posted Jan 18, 2016, 6:42 PM by Steven Zettner   [ updated Jan 26, 2016, 5:08 PM ]

[SZ UPDATE 1/22/16 - A kind neighbor pointed out that someone could read the title of this essay and think it meant Chinese aren't to be trusted.  The intent was to play off Deng Xiaoping's 'Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.'  Deng's mantra is sometimes used ironically to mean a term that has lost part of its original meaning.  'Chinese Characteristics' can also be read to mean a culture strongly influenced by bureaucracy.  One reason I love my city and my community is that we have a pretty low quotient here of bigots.  :)  ]

Planning in my mind is about optimizing tradeoffs – finding ways to get the most value from competing goals.  This is an insanely difficult job.  I respect most planners and sympathize with them. (They have to deal with all the opinionated people, like me).  

But I can’t ignore an assessment, shared by many people who have experienced recent Austin planning efforts, that our City’s planning process is not to be trusted. And this represents a significant risk to the upcoming Burnet corridor plan. People don’t compromise if they don’t have faith in the outcomes.

If you ask people why they don’t trust planning, they will come up with many juicy anecdotes.  For myself, I recall the time CodeNext staff asked my neighborhood to deliver photographs detailing our community’s ‘character’, and then deleted them all because our photographs included our interpretation of why the photograph was relevant.  It struck us – who was going to interpret whether the images were good or bad?

Then there was the time on the Airport Blvd corridor plan when staff, under pressure to show open space for walkability on a notoriously grey corridor, splashed a big green ‘open space character zone’ onto the corridor concept map.  On closer inspection, this space for romping and playing was the side of the highway.


Imagine Austin: Horse Whips Driver

Those kinds of stories, however salacious, don’t really get to the heart of the matter. They’re as likely to illustrate “not enough time in the day” or “poor judgement,” things that afflict all busy professionals. 

The real root cause for lack of trust in planning is how staff goes beyond their professional responsibility of optimizing and executing on goals, and actually decides the goals and priorities. That was rife in Imagine Austin, so let me use the Comprehensive Plan process to illustrate what I mean.

To kick off the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan, staff developed four citywide growth maps.  Each map showed a different way to squeeze in 750,000 new housing units - enough housing to support expected 30-year growth.

Staff used a computer program to generate metrics showing how each growth map fared against Imagine Austin goals like vehicle congestion, air quality, or farmland.  Respondents to a survey showing the four maps and their comparative numbers mostly picked the fourth scenario, ‘Compact and Connected’, because it fared best for all the goals.

Just one problem.  Staff made the single biggest decision of the planning process, and claimed “widespread public support,” based on a land use model that was never vetted against fully half of the citizen-determined goals in the plan.  Housing, Transportation and environmental goals were represented, but Affordability, Community and Education goals were not.

Things went from there.  While there were numerous public input sessions, they all followed the pattern of “put your feedback onto a sticky note, and then go away.”  I recall just one session, towards the end, where stakeholders actually got to freely discuss trade-offs.  But at the very end, when it came time to define the Imagine Austin “Priority Programs” that will drive funding for years, those came out of committees mainly composed of staff.

I will confide that I personally agree with much of the content in Imagine Austin.  It gets us on the road (err, track?) to the original City Council directive, which is ensuring Austin can still provide a decent quality of life over the long term (sustainability).  It tackles the City’s long-term housing imbalance.  It does a decent job of optimizing complicated trade-offs, especially for urban constituents.

But because staff pre-positioned so many of the plan’s goals and priorities, failed to test so many important assumptions, and kept the public (even the citizen advisory group that was supposed to oversee the process) at arm’s length, Imagine Austin is panned in many circles as a staff plan.  (The main exception is young urbanites, who love it). 

From what I can tell, that has freed City Council to apply Imagine Austin selectively.  Perhaps that was inevitable – politics is the least civilized sport.  But I wonder if it would be so early and so blatant if Imagine Austin’s public support ran broader and deeper.


Austin Oaks PUD – Planning Mistrust ^2

In North Austin, an example of how City Council applies Imagine Austin principles selectively has played out with the Austin Oaks PUD.

One of Imagine Austin’s key functions is to document where and why new growth makes sense.  “Compact and Connected” optimizes housing and transportation goals by putting the growth zones in places connected to each other via quality mass transit. All growth zones identified in Imagine Austin comport to this principle, or can in the future.

Austin Oaks was not put in an Imagine Austin growth zone because it is not “connected.” I personally witnessed Imagine Austin staff decide to remove the west side of Mopac from the Anderson Ln neighborhood center (that center is on the east side of Mopac, where a Lonestar rail station could one day be supported).  They recognized the impracticality of most future residents walking across a highway bridge to a transit station.   CapMetro planners have told me that rapid transit will never run west up Spicewood Springs, because the line would peter out over the lightly populated recharge zone.  Good transit lines are extendable.

It’s up to City Council to decide if one priority, for instance affordability, trumps all else. City Council is free to ignore the Comprehensive Plan’s optimizations.  But what does that tell the public about the credibility of City planning?


Three Sources of Planning Mistrust That May Be Fixable

To summarize, the Imagine Austin planning process had at least 3 big flaws that led to mistrust, but that are potentially fixable at the policy level for future plans: 

  1. Staff cherry-picked goals and priorities
  2. Staff made poor use of stakeholders to explore priorities, socialize and explain trade-offs, and start to identify smart solutions
  3. The resulting uneven public investment in the plan has freed Council to apply the plan’s tenets selectively, politically.


My next blog post will look at Neighborhood Plans, which have very different strengths and weaknesses affecting planning trust.