What will make a Burnet Rd corridor plan successful? Last month, I wrote two blogs exploring challenges with recent planning efforts that undermine trust. We also had a great Sustainable Neighborhoods meeting on 1/27 to identify problems and start to brainstorm solutions. Below are the meeting results, some thoughts on priority, plus a somewhat embarrassing personal confession.
The Sustainable Neighborhoods focus group drew stakeholders with different goals. Several of us were concerned about development impacts on neighborhoods. Others loved Burnet Rd’s revitalization. One person lives in a youth housing co-op and was interested in affordable housing for young people. Another coordinates programs for area middle schoolers. A participant from North Austin called Burnet Rd "my personal highway." A prominent local architect came out who seeks growth that doesn’t undermine neighborhoods. City staff from the corridor plan team and Council Member Pool’s office observed.
The purpose of the meeting wasn’t to start negotiating all of our different goals. It was to brainstorm ways to make the planning process itself fairer and more trustworthy. We worked off four success categories:
Trust and Fairness
The first category, ‘Trust and Fairness’, includes high-level frustrations with planning. These fall into “problems with staff” and “problems with stakeholders.”
1. Sense that public input is for show, that staff already knows what it wants to do
2. Participants don’t feel like their ideas are heard or valued, especially nuances.
3. People think they have agreement on something, and then it changes
4. Staff have an information advantage over regular stakeholders.
5. “Left hand, right hand.” Other decision-makers outside the planning process don't understand or respect it.
6. Stakeholder amateurism. Example – stakeholder misinterprets information, and trumpets it in alarmist way.
7. Resistance to change, especially if imposed from without
8. People have fears, but don't express them
I have experienced all of these. In fact, I am personally guilty of #6 and can illustrate how that works from errors I made in a recent blog.
In my post, “City planning: Democracy with Chinese Characteristics,” I described my experience with the Imagine Austin planning process. I called out how City staff developed a biased survey and distributed it before the visioning committee had finalized the vision and goals.
A few days after posting that essay, I got an email from Matt Dugan, a City staffer who I greatly admire. Matt worked on Imagine Austin. His email was courteous, but noted that my blog had some inaccuracies that he’d like to discuss. I knew I was in trouble.
Matt identified no fewer than three errors of fact in my post.
In August 2010, City Council adopted the Imagine Austin vision and goals. Staff only released the ‘Which Way Austin’ public survey the following month.
In my blog I cited an example of CodeNext staff deleting photos that my neighborhood had collected to describe our Community Character. The photos weren’t deleted. They are still publicly available on a Flicker account. Staff just couldn’t use them in their housing type poster because of the embedded text.
I said that Imagine Austin didn’t treat the Austin Oaks PUD as a growth zone because a highway separated it from the nearby rail line. According to Matt, Imagine Austin’s growth map does include Austin Oaks.
Staff, you’re not off the hook! The ‘Which Way Austin’ survey, whether released before or after the Imagine Austin vision and goals were approved, was an unbalanced instrument. It quantified and compared some goals, but not others. “The intent of the survey was to understand why people supported one growth scenario or another,” Matt said. “It wasn’t intended to be a popularity contest. Maybe we didn’t do a good job explaining that.”
Likewise, the Austin Oaks example illustrates a different challenge of planning – “#3 – People Think They Have Agreement on Something, and then It Changes.” During Imagine Austin, I followed the Anderson corridor closely. I heard staff reason out the scope of growth on that corridor. Later, when staff apparently changed the scope, the growth map represented that in an ambiguous fashion that made it hard for me as an interested stakeholder to understand.
But my main point here is self-criticism. Stakeholder amateurism is a huge challenge in planning processes. I have a full-time job unrelated to my volunteer work. I’m a dad with three young children. I can’t possibly follow every detail of a highly complex process. Matt said a lot of his time on Imagine Austin was spent responding to untrue statements that quickly telephone-gamed into crises.
There’s no silver bullet to make a big planning process completely fair or trustworthy. But here are some ideas from the Sustainable Neighborhoods focus group:
Most of the Sustainable Neighborhoods brainstorming focused on the challenges of gathering feedback and averting miscommunication. Problems identified included:
1. Fragmented information. Misunderstandings that turn ugly.
2. Insular communities, busy stakeholders.
3. Scale of planning effort overwhelms, confuses; burn-out
4. Introverts ignored
The SN group came up with a long list of approaches to improve feedback. Katie Mulholland from City staff said staff is having these same kinds of conversations:
Most of the heat in a planning process radiates from conversations around trade-offs. Creating a strong sense of fairness and trust is a huge part of getting stakeholders to the table and problem-solving. But the management of goal conflicts itself requires time and effort to get right.
1. Divergent goals result in stakeholder conflict
2. Trade-offs are hard to compare and optimize fairly
Plan Governance, Execution
Plan governance and execution is where the rubber hits the sidewalk. After a multi-year process and many good intentions, what happens when the first zoning case lands in front of Planning Commission? As I discussed in my previous blog, if the bodies regulating changes to the plan don’t understand the plan’s intent, don’t respect it, and make arbitrary decisions when amending the plan, then the plan process was for naught.
1. Fine intentions of plans get ignored in practice, especially around zoning amendments.
2. Plans over-promise, under-deliver
Possible Solutions (the SN meeting didn’t get this far, so these are my ideas, or otherwise attributed):
What’s most important?
In my opinion, if there’s one ‘must-have’ planning policy change that will affect the success of the Burnet corridor plan, it’s developing a much clearer, rules-based way to determine when a change of zoning is appropriate, and when it’s not.Unless stakeholders can see upfront that future plans will be governed more consistently than today’s plans, by the intent of the plan and not by political whim, nothing else proposed above will matter. This piece of the puzzle will be tricky, but deserves careful attention.
Burnet Corridor Plan >