A Placemaking Journal
Playing Tea Party: Planning and Agenda 21
2011 is over, but not forgotten. Indeed, in the planning world, it will be remembered as the year when many planners across the country began fielding smart growth policy objections from Tea Party supporters and those concerned about the U.N’s Agenda 21. No shortage of articles and blog posts, written in tones that drip with frustration yet offer few solutions, have documented the trend.
These concerns are no small issue. Rather, they’re a formidable distraction capable of sinking years of work and wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars. In an era of diminishing resources, they’re something most communities simply can’t afford.
It’s a very real challenge, but not an insurmountable one. For planners looking to make progress despite the hurdles of today’s political reality, here’s a four-step process for successfully navigating the waters.
Step One: Stop Belittling Objectors. This should be so obvious that it should not even be a step, but every time I turn around I see smart growth advocates making things worse by calling objectors derogatory names before even attempting to address their specific concerns.
Just last month I read a blog comment by a former President of the APA who claimed that the Tea Party and the Republican Party “would be extremely comfortable adorned in the brown shirts of its ideological predecessors of 1920s-1940s Germany.” He later called them supporters of fascism — all the while never addressing a single substantive point (let alone supporting his name-calling allegations).
Sometimes, more subtle actions are just as damaging. For example, last year I had to kick a member of our charrette team out of a meeting with local Tea Party representatives because he was rolling his eyes, making other condescending gestures and picking unnecessary fights that only clouded the issues.
Step Two: Listen. Ask any sales person what the most important trait of a great sales person is and he or she will answer the ability to listen. The reasoning is simple. If you do not understand the concerns of your audience, you will not be able to address them. So listen hard. And then listen some more.
Step Three: Identify. If you listen patiently, and respectfully ask questions that help you identify and isolate substantive concerns (which, oftentimes, are hidden behind rhetoric), you will finally be at the point where you can engage them in a meaningful way.
While it is important that you learn as much as you can by asking a wide range of questions, the number one goal of your questions should be to identify the category into which your objector falls:
A. Conspiracy Theorist. While this may sound derogatory on its face, it’s not intended as such. It’s simply shorthand for those who believe that local planning department efforts are being conducted in support of the United Nations’ Agenda 21, despite the fact that most communities have only recently even heard of it. These opponents might also assert that local planners are conspiring with the federal government to force everyone to live in high-rises, abandon their cars, and give up their private property rights.
B. Libertarian. Many libertarians have found refuge in the Tea Party because of their shared belief in limited government. They’ve been around the public planning process for decades, and their core belief is that the government should not tell citizens what they can and cannot do with their property.
C. Mainstream Tea Party Supporter. The largest group of potential planning opponents is mainstream Tea Party supporters who have joined together with other local activists to combat fiscal irresponsibility and the growing size of government. They are distrustful of government, which translates to a critically untested assumption that everything the local planning department is doing is wrong. They believe that the voices of the citizenry don’t actually count, no matter how many public hearings and meetings take place. In short, they believe collaborative community initiatives always produce the same end product. That it’s a sham process.
Many of their objections spring from arguments made by others, as opposed to personal research (see “Agenda 21 for Dummies“). Call it guilt by association — if Al Gore and the U.N. are for it, they must be against it. If Glenn Beck and other Tea Party members are against it, they must be against it as well.
Step Four: Engage. The final step is engaging objectors in a civil manner based upon who they really are; i.e., the group they align with ideologically. In other words, treat them differently based upon their different points of view (although there is overlap).
Here are the basic techniques:
A. Conspiracy Theorist. Request evidence from the objectors that supports a connection between your local smart growth planning efforts and Agenda 21. Those who have been active in smart growth planning over the past 15 years know that there has been no connection. (Most did not even know about Agenda 21 until recently, meaning that collusion, if it actually existed, has been the most poorly orchestrated collusion in history.)
Next, highlight that the most visible critic of smart growth policies, Wendell Cox, wrote an article encouraging opponents of smart growth to abandon their focus on Agenda 21, and to simply oppose smart growth principles on their merits (though he defines smart growth in a manner that is at odds with most smart growth efforts).
B. Libertarian. The conventional libertarian will claim that the built environment should be regulated on the individual choices of each individual parcel owner. That is how they define freedom. But this vision necessarily takes away a land owner’s freedom to live in a vibrant downtown setting or a neighborhood where agreed-upon rules produce, to them, a desirable environment. In other words, the libertarian vision provides freedom for some, but takes away the freedom of others who want something different. Ironically, the prospect of a community that permits a demand-driven diversity of places should be the goal of true libertarians, as it respects the freedom of all citizens. But is it? Ask the libertarian if they believe that property rights should be subject to the democratic process that we have in place today.
C. Mainstream Tea Party Supporter. Beyond the issues raised with the other groups, focus on the following:
(1) the fiscal performance of sprawl; i.e., why do we subsidize infrastructure such as roads, sewer, electricity, gas and cable without regard to its true locational cost or its return on investment for the community;
(2) the increased freedom associated with smart growth policies; i.e., more housing choices; more choices in how to get around; the ability to live in a multi-generational neighborhood; more development options than with existing separated-use zoning codes; and
(3) the European socialist origins of conventional development patterns; e.g., Le Corbusier and the Radiant City.
Finally, don’t indulge discussions of terms with no shared, agreed upon definition, such as “sustainability” or “economic justice.” Instead, ask them to articulate their vision for the community so that it can be contrasted with your efforts. And remember, it is counterproductive to simply label one thing “smart growth” and another item “sprawl.” Dig deeper into the details so that you can discuss the substantive issues.
It’s not necessary that you convince everyone of the correctness of your position. Instead, you simply need to work through their concerns. By engaging them respectfully such that they articulate and go on record with their real beliefs, you ensure that their objections can be judged not by you but where it matters: At the ballot box.
What you do not want to do is get into an argument centered around who best fits the description of a Nazi.
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