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Credit: Noah Kalina

Public engagement in the community planning process is a relatively new phenomenon. Is it good evidence of American democracy in action or of public skepticism about the planning profession?
Urban planning with public participation has not always existed, nor has it been deemed necessary. Even 50 years ago, planners were still considered demigods. They had reformed cities to be beautiful, healthier, cleaner, and more stable. Planners had done more for public health than doctors. By making lives much better, they had come to be trusted by the people.

For example, take John Nolen, whose small office delivered hundreds of city plans in the 1920s. How did he do so much? San Diego is an example. He visited the city for a couple of weeks, spoke to whomever he needed to, then got back to Boston, prepared the documents, and mailed them back to San Diego, and … it was implemented over the years.

In the 1950s, planners were still considered so trustworthy that when they had that towers-in-the-park idea, they could flick their hand and get an entire neighborhood demolished. But those inner-city plans became socially toxic almost immediately, and as the suburban promise was betrayed, confidence in top-down planning evaporated.

Participatory planning rose out of that disappointment. It wasn’t just the result of Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses—it was categorical, a nationwide insurgency by people who had never heard of those two.

The Congress for the New Urbanism has popularized the charrette as a process. Where does it fit into the range of civic engagement?
Bottom-up avoids the big mistakes of top-down planning, but it is quite inefficient. New Urbanism merges the virtues of top-down and bottom-up planning, combining the principles of its charter and the participation through the charrette. This is something new. The planner adjusting principles to local circumstances is a system that has now worked very well indeed hundreds of times.

But we seem to be reaching a tipping point now where municipalities will give up on engaging the public because it’s gotten too time-consuming and too expensive.
We were involved in Miami 21, a citywide charrette. That process was bottom-up and required convincing everyone concerned. It cost millions of dollars and took four years. It was a magnificent result and the most comprehensive such effort by any big city, but it will probably not be repeated. The economy has changed all that.

While the New Urbanist system may work well, it is also expensive. To mount a charrette requires those rare, highly skilled professionals that can speak to regular folk, think clearly, and draw quickly. Charrettes can cost $300,000. We need to get the cost down to $50,000.

The other complaint you’ve voiced is that NIMBYism has become too obstructionist. Is there a better way to get public participation in the design process without a project falling prey to local interests?
Conventional public participation makes the mistake of privileging the neighbors, the people who live within a half-mile of the given proposal. So it becomes extremely difficult to, say, locate a school or an infill project. While democracy doesn’t need a great number of voters to function well, it does require a full cross-section to participate. That is the source of its collective intelligence. You can’t confuse neighbors with the community as a whole.

We propose using the jury pool or the phone book to invite a random group, which is then understood to be apart from the self-interested neighbors, just as the developer or the school board are acknowledged as vested interests. The neighbors must be seen as vested interests as well.

But how are municipalities going to be able to make big decisions?
If you can’t build a bike path or lay a power line that connects to the new solar energy farm, then you can’t engage in the 21st century. We have also been developing the concept of subsidiarity, the design of decisions: what issue, by which people, and when.

The region makes decisions about heavy infrastructure, the neighborhood decides about traffic, the block makes decisions about parking, the household makes decisions about its building, and the individual makes decisions about the bedroom. The smallest group at the latest point in time that can competently make a decision—that is subsidiarity. Thus we’re evolving participatory planning towards a more intelligent democracy.

A lot of architects are working in China, which doesn’t have much of a public process to speak of. Should we copy their model?
It’s much easier to get things done there. But they’re also making terrible mistakes. The outcome of their planning is generally awful and provides evidence that you need some sort of public participation.

But if you want to be cynical about it, the West will benefit from sending over all those irresponsible designers who are screwing up their quality of life. China will become an undesirable place to live. In the future, their best talent will choose to live in San Francisco or Seattle. It is poison-pill planning. The CIA couldn’t do better.