Andrew Whittemore on taking the Agenda 21 protests seriously

Andrew Whittemore has a nice piece up on the Atlantic Cities called Why Planners Need to Take Agenda 21 Criticism More Seriously. I disagree with his conclusions and what actually concerns TEA party types, but it’s a worthy read. There’s a great deal about planners’ sustainability claims that do not necessarily follow from logic, and planners aren’t always good diplomats or social marketers.

Here are a few points where I disagree with Whittemore, or where I interpret the political climate somewhat differently:

1. While New Urbanists and contemporary planners complain about regulation, they usually promote it, too–just their version of it. Jon Levine pointed out, in his excellent book, Zoned Out, that way too many zoning codes restrict free market development so that those who might demand higher densities are effectively regulated out by what is supplied. New Urbanists and planners have seized on this point to argue that their ideas are actually more free market because they wish to eliminate restrictive Euclidean zoning to enable a greater diversity of projects to go forward.

The same has been true of the reception to Don Shoup’s book, The High Cost of Free Parking. By eliminating parking requirements, we’re freeing up the market!

Ok, fine, but accompanying these calls to loosen regulatory controls of bad Euclidean zoning are demands for (supposedly good) form-based codes, urban growth boundaries, and maximum parking requirements, and those are regulatory, too–deeply so.

We wind up not fooling anybody who deplores government control, like the TEAP party folks.

2. Whittemore’s last point, about practicing what you preach is especially insightful, but I would have carried it further than urging more context sensitivity and local engagement. As it is, though, he’s right: the dialogue from planning is “We’ll let you participate, as long as you agree with the TOD/New Urbanism/whatever we think is right, so lucky you! I know! Let’s have a contest to see who gets to pick out the doorknobs for our rail station!”

I would push things a bit further in the recognition that just about every urban vision promulgated among planners has a social agenda intended to shape how other people live: You’re not exercising enough, you need this; you’re eating the wrong, non-local, non-vegan, non-blah blah blah foods, you need that; you’re getting around the wrong way, you need this here transit system. You need to do things differently, the way good people do them, so we’ll supply for you what we think you need.

There is a groundswell of impatience with paternalistic progressivism on both sides of political divide in the US, and I’m not entirely sure what planning and planners can do about it. For me, I wish there were more engagement with the social over the environmental agendas in the world–something that isn’t likely to wash with TEA partiers, either.