Local control and its discontents

Edited to add: Twitter Smarties Emily Hamilton and Market Urbanism correct me in saying that height maximums are not “it.” Here’s the language:

Bill Text SB 827 Planning and zoning transit rich housing bonus

I never really think about the parking reqs because parking is devil’s land use, and nobody should mourn them. The density and FAR additions in my mind went with the height changes, in that it clearly wasn’t the intent of the law to foster taller buildings with the same numbers of units, only with REALLY HIGH CEILINGS, but one does have to spell these things out.

I’ve never really thought political, urban, or planning theory had a coherent, fully developed vision of local control–even the communitarians. That problem I think spills out a little in the popular discussion of it.

If I recall right, just about all the gubernatorial primary candidates said in their recent debate they did not support SB827 because they support “local control.” So for them–and a lot of interested YIMBYs, I think–local control comes down to land use decisions. Certainly, land use is a big part. But I am not sure I buy that as a definition of local even if the control part of the concept makes sense.

Planning theory has had incompatible theories here for some time–that’s to be expected. Most fields do. The first has been the by and large discipline- and profession-wide acceptance of sustainability theories centered on controlling urban form and promoting infill. The second incompatibility (potentially) has been planning theory’s emphasis on community control as a part of justice and democratic planning. These two things, specific urban form remedies and local control, never actually had to come together except in the minds of nice people who seldom think that democratic preferences may not align with social goals in any way, shape or form.

And in this instance, democratic preferences of existing homeowners often do not support infill, even with all the various environmental, sustainability, and justice rationales given. There are, of course, people like Chester Hart who have been entirely consistent: communities should be in control over what happens to them, and development and the rest of the city can lump it on their desire for growth.

Local and community control strike me as overlapping but distinct concepts. From environmental justice advocacy, we had very good evidence that *city* control over land use decisions often enough failed to represent the democratic preferences of local communities. That is, for neighborhoods occupied with people of color or impoverished residents, the city itself was too far removed from their community to represent them properly. Environmental justice advocate Robert Bullard once argued for a “shift the burden of proof” to companies so that for all practical purposes, communities had a veto vote over city decisions. Potential polluters would have to establish to the community that they were an asset in addition to going through city and EPA approval processes.

Note that Bullard wasn’t talking housing, and that’s a rich point for discussion about local control. For so many contemporary urbanists, local control is a villain, and I think that’s a mistake. You get people talking about localism and pretty soon you get them frothing about NIMBYism and “too much democracy.” But it’s probably wrong to associate local control exclusively with its exclusionary abuses and tendency toward homogenizing. I doubt the average YIMBY would like a world with absolutely no localists or local control.

I think cities absolutely need localists–people who invest their time, joy, and energy in places, and it is probably hard to do that when you tell people their spaces will be governed strictly from above, and far above, at the state and regional level at that. Look, dearie, you are allowed to have block parties and ice cream socials, but we’ll plant this fracking center next to you and there’s nada you can do about it. That’s already happened, and it’s not good for those places even if it is very good for an already wealthy industry and people who want cheap fuel.

The fourth chapter of the book I’ve been toiling on digs into this problem: we want to think about what local control is good for and what it isn’t. If you look at SB827, the only aspect of local control that gets changed are height limits–that’s it. My argument in Chapter 4 comes down to the fact that cities are special environments for association, and within them, local control can extend over many aspects of the built environment, but not over spatial association through tools like zoning or gated communities. You should be able to control, somewhat, the way your streets look and how they are policed, but you can’t (legitimately) say no bike lanes at all. If you don’t like bikes, then you move–don’t expect the city to stop being a city just because you’d like to cherrypick what it is in it to your tastes.

The general argument from the chapter is housing can’t be treated as a nuisance and neither, really, can congestion. Most everything else I think can and should be up for local deliberation and yes, control, as tiresome as that is. Otherwise, we are going to move into a managerial model of local governance–bigger bureaucratic institutions whose strengths lay in standardization rather than context customization.

The LA Times stepped in it a bit with YIMBY folks in a recent op-ed about local control. It’s a confused op-ed, and again, that confusion is all over the place in this discussion and in urban theory. The Times consistently shares the pro-development agenda of the YIMBY universe, but they are sharp enough to see how state actions in South LA have been a disaster for the place–think Caltrans. South LA has never had the sort of empowered community political control that places like Brentwood or Marin have had. South LA is a collection of neighborhoods who have much reason to fight city hall and Sacramento because lots of prior generations of “Hey, this is going to be for the public good” has not, in fact, been for South LA’s good at all.

So the effort to reform exclusionary land use policies occurs in media res of this history–and it’s a problem. It’s easier to dismiss the policy history that got us here, as in the state ‘has bigger problems than what happens in South LA’ (paraphrased from a white dude in San Francisco, no less. Dude. Sit down. Worrying that the state will suddenly prioritize the needs of black people over white Californians is a little worrying the sun is going to rise in the south tomorrow.)

The state does need to be able to solve its exclusionary zoning problems. But if you do care about justice for new residents having access to the city –one of the reasons we should want more housing and inclusion–you should also care about the people who have been experiencing exclusion from opportunities in the city for literally decades already.

How to empower the neighborhoods in South LA, relative to other places, while changing the ability of neighborhoods to forestall new housing is a really big question. Perhaps, as some argue, all the development from SB827 will go to the high-cost locations first, so there is no worry. But not having potential side effects of a policy in a place is not the same as really boosting the ability of South LA neighborhoods to have more self-determination and control vis-a-vis governments that have never represented them or their interests particularly well.

For all of you that are going to jump on me and yell and scream that this is “problem-raising” rather than “solutions-advocating”–tough cookies..This problem is hard, and there is a reason why it’s not been particularly well-addressed in any domain of political or urban theory or in day-to-day governance. It’s good ground for new thinking, which is one reason I’ve been chewing on it for so long. But it takes a long time for consensus to form in normative theory let alone practice, and the field is pretty open for new researchers.