Shaping the City: Concerns about long-range development plans are often unfounded

Are you among those skeptical about proposals for change and growth? Do alarm bells sound when you learn about plans calling for more-compact development, higher densities, taller buildings, mixed uses, decreased parking requirements and, by implication, increased population diversity?

Perhaps you distrust those responsible for such plans. You may even believe that some elected officials are corrupt and that all developers are greedy and in league with politicians. These perceptions are understandable but usually unfounded.

Concerns about change and the impact of long-range planning are natural. There is comfort in what we know. Yet change over time is also natural and, indeed, unstoppable as technological, demographic, economic and environmental conditions evolve. The challenge is not to stop change but to manage it wisely. Thus, the goals of planning are, first, to anticipate and predict the nature of likely changes and then to guide change to make it desirable, optimizing its benefits for all.

Visionary, long-term planning entails risks. It requires making forecasts about the distant future based on currently observable circumstances and trends. This is the hardest sell for many residents, since most of their concerns — traffic, schools, jobs, income, taxes, environment, quality of life — are immediate and pressing. They find it difficult to relate today’s needs to what planners tell them will be needed decades from now. Yet planning, by definition, must transcend solving today’s problems. And because plans frequently show future communities whose form and function look different from today’s communities, such plans invariably provoke opposition.

Sometimes opposition is voiced by people who not only dislike plans for change and growth but also demonize politicians, developers and professional consultants —architects, planners, lawyers, transportation engineers — who they see as hired guns beholden to those who pay them. A few public officials are untrustworthy. They’re the ones we learn about through the media after their sins are discovered. Influencing politicians through campaign contributions and lobbying pressure is also deemed inappropriate by many. This is why some people conclude that public officials are unavoidably corrupt.

But during more than 40 years as an architect and planner working with public officials to design and build projects, I have found most of them to be honest, law-abiding, hardworking and well intentioned. Of course, some officials can be obstructive, overly bureaucratic or short on vision. It would have been easy for me to feel that officials who disagreed with me did so out of ignorance, neglect or malevolence. In fact, all the officials I encountered were mindful of the public interest and ultimately did what they believed was the right thing to do in serving the public interest, even if I thought it was wrong.

Most disagreements arise because of contrasting ideologies coupled with differing interpretations of facts. But when an official, after due deliberation, makes a decision contrary to what a constituent wants, the constituent may perceive this not as principled disagreement but as a failure or refusal to listen and understand the issue. Consequently the voter becomes distrustful, perhaps believing that the official’s vote was bought by a real estate developer.

This is one reason developers are continually branded as villains who presumably evade compliance with the law, pay off politicians, ignore residents, cheapen construction by cutting corners and care only about the bottom line. But I have worked for decades with clients who are developers, and — although most do not aspire to be patrons of design excellence and architectural innovation — such negative characterizations describes relatively few of them.

Here are the facts: In business to make a profit, developers invest huge sums of at-risk capital in projects that take years to build, projects whose success depends entirely on satisfactorily delivering a product acceptable to both the market and the public. They understandably seek to control construction costs and maximize revenue, but most also seek long-term project performance, durability and economic stability while being a good neighbor. A few developers display motives and behavior that are suspect, but demonizing all developers is unfair.

Developers are instruments of public policy. They build according to the rules — master plans, zoning laws, building codes, environmental regulations, preservation guidelines — established and enforced by government. They prefer regulatory clarity. Jurisdictions in which rules are ambiguous or unpredictable make developers uncomfortable. If rules are obsolete and obstruct the achievement of a community’s planning goals, developers seek exceptions, variances or the adoption of new rules.

Decades ago, the public paid little attention to the rules by which cities were designed and developed. A relatively few rich and powerful men made all the decisions, often behind closed doors. Today, concerned members of the public pay attention, and their opinions are solicited and considered. But public opinion should be informed by facts, free of unwarranted bias and open to the prospect that diligent, creative planning will yield desirable change.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

 
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