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Why Planners Need to Take Agenda 21 Criticism More Seriously

Why Planners Need to Take Agenda 21 Criticism More Seriously
Google Maps/Mark Byrnes

The New York Times over the weekend picked up the thread of the Tea Party-related anti-smart growth movement, which in truth has been gaining steam for a couple of years now. This isn’t even the first time The Atlantic Cities has written about it.

It’d be easy to wholly dismiss the Agenda 21’ers, the nickname that’s stuck here in Texas for those who believe that a non-binding, 1992 United Nations action plan aimed at aiding world governments in pursuing sustainability is the source of a vast urban planning conspiracy. These individuals have interpreted the UN’s Agenda 21 as an international plot, implemented by a Town Hall near you, to herd humanity into habitation zones and save the rest for the animals at the behest of enviro-fascists and their bicycle advocate shock troops.

Consider, however, that the ubiquity of sustainability as a concept in today’s planning circles does constitute something of a revolution. Not since the heyday of renewal have planners had such a sense of mission (a relief in a postmodern era). And, as in those days, they often back it up with a sense-of-urgency-driven, we-know-this-is-the-right-thing-to-do, rationalism. A critique of sustainability from within the field is overdue, and is now forced on planners around the country in acrimonious fashion. That planners claim to represent their localities at the same time that they produce a deluge of unfamiliar buzzwords and streetscape images presents a paradox to those fearful of a conspiracy. It’s a reason for believing one exists!

There’s been difficulty around Dallas. A comprehensive plan overhaul has become a multi-year affair and election hot-topic in the city of Garland. Garland has also withdrawn from the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), just one of the many NGOs that the Tea Party accuses of disseminating the UN’s instructions to local officials.

Tea Partiers see UN infiltration in the North Central Texas Council of Government’s economic development plan, “Vision North Texas.” A “Hike and Bike System Master Plan” in Arlington that did not mention sustainability but used other cues has been at least halved in scope. The suburbs of Rowlett and McKinney are also in the foray.

Planners are preoccupied with denying any conspiracy. This may be necessary, as the American Planning Association pointed out in its November memo, “Agenda 21: Myths and Facts,” but denials don’t often produce better long-term dialogue. Not to mention, a lack of reflection would be unfortunate, because these events speak to deep-seeded conservative concerns about property rights, the planning process, and the paradigms guiding planning today.

Below I offer three ideas for engaging Agenda 21 in a more productive dialogue.

1) A Global Tragedy of the Commons? Appreciating sustainability requires understanding the global and often indirect impacts of individual actions that on their face are local and intimate. “Think globally, act locally” inspires many, but Agenda 21’ers believe it submits individuals to a compromising global commons. It opens doors, frighteningly, to the possibility that many profitable or enjoyed activities should cease despite never having directly witnessed their negative consequences.

Rather than expect many Americans to reject their perceptions, it may be useful for planners to express greater appreciation for current conditions, these being understood by Agenda 21’ers and others as free-market conditions (however inaccurately). In doing so, planners can explore how markets can aid sustainability efforts, like say when regulation is to be faulted for unsustainable practices, and make their rollback (in the name of expanding freedoms) the priority. The failures to understand how planning may better utilize market frameworks in seeking sustainability, or how planning endeavors may be expressed in language appealing to conservatives, represent an egregious error.

2) Who Are You Calling a Communist? Changing demographics and tastes indicate to developers the need for denser, mixed-use construction, and regulators must accommodate this trend, but Agenda 21’ers don’t like to see it. Another contribution of the Agenda 21’ers is therefore in highlighting the selectivity of many conservatives—Wendell Cox, Ronald Utt and Randall O’Toole come to mind— in criticizing planning activities, and planners shouldn’t shy away from providing lessons on what a laissez-faire approach to development actually means. It does not mean miles upon miles of detached housing with green lawns, dependent as that is on zoning, federal mortgage insurance, tax deductions, utility subsidies, eminent domain and other expenditures involved in road and water infrastructure, and more.

As Garland councilman Doug Athas explains, “If they stop to think that what they’re supporting is this very draconian system of regulation … they wouldn’t stand behind it.” Some Planning 101 is necessary.

3) Practice What You Preach: The Agenda 21’ers assume that the status quo mode of urbanization and suburbanization is the exclusive product of markets, individual wealth and democracy, and therefore it is American. Anything not resembling that model, therefore, is un-American, and probably derived from the United Nations, bent as it supposedly is on breaching national sovereignty. This as much as anything highlights planners’ failure to clearly communicate and engage local knowledge.

Planners who take a one-size-fits-all approach to sustainability invite the accusations of arrogance Agenda 21’ers believe can only be found in Geneva. Problems assessed by planners are often not visible to even casually observant households. Combined with planners’ suggestion of remedies derived from distant examples (Portland, Oregon is a current favorite), Agenda 21’ers perceive visioning and planning as anything but based on genuine local feeling. They resent visions of redeveloped downtowns with unfamiliar streetscapes photo-shopped onto private property. When they see an image of a rejuvenated Main Street, they do not see themselves as part of it – and with the inevitable higher rents, they may well not be.

The redevelopment desired in Dallas’ suburbs is, thanks to a century of expanding regulation and the economies of scale necessary to confront it, not going to have small, local property owners at the helm. Confrontation is inevitable, perhaps not always in such fantastic form, but inevitable. Planners have been here before: in the days of renewal, when blight was identifiable with scientific accuracy. Today planners are after unsustainable practices to justify redevelopment. Of course blight and unsustainable practices are problems, but planners can avoid conflict by being explicit about the most direct harms coming to residents and businesses, giving attention to local solutions, and certainly dropping the jargon.

Andrew H. Whittemore is an Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of Texas, Arlington researching land use, planning history and planning theory. All posts »

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