Planning smart communities sometimes means just leaving things alone

After spending 15 years on Palm Beach County’s Land Planning Board, I had the opportunity to hear endless presentations from land planners, consultants and bureaucrats. Heck, I have had to make some of those same presentations to other boards. These planners are well-intended people whose hearts are in the right place. I understand that they want to believe that government is in control. They want to believe that we can teach a course curriculum and receive a post-graduate degree in controlling the ant hill we call the human race. (Ants may not be a good example. They are fairly well-organized and structured. It is always good to have a queen.)

So I have been through it: the theory de jour on how to make a perfect world. Hey, first it was Euclidian zoning: divide and separate all the uses, and suburbia will be your heaven. We did strategic planning, comprehensive planning and, of course, “smart growth.” We did connectivity, pedestrian friendly, new urbanism, and after 85 years (City of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1926), we decided it was better if the uses were mixed and not separated. Brilliant!

What I want to do is introduce land planning for dummies: no multisyllabic words that look like they come from a fusion restaurant menu, no post-graduate degree dissertations to earn your degree, and no bureau-speak. Just three basic guidelines:

Expect unintended consequences: Whatever local ordinance you pass, expect it to have a different effect than you thought it would have. You pass an ordinance for a past problem, and you never get the future problem. By the time you pass it, that problem is already behind you. Let’s, for example, pass an ordinance for a program to save marinas on the Intracoastal because the marina industry is threatened by all those condominiums being built. Let’s pay people a lot of money to keep their creaky, old, polluting marinas in business. We will pass it just about time the whole real estate bubble busts. Well, this one had some unintended consequences that go hand in hand with large money handouts.

People act the way people act: You want to rescue a neighborhood? You can pave, build sidewalks, place bollards all over the place and plant some shade trees, but that will not make a bit a difference without a vibrant, happy and cohesive group of people who want to save your neighborhood. They need to be tight-knit, have things in common and be proud to be pioneers. They are usually ethnic, young artists and/or gay. They have to battle through the hard times like Harlem did. Sorry, the magic fairy dust that any government wants to drop on any neighborhood never works. It takes a decade, but after the pioneers fix things up, invest and open the coolest bars, restaurants and coffee shops ever, the next group comes in and pays inflated prices, and the first group goes off to find some new place to declare as a shrine to neighborhood martyrdom. How could it be cool without struggle? Thank you, Northwood, which got a boost when the city declared City Place as its urban nirvana.

There is always trouble in paradise: Just once, do not try to fix it. Let people have long and tortured commutes. Do not worry about whether someone can see into someone else’s backyard. If it takes two turns to go through a light because school is letting out, so be it. You have tried top-down management and bottom-up management. At best, you are just spreading peanut butter, and it will not come out even. Let the chips fall. You fix it, and you’re back to the first lesson: unintended consequences. Stand up and tell those people that when they get to heaven, the traffic lights will all be green. Right now, they are here on earth.

We’re in the civilization business, Mr. and Ms. Ph.D.s. It’s messy. Remember, the anthropologists find more of that forgotten Roman period in an ancient garbage dump than they ever find in its gardens.


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