Andrés Duany Wants to Reform The Public Process

Architect and urban innovator Andrés Duany has a new bone of contention: the usurping of the planning process by the public during the approval stage for new projects. Managing Editor Tim Halbur reports from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"We need to reform the public process."

 Andrés DuanyAndrés Duany stood in front of an audience of journalists chosen by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, brought together to raise the level of reporting on urban issues and compare notes on their own struggling industry. Impeccably groomed as always, Duany took to the podium with the wiry energy of a terrier.

"It's so out of control," said Duany, referring to the current state of public participation in planning decisions in the United States. "It's an absolute orgy of public process basically, we can't get anything done."

Charrettes – intensive design meetings where planners and architects work alongside the public to educate them on the city's proposals and coax out their own ideas on how their cities should be formed – have been a mainstay of Duany's practice for years, so he's no stranger to public engagement. But now he is saying what many involved in land use have come to believe but can't really say – that the process of soliciting the public's opinion has gotten out of hand and needs to be reformed.

The central problem, according to Duany, is that the immediate neighbors to a proposed development are brought in to speak on behalf of the whole community. These neighbors obviously have a vested interest in what happens in their backyard, and an emotional connection to their space. They also often have a financial stake in what happens, with their life's savings tied up in their home. "We've tainted the process by not understanding that the neighbors are a special interest," says Duany. "They are not the community."

Duany's proposed solution? A randomly-chosen group of citizens, brought in to represent the community similar to the jury system. Evidently such a system is alive and well in Perth, Australia, where a group of community members is chosen randomly, brought up to speed on the issues, and asked to give input on how development should occur. Without such a process, Duany says, the process is taken over by "a bunch of little mobs, invited in by idiot public planners."

Alternative energy projects are particularly at risk, according to Duany. The public at large sees the growing need for turbines and solar panels, but locals are fighting to keep them out of their neighborhoods. Is this the goal of city planners, who for the last couple of decades have worked passionately to create systems of bottom-up urbanism? Or is Duany right- is it time to create new models of public participation?

Tim Halbur is managing editor of Planetizen.



well, that's one solution... but is it the best?

I agree that this is a problem, but the solution doesn't address the systemic issue - which is: people feel so isolated by participation in government, that they exercise the full power and extent of their voice when they get the chance. Which often-times only comes in the local planning/zoning/transportation arena.

Additionally, people don't fancy anymore this notion that professionally detached "experts" have all the right answers because they want to have a say themselves.

The frustrations that people bring to the public approval process are well-founded. That is, they are based on years of discontent with government. It is true that these frustrations are falsely assigned to local government when they are not responsible for all these issues.

However, any success that another newly appointed panel may have in making these decisions will be short-lived because this solution does not address the underlying failing relationship between the governed and governing.

I believe the solution is for our officials to actually do the hard work of making the difficult decisions they are elected/appointed to make - and stand by them. In this way, the planning process would be more shielded from the political process (if that's even possible, b/c we are dealing with people of course).

The role of the planner is to provide sound technical advice. As the burden for making tough decisions gets pushed downward onto planners, we lose the ability to be strong advocates. Instead, we're saddled with the responsibility of reaching consensus on emotional topics - not the least of which is the appropriation of scarce public money - that our leaders are supposed to be doing.


Scott R. LeCount, AICP

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

My idea to level the playing field comes from Andy Warhol's notion of everyone having 15 minutes of fame. This came to me while trying to shepherd a community park project though the approvals process. I watched one dad stand up at a commission meeting late at night and mention that it was hard to get to these meetings what with work and kids, but that he made it that night to support the project which had a pool in it. He spoke for two or three minutes and that is the last we heard from him. Meanwhile at the five or six other hearings, the people that I call "recreational bureaucrats" stood up over and over, talking past the time limits - and often being allowed to - against the project. Many of these people actually are not even NIMBYs - they are just against stuff in general. The park got built but without the pool.

The 15 minutes idea is to give each citizen a plastic card with magnetic strip and 15 minutes of time on it for the year - the microphone on the podium would be activated when your card is swiped - with a timer in the that subtracts your speaking time. When your 15 minutes is up, the microphone goes silent. This way, the dad I mentioned earlier would at least stand a chance.

Paul Deering, Landscape Architect

reforming public process

I agree with Andrés in that neighboring stakeholders are special interest but I disagree with the approach of selecting a random group of people and designating them as the "community".

I believe you have to do your research regarding the political geography surrounding a sight and it has to account for various scales, then you can make up your body of stakeholders. Understanding whose voice is at the table, why and what their impact is on decision-making throughout the process is critical and can mitigate the NIMBY factor.

I appreciate anyone placing a stake in the ground though, which I think makes Andrés suggestion useful in an attempt to advance the discourse around the practice of community engagement, decision-making processes and overall planning and development implementation.

JenJoy Roybal
Program Manager, Buckminster Fuller Institute

Interesting idea, but ...

I will have to read up on how Perth does this. I agree with Duany's contention that the public process run amok is becoming an obstacle to sustainability, efficient land use, and public transit and to land use responding to market needs for housing & employment. Of course no one wants to go to an anything goes system where the special interests of neighors are ignored. It's clear we need a new system. The charrette process this article mentions seems to be one approach.

My hesitation with the "citizen jury": I have seen poorly-trained planning commissions (and not just poorly trained planning commissions) misunderstand their role, and believe that they have been appointed to rule on what they "like" rather than to implement regulations or use discretionary review to meet stated, adopted community goals. I have also seen commissioners revert to accepted wisdom (examples are: we need more parking! or that's too dense! or we don't want dense housing near a school, it will be dangerous! or that modified grid system will have too much traffic!). Finally, I have seen commissions defer to neighbor demands when neighbors differ with planners (over connectivity, for example, where neighbors don't want it). With potentially less training than commissions, what will make "citizen juries" behave differently? Serving on a planning commission or citizen jury requires a fair bit of training, as is true of commisions or "focus groups" as well.

So, I'd say the devil remains in the details ... would certainly like to hear more.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Speak for yourself

Someone wrote:

"Of course no one wants to go to an anything goes system where the special interests of neighbors are ignored."

To which I respond: speak for yourself. I sure do! Giving neighbors veto power over development is like giving an 5 year old a machine gun- its a power that they are unlikely to use in the broader public interest.

Ignoring or kowtowing to neighbors are both extremes

Consider the source of our mis-guided zoning laws. Factories were built next to residences. Infill was built in hsitoric neighborhoods with no standards for design, shading, etc. (or using out-of-place suburban standards forced by zoning!). Dumps were located in low-income neighborhoods. By recognizing the neighbors as a "special interest," Dunay is not saying their interest is invalid per se, but rather that it is one of many special interests and is certainly not the common interest of the community.

Residents and planners

Residents are rightfully frustrated by some plans- often those that are being seemingly forced onto communities. For example, rural communities that are host to sprawl subdivisions often cause groups of residents to rally around keeping the McMansions and Wal-Marts out.

Do these residents sometimes hijack the process? Yes. Do they represent the entire community? Not necessarily. However, this doesn't mean that their ideas don't have merit. Also, it is usually the case that residents who raise their voices are more likely to be heard than those who don't- unless money is part of the equation.

More often than not, development decisions in communities are determined (if not by state law) by the desires of the elected officials. The pushing forward of the elected officials' agenda at the dissatisfaction of residents is where I have seen the most anger from residents. So, making sure elected officials are really listening to their constituents is important.

Planners have to take responsibility for the projects they are representing. If they are trying to get a large shopping center- even if it is designed to be "village" like- in a rural community, for example, they should expect a group of residents to try to stop it at the approval process.

No Reason to be Insulting

In my experience the public process is not set by the "idiot" public planners, it's set by the expectations of the elected officials. Neighbors know that the easiest way to derail, or significantly slow down, a project is to claim that they "didn't receive notice" or "haven't had adequate time to review the proposal". The "idiot" public planners are then castigated for their failure to adequately "engage" the neighborhood.

"It's so out of control,"

Oh indeed! Who's control Mr. Duany?

It is now time to get those smooth little men in expensive suits out of our neighbourhoods.

Capiche Andrés!


"Charrettes – intensive design meetings where planners and architects work alongside the public to educate them . . ."

I wonder, did the Romans, the Elizabethans have charrettes? Whatever, they did a good job: so good in fact Mr. Duany, you seem eagre to copying their every detail.

Here ladies and gentlemen of the international planning fraternity are a couple of little places that have, pretty well, forever.

They were controlled, at least for the eighty-one years I have been watching more by custom, necessity and the good grace of climate, than the caprice of professional charrette-ista!!

Please, Mr. Duany, I am not picking on you, I would just like to remind our reader there are alternatives . . .

Dios Bendice Señor . . .

Romans, Elizabethans, and Us

The Romans and Elizabethans were limited by the building materials and technologies available to them. As a result, their buildings were generally similar in scale - with only a few major buildings contrasting with the overall urban fabric. They also had a common architectural style.

Today, we no longer have these technological limitations. Without controls, there will be buildings in many clashing styles and many incompatible scales.

That is why charrettes were developed to let us build traditional urbanism today.

Charles Siegel

Agree with the point but...

I too have seen the failure of the 'public input' process. We had a series of 4 Town Hall meetings in a town, the first was dominated by what I call 'dog people' whose only concern was building a dog park. This fired up the seniors and the next three meetings were dominated by those who wanted a new senior center. Its easy for the public input process to be skewed by special interests, I think we all can agree on that.

The solution is much harder. One tool we've used is to conduct a series of meetings with each special interest group before going to the public. This gives them the platform to voice their opinions without dominating the entire process. It also can reduce the grandstanding at the big public meetings. This input can create the framework for discussion at an open town hall meeting so there's more structure to the process and not just a venting of the collective spleen.

I think the idea of a random jury is just unfeasible. What's the impetus for people to actually accept the job? Would they really provide good advice or just be wowed by the pretty pictures put up by the architects? Duany loves to bash planners, its kind of his schtick, so any chance he gets to do so he'll take it. His quote of 'little mobs invited by idiot public planners' tells me he's more interested in reducing opposition to his grand vision and perfect little happy towns (a la the Truman Show's Seaside, FL) then in actually getting real feedback from people impacted by his work.

There are no easy solutions to balancing the larger public interest with site specific neighborhood interests (see Kelo, for example and the fiasco that's turned out to be). I think creating a jury system may foster more neighborhood opposition to projects by making them feel excluded from the process.

Chris Holtkamp

Give me a break

What is seems like Mr. Duany does not realize is the it is up to the publicly elected officials to have the final say. It sounds as if an "idiot developer" has had a rough go at getting something his client wanted approved, so we should change the process. It is interesting that the developer should have his say about his property, but the adjacent property owners should not have the same right.

Here is Florida we have a movement called "Hometown Democracy". This is not the place for discussing the merits of the cause, but the movement came about because elected officials have a reputation of never saying no to developers. At the current time, the proposal is only about land use amendments, but it may one day include zoning. Mr. Duany may then get his chance to state his cause through a public election and associated costs that will go along with it.

Remember, decisions are supposed to be based on substantial and competent evidence by both parties; if one side or the other is unable to do so, then that side should not "win" the case.

Beyond neighbors

When I served on a planning commission, the city sent out letters about public hearings to neighbors within a certain distance of the project. If the proposal was threatening to them, they talked to each other, went door to door, and sometimes met their neighbors for the first time as they organized to oppose it. When they spoke at the hearing, they often had concerns about general issues -- for example, we shouldn't be cutting down mature trees. I thought to myself, I wish these people would come out to save trees in other developments -- but of course, they didn't know about those other developments. I would like to see ways to notify more people than just the neighbors. Some cities put up signs on a property saying that there is a project proposed and giving the time & place of the hearing. Maybe cities could also ask people if they would like to be on a notification list so they could get e-mail notices of public hearings.


CONTROL: ummmmmm, very interesting!

Now I know what I am about to write will not be viewed sympathetically: after all your readers are planners.

I have not personally visited your projects but I have carefully studied most: Seaside to Prairie Crossing. Were you able to complete the latter?

You were given a bit of a bad time in Surrey, British Columbia!

On control. I visited Poundbury in 2005. Poundbury, a grotesquely expensive anachronism, is by walking the streets in the snow, the essence of control.

Imagine the neighbours hanging the washing out, a beloved custom in the UK, on the cloths line!

Is Quinlan Terry really for real?

Perimeter sprawl was just beginning to take hold.

Homes were outrageously expensive and the typology reminded me of Mr Micawber's eternal optimism, certain "something will turn up" to pay his huge debts. I'll bet some of the buy-ins are thinquing just that now!

I understand the Prince made a fair penny, though!

My point, sir, is, perhaps you confuse your new urbanism's penchant for traditionally based design with marketing!

Marketing is the generator of consumerism. I am told consumerism is not good for us. Is that how you see the need for "control"?

Pleeeeeeease dump the arrogance

I think it is highly unfair to lump all neighbors in as a special interest – because there are many different types of development philosophies that different neighborhoods have. Duany's draconian view is a bit too much like that of the urban renewal era of “we know best”. I’ve found that the arrogance that comes with that attitude serves only the decision-maker and discounts concerns of what makes a community livable. It’s kind of like Robert Moses v Jane Jacobs isn’t it? Neighbors can be a pain in the rear….but a lot of the time they are right. The challenge is to educate the entire community so that everyone understands the direction we are headed in and why. He prefers nice and neat quick little charrettes rather than getting his hands dirty by actually finding out what makes any particular community tick. Rational compromises can be achieved with the public - they need not be cast away; building suspicion about back room deals, stoking political fires and making life a living hell for anyone who has to administer community laws is certainly not on my list of favorite things "to do". No thanks, I'll take my public and have a better place to live because of it. I'm just willing to work harder at it, rather than discounting those that don't fawn over me for my brilliance.

A different approach is needed

I've heard Duany speak on this subject at length, and I think he's got a point: Planning Commissions and Councils usually listen to the folks who turn out, who are usually motivated neighbors. And who are usually opposed to whatever it is--really, vanishingly few people other than the proponent turn out to support.

Duany's concern is that quite a lot of projects have a larger public benefit, a school, say, or a fire station (you listening, Santa Rosa?) or a densified corridor or node. And whatever public benefit the project may bring is not being considered by the decisionmaking body--because the motivated, opposed neighbors are raising a stink.

His thought--not original, by his own admission, but a heads-up on what at least one Australian city does--is that Perth offers a way to balance what the decisionmakers hear from the public: by noticing the neighbors and giving them their say, but by also drawing a "jury" so to speak from the larger city of people who may or may not benefit in some way, but who are able to comment dispassionately on the project.

I certainly don't know what pitfalls there are to this approach--I'd love to hear from Perth--but what we do know isn't working and can be detrimental to the city as a whole. I'm ready to try another approach.

Too much democracy

As a front line planner who does this stuff everyday, the process is dysfunctional because nobody has the balls to tell people "sorry you're not happy but we're approving this project". Politicians don't dare say this for fear of getting booted out of office, planners won't do it for fear of being labeled "activist" or losing their jobs. That's why, in California, one solution could be the move towards regional planning underway under recent Climate Change legislation, where projects that comply with regional sustainable plans will have an easier time of it, it gives both planners and the politicos some cover to be more aggressive, and they can blow off local NIMBY's.

Andres Duany wants to reform the public process

We should take this one with a grain of salt. Just when I began to believe that there is transparency in the planning process, reform is being advocated. This proposed reform is not without challenges. What will be the criteria for selecting these so called delegates who would decide on projects? Could they not be influenced by the project developer? Aren't these "delegates" like your planning commission or zoning board members? Personally, I don't see anything inherently wrong with the existing process as long as the debates do not drag on forever. At the end of the day, the planning commission or city council either puts on their planners hats or their politicians hats. That's the way it has been and that is democracy at work. Perhaps we should look at countries that have no democratic systems and see how projects that have impacts on neighborhoods or the environment have faired. People in this country don't like government shoving things down their throats, albeit a shopping mall or stadium, without some understanding of and participation in, the process. If we are trying to cut down delay because the existing public hearing process takes too long, time can be managed more efficiently in different ways.
I still believe that project sites need to be posted for pending hearings and the public afforded the opportunity to comment on the projects. Perhaps the public review periods can be shortened and the basis for appeal streamlined to eliminate frivolous appeals. Outside of that, I think monkeying with this process too much could create a new set of problems. Water will gravity flow; it its path is blocked, it will seek other avenues. If those are not available, it begins to backup and eventually flood. Think about it.

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