In 2008, Boerne, Texas engaged hundreds of people in a Regional and Urban Design Assistance Team project that won several state planning awards.
During the last year, there has been rising interest in the Tea Party movement's increasingly hostile views toward urban planning. Some observers fear the conservative Tea Party agenda on urban planning will result in overt politicization of the field, as well as some radical policy stances on climate change and smart growth. Tea Party activists at the local level have trained their rhetoric on sustainable development, tying urban planning to the United Nations' Agenda 21 plan. One recent article captured the sentiment of a local Tea Party activist:
"Agenda 21 is the United Nations blue print for the complete restructuring of nations and local communities to fit into a proper mold for global governance. It outlines, in detail, the UN's vision for a completely managed society, dictating the process to be used for industry, agriculture, housing development, and especially education. It's an all-encompassing plan to rule from an all-powerful central government."
It is ironic that such claims would be made against the fields of urban planning and sustainable development. In fact, planning has been at the forefront of a democratic growth spurt at the local level in the United States, in both liberal and conservative locales. Today, while our national political malaise is widely acknowledged, local democracy continues to expand and flourish.
In 2009, Indianapolis created a Smart Growth Renewal District Partnership that engaged hundreds of people in visioning around transit-oriented development, brownfields redevelopment and housing issues, leading to the award of an EPA Sustainable Communities pilot grant.
Consider the following democratic growth trends:
In November 2010, Oxford, Mississippi organized a Sustainable Design conference to engage residents in planning for sustainable development. While Oxford maintains zoning controls, the surrounding county jurisdiction has no zoning, posing a challenge to controlling sprawl.
The public input captured by Julie Stuart/Making Ideas Visible during a planning workshop with 150 people that focused on the Miami River Corridor.
These key growth areas underscore a significant trend toward democratic localism, rather than a move toward centralized planning. In fact, urban planning processes are now subject to occasional criticism for being too democratic. Public deliberation is the de facto practice for a growing number of local jurisdictions in the United States today. For all the inflammatory rhetoric about centralized planning, the reality has been much different. Urban planning and sustainable development have led a democratization process at the local level that is transforming public business and paying considerable civic dividends. As a result, we have never been closer to the democratic ideal expressed by Jane Jacobs over 40 years ago in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. As Jacobs wrote, "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."
Joel Mills is Director of the American Institute of Architect's Center for Communities by Design. The Center was the recipient of the 2010 "Organization of the Year" award by the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) for its impact on communities and its contributions to the field.