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Information Sources in Planning: "Smart Growth Online" vs. “Freedom Advocates”

Where there are no facts, sentiment rules.

- Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West


In my previous two posts I have set the stage for our consideration of information sources in planning by arguing for the relevance of such an effort when it comes to (increasingly controversial) urban planning issues, and to situate such in terms of recognizing the influence of our world views on the production and use of informational and built environments. 

Michael Dudley | February 22, 2012, 10am PST
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Where there are no facts, sentiment rules.

- Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West


In my previous two posts I have set the stage for our consideration of information sources in planning by arguing for the relevance of such an effort when it comes to (increasingly controversial) urban planning issues, and to situate such in terms of recognizing the influence of our world views on the production and use of informational and built environments. 

Now I would like to demonstrate the application of some of these themes by undertaking a comparative exercise utilizing recognized information literacy principles

My choice of sources emerges directly from the emerging attack on smart growth planning from the Tea Party-right, and is geared towards gaining insights into the nature and quality of the information used to buttress these respective schools of planning thought as demonstrated on The Smart Growth Online and Freedom Advocates websites. 

I didn't select these two sites on the basis of previous evaluation, or a determination that I believe them to be the best (or worst) in their field. Rather they should be seen as representative, and as the most likely "hits" for researchers investigating the pros and cons of smart growth planning. A Google search for "smart growth" reveals that to be among the first, general (and non-Wikipedia) source; while someone seeking to link "smart growth" to the alleged sinister agenda behind "Agenda 21" would surely find that will be their first hit from a search combining these terms. Another thing to note as well: my assessments are based on the general nature of the content on these respective sites, rather than an examination of those organizations with whom they associate via their links.

We shall be considering these sites in terms of criteria related to authorship and authority (courtesy of the Lesley University Library in Cambridge):

·              Who is [are] the author[s]?

·              What are their credentials?

·              Do they have sufficient authority to speak on the subject?

·              Are they up front about their purpose and the site's content?

·              Do the authors give credit for the information used?

·              Is there any way to reach them?

·              Is there an organizational or corporate sponsor?

·              Is there a reference list? 

as well as criteria concerning the overall quality and verifiability of the information:

·              How current is the information?

·              Does the content reflect a bias? Is the bias explicit or hidden?

·              Does the identity of the author or sponsor suggest a bias?

·              How does the bias impact the usefulness of the information?

According to its website, Smart Growth Online (SGO) represents a Network aimed at finding 

new ways to grow that boost the economy, protect the environment, and enhance community vitality. The Network's partners include environmental groups, historic preservation organizations, professional organizations, developers, real estate interests; local and state government entities The Smart Growth Network does not lobby and does not take on individual development decisions.

We learn here that the Network originated in 1996 with an official government effort, and comprises a diverse and cross-sectoral array of organizations, institutions and associations. At the bottom of the homepage is clearly indicated all the necessary contact information for the Network; in addition, users can click through to see a list of more than 40 member organizations, as well as follow to these entities' own websites to contact them and access their resources. This level and depth of recognition and support indicates a high degree of credibility.

The Network is upfront about its purpose, stating that it

works to encourage development that serves the economy, community and the environment. It is a forum for:

Raising public awareness of how growth can improve community quality of life;
Promoting smart growth best practices;
Developing and sharing information, innovative policies, tools and ideas; [and]
Cultivating strategies to address barriers to and advance opportunities for smart growth.

    We also learn at the bottom of the homepage that the website is a project of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

    Under "Resources" the site links to reports and webinars produced by State agencies and other recognized authorities related to urban development issues. For example, recent links include the Healthy Community Design Checklist produced by the Healthy Community Design Initiative through the Department of Health and Human Services. Another recent document is a fact sheet on Transportation, Development and Environment from the Federal Highway Administration, every contention of which is supported by footnotes leading the reader to further resources and documentation.  The "Breaking News" feature similarly links to external mainstream newspapers and other publications. The site is also structured to allow users to search for news topics by state and date.

    As to the second set of evaluative criteria: While the purpose of the site is clearly biased towards support the efforts of Network members and others to work towards smart growth goals in their respective communities, the content itself can't be said to be biased in a monolithic sense because it is almost entirely composed of links to external, mainstream information sources, and was not written expressly for this site. As such, the topics covered are diverse and range from cycling facilities to economic development to land use planning to the development of planning tools. Its semantic appropriation of the term "smart" to describe development that improves livability, quality of life and affordability is not unique, but is widely accepted and formally adopted at multiple levels of government and in the planning community. It is also rich with recent materials; there are ten new reports from February 2012, and the site appears to be updated on a weekly or semi-weekly basis.

    To summarize: what we see in Smart Growth Online is a site that is authoritative (supported by and links to recognized relevant agencies, departments and professional bodies); current (there are plenty of new documents and links to recent external news items); responsible (authorship and contact information are clearly indicated); and verifiable (site links to all entities involved, and the bulk of the site content [reports, news] derive from external mainstream sources, not from the site itself, and therefore presents a common pool of data and analysis that may be subject to contestation).

    Now let's turn to our other example, Freedom Advocates. Originating as a Bay Area advocacy group (Freedom 21 Santa Cruz) opposed to smart growth, the site states on the About Us page that it

    represents a cross-section of people from all political parties and backgrounds who are united in the principles of individual liberty, equal justice and the constitutional administration of government.

    So far, so good. Hard to refute even – begging the question, could one conceive of an organization called Freedom Opponents? Yet the page is deliberately non-specific as to what this "cross section" represents; certainly no reputable organizations are identified, such as those which are linked to the Smart Growth Network. Rather than going into any further detail about "us" as one might expect such a page to do, the text proceeds to describe the Advocates' agenda:

    People are born with unalienable rights and government exists to protect those rights. Rather than bureaucrats mandating indoctrination programs, parents should direct the terms of their child's education. Rather than bureaucrats taking the use of private property, the ideals of private property should be protected by government.

    In its pamphlet, "Understanding Sustainable Development Agenda 21 for the People and Their Public Officials," the case against smart growth and planning is set out in full:

    Through Smart Growth, the infrastructure is being created for a post-private property era in which human action is subject to centralized government control. With the combined implementation of Smart Growth and the Wildlands Network, humans will be caged and the animals will run free (p. 18).

    The pamphlet's remarkable claims on page 18-19 regarding the nefarious objectives of smart growth – for example, that

    [t]ransportation plans [will] reduce the freedom of mobility, forcing people to live near where they work, and transforming communities into heavily-regulated but "self-sufficient" feudalistic "transit villages" (p. 18)

    are indeed footnoted – but these do not cite an actual smart growth or sustainability plan, but rather contain further unsupported editorializing on the part of the pamphlet's authors. Where such footnotes do cite mainstream documents, the assertions in the text made about them are utter misrepresentations, to put it charitably. For example, the authors claim that the 1995 Global Biodiversity Assessment called for the abolition of private property, when it did no such thing: it merely recognized that multiple market failures have depleted species diversity and called for market corrections and full-cost accounting to so that property owners can "reap the benefits" of preserving biodiversity!  

    From this intellectual closed-loop, it is all too easy to descend into outright fantasy:

    A typical day in the Orwellian society created by Smart Growth would consist of an individual waking up in his government provided housing unit, eating a ration of government-subsidized foods purchased at a government-sanctioned grocery store, walking his children (if he has any) to the government-run child care center, boarding government-subsidized public transit to go to his government job, then returning to his quarters later that evening (p. 19).

    To establish the case that urban planning is destroying Americans' freedom; that Agenda 21 is the keystone of a conspiracy geared towards implementing a globalist socialist state; and that public education is facilitating all this through "mandated indoctrination," the Freedom Advocates website offers articles, video and audio clips, cartoons, a 24-slide powerpoint presentation and a "Research Center" all aimed at conflating Agenda 21 with Soviet-style collectivism.

    Interestingly, this "research center" portion of the site does link to PDFs from external and authoritative sources, such as the Agenda 21 declaration from the 1992 Rio UN Conference; the 1996 Local Agenda 21 Planning Guide; and a UNEP memo on the "Green Economy." However, interfiled with these are additional – and not nearly so authoritative -- documents from ideologically sympathetic individuals, including an e-book called "the deliberate dumbing down of america" (sic) by Charlotte Iserbyte, which purports to document how "social engineers have systematically gone about destroying the intellect of millions of American children for the purpose of leading the American people into a socialist world government controlled by behavioral and social scientists" (p. xi). (As a social scientist myself I'm astonished and thrilled to learn that I had such power!)

    Under "Articles" the reader can find such ideologically-loaded topic headings as "Family Autonomy" "Junk Science" "Illegitimate Government" "Police State" and, of course, "Planning – Smart Growth." Similar to Smart Growth Online, much of this content appears to derive from external sources; however, unlike SGO, the verifiability of these sources is decidedly inconsistent. Where verifiable authorship information exists at the end of these articles, they are generally to external but sympathetic advocacy groups of uncertain authority (such as the "Center for Intelligent Growth" which [we are helpfully told] is "located in the State of Arizona" but apparently has no website of its own). More often than not, however, all the reader has to go on is a name but cannot learn any further information about the authors, their credentials or even their email addresses. In some cases there are links to an author's own personal websites, where their books and DVDs are for sale. Some of the articles are signed by "Freedom Advocates" but this of course doesn't indicate to whom this refers.

    In a few cases, some author information is provided. For example, Henry Lamb, who posted "Global Warming Hypocricy" claims to have founded "The Environmental Conservation Organization", but again, a series of searches leads only to dead links, or to the websites of other so-called "property rights" organizations. 

    By far the sketchiest attribution is to an author indicated only as "Administrator", who posted the article "Smart Growth Parallels Russian Soviet Planning." This author simply copied and pasted the text of the Soviet-era articles "What Will Our Future Cities Look Like?" by A. Obraztsov and "The Microdistrict and New Living Conditions" by A. Zhuravlyev and M. Fyodorov, and has left it entirely to the reader to draw their own (presumably predictable) conclusions about this alleged correspondence without even a hint of original analysis. 

    This kind of prejudicial thinking is even more evident in the "Junk Science" category, where the featured authors editorialize against climate change science based on the assumption that climate change is a hoax perpetrated for money and power, and then proceed from there. There is no actual data or analysis to make such a claim; it is simply a given. Yet, such fallacious reasoning is the essence of Freedom Advocates: planning must be bad, because the Soviets did it, while public education that offers tools for critical thinking and promotes environmentalism instead of a steady diet of American exceptionalism must be "indoctrination."

    The use – and abuse – of semantics is key. Where Smart Growth Online merely uses the term "smart" as a normative stance on effective, attractive and affordable city-building, Freedom Advocates assumes an entire suite of beliefs under the rubric "freedom", whereby any idea running counter to these by definition constitute tyranny.

    The list of Freedom Advocates' Board of Directors reveals only one individual for whom an informational link is provided: Michael Shaw, an accountant, tax attorney and businessman who claims to be an "abundance ecologist." One would think at this point that an internal link describing what "abundance ecology" actually is might have been in order, but a little digging reveals on Shaw's other site (Liberty Garden) that it involves 

    releas[ing] the potential productivity and diversity of a landscape [by leaving] an owner  free to engage in rigorous disturbance and free to pursue a reasoned and creative process of trial and error. This process would be suited to the choice of each individual and the uniqueness of each property.

    Its opposite lies in "regulatory approaches" and "hysteria over endangered species" that "promote state collectivism."

    This lack of authority and expertise aside, what is also soon apparent when scrolling through the lists of articles is how infrequently they are posted, and how dated most of them actually are. The Smart Growth page, for example, features articles from January 2012, June 2011, November 2008, September 2007 and so on. This demonstrates either a pretty weak attention to the issue at hand, or limited organizational capacity.

    The "Contact Us" page displays a phone and fax number, but no address. We do learn, however that the site was hosted by a web company called Patriot's Web, which states on its site that 

    The Patriot's Web takes a stand for and intends to promote liberty, personal and national sovereignty and the U.S. Constitution. We also support a Judeo-Christian and Biblical world view. As such, we are selective in the type of clients we serve Thus, if you are pro-Sustainable Development, pro-Agenda 21, pro-globalization, anti-property rights, anti-state's rights, anti-Constitution, pro-free trade, etc., then you you (sic) should make other arrangements.

    The bias here is obviously extremely explicit, and reaches from the title of the site itself to the category headings ("junk science"). It is clearly intended to appeal only to the sympathetic reader, rather than in winning new adherents through reasonable argumentation – in other words, it is a classic Internet "echo chamber" that reinforces pre-determined belief systems.    

    So, to summarize: the Freedom Advocates website is inexpert (it is only supported by [and links to] like-minded independent citizen activists with no discernable training or expertise in urban planning); dated (there are few if any recent documents or links to external news items); irresponsible (authorship and contact information is rarely, if ever, indicated); and unverifiable (most of the content is comprised of – and refers to – a narrow range of opinion nested in powerfully ideological code words, rather than a common pool of data and analysis from which contrary opinions might be constructed).

    The gulf between the world views on display through these two websites is disturbingly apparent: one is diverse, empirical and inclusive, while the other is paranoid, monolithic and exclusive, premised as it is on an extremely narrow and quasi-religious definition of "freedom". One need not be "biased" towards smart growth to recognize, through the application of information literacy principles, that anti-planning conspiracy theories are fuelled by belief rather than evidence, rhetoric rather than reason, and are, above all, singularly ideological. 






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