Is Neighborhood Activism Stifling Community Planning?

Roger Valdez gives his take on the new obstructionism that is dominating public participation and holding up much-needed growth in Seattle and elsewhere.

May 24, 2012, 5:00 AM PDT

By Ryan Lue

At the heart of efforts to guide future growth in the city, Valdez sees an irreconcilable, four-man tug-of-war between "labor, neighborhoods, developers, and environmentalists." Faced with proposals that might alter the character of their single-family communities even modestly, neighborhood groups in Seattle staunchly oppose planning that would reduce housing costs, improve transit, make neighborhoods more walkable, and lift redundant legal barriers to development.

It's a dramatic change from the way neighborhood activists used to do business, Valdez argues. "Seattle's neighborhoods are ascendant and they are abusing their power, shifting from fighting for things to fighting against them."

Valdez laments, "What happened? How did earnest, liberal, Birkenstock-wearing activists pushing for parks, play equipment, sidewalks, and kiosks turn into affluent, highly motivated saboteurs of new development, change, and density? Three things happened in the last two decades that shifted neighborhoods from the 'what we want' caucus to the 'what we won't' lobby:"

  • The Housing Market – In the absence of developable land, homeowners stand to gain by making their communities more exclusive and scarce.
  • Organizing – In the 90s, the Department of Neighborhoods learned to mobilize disadvantaged communities by focusing the discussion on emotionally-charged phrases and images. Now, affluent neighborhoods rally around concerns over "gentrification" to quite the contrary effect.
  • A Compliant City Council – Politicians are too eager to satisfy the demands of "a large, affluent, and motivated group of neighborhood activists," even at the expense of healthy community growth.

"This balance of power can't shift without courage, by developers, unions, and environmentalists who must support a louder, stronger voice for dense, transit-oriented neighborhoods, not just intellectual dialogues and power point presentations."

Monday, May 21, 2012 in Crosscut

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