Friday, May 29, 2009
The Age of Participation
The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association held a Grand Opening party last night for its new Urban Center at 654 Mission Street. The event was a great success, with the party taking over the new building, a bar next door and the Annie Street alley. The jazz band outside was incredible, dropping some jazz standards mixed in with some interpretations of classic 80s tunes. They even came into the Urban Center at one point during the night, playing the entire time as they were relocating.
Anyhow, at one point during the night, I ended up speaking with a San Francisco urban designer. Although this designer has been in the city for a while, she told me that she began her career in Europe. This led me to ask her how the urban design process is different here than in Europe.
She gave two examples in response. First, she said that there is much less leeway to stray from the "master plan" in European cities (although many American cities have master plans, they are usually policy documents and not legally binding on city councils and planning commissions). Second, she said that the participation process is much more robust here.
I was excited to hear this second point. It reminded me of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and his first impressions of new world democracy, where citizens were constantly participating in the formation of their own societies. Unfortunately, de Tocqueville's America seems largely brushed under the rug these days, or at least seated on a giant nation-sized couch watching the latest episode of Grey's Anatomy. Although many of us keep at least half an eye toward the government, much of that attention is directed towards Washington, D.C. and the latest goings-on with the Obama Administration. In contrast, how often do people devote their attention to the beneficial growth of their own city/town/suburb?
Coincidentally, I spent a couple hours on Wednesday night at a community workshop meant to kick off the Northeast Embarcadero Study (Embarcadero from Washington to North Point streets). What struck me most about the workshop was just how old everyone was at the meeting. The average age had to be well past 50, with only a handful of people below 40 (not counting the representatives from the Planning Department). I understand that these things start fairly early (this one kicked off around 5:45 p.m.), that it is hard for people to get out of work, and that people under 50 may have "better things to do" than go to a community workshop, but it was disheartening to think that my generation (and those slightly older and younger) was so improperly represented at what seemed to me a very important discussion.
We (as Americans, as San Francisco residents) have a great opportunity to be part of the urban development process and to steer the future of this city (and our country), yet it seems like local government (well, all government) is often overrun by special interests and those with too much time on their hands. Are we to blame? Or is the system rigged from the start and we are better off not wasting our time?
The answer is likely to lie somewhere in between. Most San Franciscans probably have no idea that these meetings even exist. Only after the fact, when the development has begun or finished, will they applaud the new space or decry the poor planning. The opportunity to participate in the process will be lost by that point and they will attribute the results to some higher planning/development power that makes all the decisions in this fair city.
But what if the common man and woman did care about local government and planning decisions? What if the front page of the paper discussed city development rather than the latest inane thing that Rush Limbaugh said?
As discussed before, we may have a problem with our focus and our perception of which issues matter and on what level. The development of our cities and towns has a profound effect on our lives and the lives of those to follow us, yet we spend little time giving these issues any attention.