City Planners… Demigods or little Napoleons in Big Capes?

I recently read a stunning article,”The Next Normal: Control the Masses” which can be found here. The article contains an interview with urban planner Andres Duany and in the interview Mr. Duany displays the typical arrogance I find so prevalent when trying to discuss zoning issues with developers, city planners and consultants. For example:

Even 50 years ago, planners were still considered demigods. They had reformed cities to be beautiful, healthier, cleaner, and more stable. Planners had done more for public health than doctors. By making lives much better, they had come to be trusted by the people.

Demigods? Really? City planners did more for public health than the doctors that were out there making house calls in the middle of the night? City planners did more for public health than the doctors that were delivering babies and inoculating children against polio? City planners were trusted by people? I hate to break it to Mr. Duany but most people don’t even know who city planners are, much less trust them. The arrogance of a man that could say that with a straight face amazes me so the next quote wasn’t surprising.

While the New Urbanist system may work well, it is also expensive. To mount a charrette requires those rare, highly skilled professionals that can speak to regular folk, think clearly, and draw quickly. Charrettes can cost $300,000. We need to get the cost down to $50,000.

It is quite interesting that Mr. Duany whines about the need for those “rare, highly skilled professionals that can speak to the regular folk, think clearly and draw quickly”. Apparently Mr. Duany never met an elementary school teacher. I could walk into any school in Alpharetta and find 40 great teachers that meet his criteria and I bet any of them would be glad to organize a “charrette” for less than $300,000.

After reading that interview it was nice to see that not everyone in the development community is so contemptuous of public participation. For a much more encouraging perspective you can read urban planner Della Rucker’s refutation of Mr. Dulany here. Ms. Rucker counters:

Public participation is important not just to try to get people to go along with our vision, to give us a chance to yell loud enough to drown them out, or to allow us to demonstrate the superiority of our Grand Vision over their piddling little concerns…

Understanding the real reasons why people oppose a project requires the willingness to do so, the humility to listen, and the internal fortitude and self-assurance to admit that possibly, oh just possibly, we don’t know everything that there is to know.   That is the real mark of wisdom.

If the people who live around a proposed development oppose a development, chances are those people know something that is important to the health of their neighborhood and the larger community. If we think that we know more than to have to listen to them, then we are no better than little Napoleons in big capes, creating monuments to our hubris that our children and grandchildren will have to clean up. The lessons of the damage caused by our ignorance are all around us.

Local residents may have valuable insight? What a refreshing perspective. Too bad that isn’t the prevailing attitude of the city of Alpharetta lately.