How the Tea Party Is Upending Urban Planning

Activists have opposed everything from environmental regulations to smart growth. What kind of long-term impact will they have?

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In the spring of 1968, Jane Jacobs walked into a high school auditorium in the Lower East Side and addressed a rowdy crowd opposed to the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a 10-lane highway proposed by Robert Moses that would have blasted through what we now know as SoHo.

The public hearing was a sham, she said. The city and state officials had already made all the decisions to move ahead – they were just collecting neighborhood opinions so they could fulfill the obligation to get citizen input. After leading a defiant march in front of the transportation bureaucrats, somebody ripped up the stenotype roll and threw it in the air like confetti.

For her trouble, Jacobs was arrested for inciting a riot and driven away in a squad car. The charges were knocked down to a misdemeanor, but one of the author’s greatest legacies grew out of that night: that when it comes to our homes and communities, the power should be with the people. Citizens must be truly involved with plans and projects, not just told that proposals will be good for them and society. A generation of planners and environmentalists has grown up dedicated to the notion of civic participation.

So it is with particular angst that many of these same planners now are forced to reckon with the modern-day Jane Jacobs, at least in terms of tactics and a libertarian streak: the Tea Party.

Across the country, Tea Party activists have been storming planning meetings of all kinds, opposing various plans by local and regional government having anything to do with density, smart growth, sustainability or urbanism. In California, Tea Party activists gained enough signatures for a ballot measure repealing the state’s baseline environmental regulations, while also targeting the Senate Bill 375, the 2008 law that seeks to combat climate change by promoting density and regional planning.

Florida’s growth management legislation was recently undone, and activists in Tampa helped turn away funding for rail projects there. A planning agency in Virginia had to move to a larger auditorium and ban applause, after Tea Party activists sought to derail a five-year comprehensive plan and force withdrawal from the U.S. Mayors Agreement on Climate Change.

What’s prompting the ire is anything from a proposed master plan to a new water treatment plant, rules governing septic tanks, or a bike-sharing program. What’s driving the rebellion is a view that government should have no role in planning or shaping the built environment that in any way interferes with private property rights. And in almost all instances, the Tea Partiers link local planning efforts to the United Nations’ Agenda 21, a nearly two-decade old document that addresses sustainable development in the world’s cities – read as herding humanity into compulsory habitation zones.

The protesters clearly feel there is a form of Moses-style planning going on today, but rather than highways, it’s high-speed rail and transit, and compact, mixed-use, dense development, all of which are designed to bring about long-term sustainability. As one Florida Tea Party activist put it, "compact development aka smart growth, aka New Urbanism, aka Traditional Neighborhood Design, aka Transit Oriented Development, aka Livable Communities, aka Sustainable Development ... are all names meaning the same thing: they are anti-suburban, high-density dwelling design concepts that are part of the UN's Agenda 21 and will make single family home ownership for our posterity unattainable." Another summed it up this way: “We don’t want none of your smart growth communism."

We had our own experience with the conspiracy when someone commented on a post on the Lincoln Institute’s Facebook page, about a “sprawl repair” session I had presented at Madison’s Congress for the New Urbanism gathering earlier this year. We were all part of the Agenda 21 conspiracy, the commenter wrote. Like a lot of people I’ve spoken to about this, I had to go look it up.

My colleague Armando Carbonell was also identified as a UN-designated agent when he went to Chattanooga to talk about regional planning. The comments in further online coverage of a meeting of consultant teams on the longstanding tradition of regional planning were almost visceral in alarm. “I can’t remember when planning not associated with a particular controversial project has engendered such a major reaction," Carbonell says.

Since the Facebook episode, a portion of our annual gathering of big city planners, held in partnership with Harvard and the American Planning Association, was devoted to the Tea Party phenomenon. Robin Rather (the anchorman’s daughter), who runs Collective Strength out of Austin, recalled how she has interacted with a particularly feisty Texans for Government Accountability leader, John Bush, who has been banned from City Hall. The APA has retained Rather and others to offer a "communications boot camp" for planners, hoping to reframe the profession’s value-add for society.

It may not be time to panic. In some cases there are very few vocal activists leading the charge, but the Tea Party has been so well publicized, and their tactics are often so sophisticated, that their powers of intimidation appear outsized. This is also in part a case of everything old being new again. Property rights activists have always been well organized, and were energized by the Kelo Supreme Court case affirming the use of eminent domain. The sprawl lobby – the fanciful label from my first book, This Land – circles the wagons for corporate home-builders, road-builders and even the lawn-care industry invested in far-flung conventional suburban development. The anti-smart growth American Dream Coalition dovetails with the Tea Party view, giving some familiar contrarian voices new visibility. Wendell Cox and Ron Utt co-authored a grave warning against “radical environmentalists,” driven by, yes, the UN’s Agenda 21, in a recent fact-contorting essay for the Heritage Foundation.

The United Nations conspiracy, which smacks of nationally-circulated talking points and conjures old fantasies about swarming black helicopters, is something most people might find easy to dismiss. But thinking about how to deal with Tea Party protesters raises some interesting questions. At one level, municipal officials—who have been engaged in the erstwhile dry topics of planning, public works, and zoning—want to maintain an orderly discourse, and are understandably freaked out by the prospect of a public hearing dissolving into chanting protesters being led out in plastic handcuffs, all up within minutes on YouTube. Some have taken to notifying police before hearings on the most mundane matters.

At a deeper level, the appropriate response has led to some soul-searching. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort on fostering civic engagement, through a program for mediating land use disputes, or helping community residents visualize future scenarios. Since Jacobs, giving people a voice has been paramount in planning. Local Tea Party leaders attack those kinds of efforts as a ruse – that planners have draped the public process with the trappings of citizen input, while in fact all the decisions to promote smart growth have already been made. Some might wonder whether there’s some truth to that.

Yet, as in national politics, the Tea Party view doesn’t leave room for compromise. Even the most open-minded and free-speech supporting planner can’t operate when the framework for the dialogue itself has been invalidated. Where does one go from there? The skirmishes at town halls around the country over the past year or so means that planners will have to try even harder to make their case. But in the mean time, the chairman of that sleepy planning board hearing might be eying the exits, looking for a black helicopter, to make a run for it.

Photo credit: Joshua Lott/Reuters

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