A look at the legislation that's undermining sustainable planning across the U.S.

By now the story of Agenda 21 and its raging opposition is familiar to most people who follow cities or Cities. In 1992, the United Nations passed a nonbinding (and obscure) action plan called Agenda 21 that encouraged cities to pursue sustainable development. In recent years it's come under attack by Tea Party activists (among others) who see it as a heavy-handed effort to limit property rights and force urban lifestyles on Americans — all in the name of supposedly dubious climate science.

It's easy to cast this opposition as conspiracy fear-mongering, since that's largely what it is. But planners and urbanists and city residents dismiss the movement at their own peril, because it's having a considerable impact on their ability to prepare U.S. metro regions for the 21st century. As Josh Voorhees explained earlier this week at Slate, anti-Agenda 21 groups have produced "a series of smart-growth-blocking victories at the state and local levels in nearly every corner of the country."

To wit: legislation intended to stop Agenda 21-related planning practices has appeared in 26 states and been passed in five. Many states where the bills initially failed have reintroduced new ones and inspired imitation elsewhere. How much legal weight such resolutions can have is an open question, but in practice they're already having an impact on planning departments, which often avoid a project entirely if they suspect it might be subject to anti-Agenda 21 protest.

"If there's not actual implementation, there could be a chilling effect," says UC-Berkeley scholar Karen Trapenberg Frick, who's studying the movement closely. "That could be more powerful."

Frick and two colleagues recently conducted a careful analysis of anti-Agenda 21 state legislation. As of November 2013, when the group finished collecting data, Utah, Alabama, Tennessee, South Dakota, and Kansas had passed resolutions or bills opposing the tenets of sustainable planning. Several more states continue to pursue such efforts — including Missouri, despite the fact that Governor Jay Nixon vetoed a previous attempt.

Red (GOP) or blue (Democrat) indicates voting in the 2010 Congressional elections; dots indicate failed anti-Agenda 21 legislation; diagonal right indicates passage; diagonal left indicates ongoing legislation.

The researchers split the states into two groups — those that proposed anti-21 legislation, and those that did not — and analyzed dozens of social factors each group had in common (we've charted four below). Collectively, the anti-21 states had higher shares of owner-occupied housing units, and lower shares of zero-car households and of residents living in urban areas (though the latter was not statistically significant). They'd also tended to vote Republican in 2010.

That's pretty much what one would expect. Some of the other significant factors included percentage of employment in the military and state expenditure on public welfare (both higher in the anti-Agenda 21 states). A couple other factors were statistically insignificant but seem notable nonetheless: a smaller share of anti-21 states had NEPA-like environmental planning requirements (27 percent to 37.5 percent), while both groups spent about the same share of state funding on highways (just under 7 percent). 

The bigger surprise is how the anti-Agenda 21 group has perpetuated its cause through highly unlikely alliances in some metro areas. In a separate research paper, recently published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Frick details the case study of Atlanta, where a one-cent transit sales tax referendum failed in 2012. The anti-Agenda 21 groups were joined in opposing the plan by none other than the Sierra Club — both doubting the substance of the transit options.

Odder still is that the two sides have since merged into the quintessential strange-bedfellow faction known as Green Tea. Together they unsuccessfully opposed a move by the Atlanta Braves to the suburbs. This shows Frick that the anti-Agenda push is not simply flash-in-the-pan vitriol that appears whenever a new transit plan emerges, but rather the roots of a solid movement capable of evolving into a powerful coalition.

"I think that's powerful that people from across the political divide can work together on issues when they need to then step back when they don't," she says. "I think we can learn a lot from that."

The biggest lesson to learn, Frick writes in JAPA, is not to dismiss the anti-Agenda 21 critics as "unworthy of attention or careful deliberation." Rather, planners should see the situation as a challenge to get the public more involved in projects and to explain their plans and goals more clearly. That might mean moving beyond public hearings to more targeted conversations with skeptical groups. If nothing else, they won't be tough to find.

Top image: Tea Party member Russell Cumbee (R) and his wife Lydia listen to a speaker at a rally in Littleton, New Hampshire. (REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi) 

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