Ok, so what do we actually do
An unedited look at whats been going through my head recently, and I guess a followup to my previous post about Easton, community, and sanity. Bare with me to the end, I promise I get somewhere.
We often ask more of the few than the many. This is true in politics, in military, and many other public positions. We entrust great amounts of power to relatively unknown players and trust that they will engage us when necessary, and heed our will when required. Now in politics, and military we often do so with a great amount of leash and deference to their knowledge, skill, and expertise. We do so willingly and without pause; until of course something goes wrong. When things go wrong at this scale, we often feel helpless in the giant cogs of government.
Stephen Dubner in a recent rebroadcast of his podcast Freakonomics — Why do we really follow the news, postulated that we listen to the news for entertainment not information. Rather, that the information is entertainment since we have no mechanism of acting upon it in a meaningful way. This struck me both as profound as it was absurd. Rather than try and tackle the existential crisis of “what is news media”, “why do I care about Yemen,” or “why should I vote” as Dubner does, I found it more interesting to explore this at a smaller, local political scale. Specifically, and I think some of you saw it getting here, local planning and zoning.
Maybe this is too much of a profound leap from national media coverage of Yemen to planning and zoning in Easton, Maryland, so let’s get to the point. Local planning and zoning policy is a tangible way for citizens to interact in an otherwise enormous governmental system. At this scale, there are no unknown players (rather, they don’t have to be) and we have the ability to affect the wheels of government. In a world that is increasingly easy to become jaded and disassociated politically with, local government can be a boost to the immune system. If you let it overcome you, like national politics, you’re losing out at one of the most exciting and provocative things you can do as a citizen, be heard.
Let’s take a second and describe what being heard is not, before we get into what it is. Being heard is not coming to a meeting and lambasting the process for being unfair, or not going your way one time. Being heard is also not being a “not in my back yard” or NIMBY when something affects you personally and moot on other subjects. Being heard is finally, not supporting only those causes that you’re passionate about. Being heard is about citizenship as a cultural ideal, not a legal designation.
Again, with the poetics, I know. But this is a critical point. An un-engaged citizen is not a full one. Though not mandatory, voting and taking part in the process is one of the greatest liberties awarded to a citizen, taxes being the mandatory — and almost universally undesirable one. Being able to be heard is something at the local level we should not take for granted. The local stage is small enough not only to speak out, but to be heard. Being heard, and being engaged should take the sting off of paying those taxes, since we might know what we are paying for.
At this scale, we can hear all sides, empathize with neighbors, fight for causes, and compromise on what is right, not fight for winners and losers; empathy is easier small than large. Smaller is easier to change or to correct course. Removing barriers on the development of apartments above storefronts downtown or discussing the role density plays in Easton is something easily accomplished compared to developing a national budget for 330 million people, for instance.
So, where am I going with this?
Well, in my last piece, I said that I was going to talk about how you can help in making Easton, or whichever town you’re in better. These are just the first steps one should take to be engaged. So here it is, in four steps.
1. Engage in the comprehensive planning process
The comprehensive plan sets community goals and is the guide in which much of the decision making is derived from. Be engaged in this documents creation, implementation, and execution. Know this document. This is your guide. You helped create it, now make sure it’s being used correctly. This document is not typically legally binding, so be sure that ordinances that are being considered are in the spirit of the plan. In Maryland, the comprehensive plan requires “consistency” (See The Smart and Sustainable Growth Act of 2009, SB 280/HB 297). This is critical.
If your comprehensive plan is being revised, or renewed — be a part of the process. If not, find it, read it, understand it. If there are sections you don’t like, keep up with it, and be a part of the next one. The Easton Comprehensive Plan (http://eastonmd.gov/PlanningZoning/Comp_Plan.html) was updated in 2010, the Introduction here is a fantastic place to catch up on the state of the plan and town. It’s nine pages, you can do it; its right here.
2. Know your planners and planning board
These are the people implementing and deciding on all things comprehensive plan related. Know them, engage with them, and ask them questions. They are the greatest resource for understanding the comprehensive plan, and for helping you interpret planning lingo. Use them as a resource. Don’t know what the difference is between conforming and non-conforming structures or what by-right development is? Ask. These people are your neighbors and community members. They want to get this right as much as you do.
3. Be objective, don’t let emotions take control
This is a hard one, and should not be confused with having an opinion opposite the majority. Discussion is the cornerstone of planning, and having a place where criticisms can be heard is important. We are free to have any opinions we choose, but when you apply them differently as they affect you, that affordable housing project is fine — so long as it’s not near me, is not good citizenship. Take the time to know why or how the project got to where it is today. Remember not all opponents are created equal; not all are evil, and not all are universally righteous. Being driven to achieve moral outcomes versus fulfill moral rules is not a zero-sum game. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
4. Educate yourself, and be critical
This relies heavily on my previous post. Know which parts of your community are successful, and try and figure out why. If you don’t know why, see #2. This goes for existing policy, proposed policy, new projects, and everything in-between. Think about the long-term effects, know the difference between short term gains, and long term ramifications. Ask yourself, then ask a planner — what are the long-term effects of X project? Ask yourself is this project critical to the success of our community — environmentally, economically, and socially? If your answer is anything but a resounding no or yes, ask yourself what could make this project stronger?
Important to this point is to also know the limitations of developers, and understand that their profit motive is rational. Nobody, or few, are in this game for charity. Don’t let the allure of “Best Buy” destroy a community that somehow survived years without it. Know the difference between convenience and need. If Best Buy wants to come make money in our town, what do we require of them? I will tell you, 500 parking spaces, a new cinder-block building, and more public infrastructure (that we pay for by the way) isn’t worth it. Not when there’s vacant parcels littered through our already existing strip-malls. See my previous post for more on that…
So on that note, I hope that just one of you might become more engaged with your community. Whether you live in Easton, or any other small town, particularly if you’re in the 18–30 demographic, don’t be dismissed by name calling or letting the grownups take care of things — you’re voting adults, know what you’re voting for, and understand what is at stake if you sit on the sidelines. This town’s future is yours, not theirs. Educate yourself, and think critically about your existing beliefs, challenge yourself with other viewpoints.
Some fantastic resources to do that are here:
a group dedicated to financial solvency, and strong citizenship. They along with Urban-Three.com have some hard to deny facts about value capture when it comes to development. Again, this is how I based my previous map of value per acre in Easton, a fantastic metric to judge the financial aspects, which sometimes also related to “placemaking.”
Not as relevant on the larger end of the spectrum, but gives a good basis on why single-family detached housing is not our ticket to prosperity. Walkable, urban living is good for all age groups. This means apartments, an affordable rent market, and communities that reduce costs through density. Remember, most of downtown Easton is 3–4 stories tall, many of which housed residences for ages. Density has never been Easton’s enemy, we just forgot it existed.
This is a great resource for understanding the basics of why sprawl costs us more than we think. Fiscal responsibility is first understood when you know what you’re paying for and what is being subsidized. thecostofsprawl.com report goes into greater detail if you want to know how these facts were determined.