Hostility to planning and environment
US politics have become increasingly polarised in recent years. Planning and the environment have been caught up in this process. It is often forgotten that disgraced Republican Richard Nixon was the President under whose watch the US introduced a raft of significant environmental measures. He signed the Clean Air Act and saw the setting up of the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1972 alone, the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Ocean Dumping Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act were passed, and legislation to protect endangered species followed before he was eventually removed from office. Thus it is ironic to find that many in the Republican Party view such measures as tantamount to “communism”.
For the past year and more, libertarian activists in the Tea Party have been zealous in their efforts to challenge planning and planning policies seeking smart growth, mixed-use and higher densities, rapid transit and high speed rail initiatives. Agenda 21 is part of an international conspiracy to undermine the American way of life.
To get the flavour you can look at the Atlantic Cities website, where one Florida Tea Party activist is quoted as saying, “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.”
So how far up the Republican Party do such views penetrate? Mitt Romney, who will stand for President in a few months’ time, was Governor of Massachusetts, a state that used “smart growth” policies of the type excoriated by the libertarian Right. The man even believed in climate change and gay rights! However, since sniffing the allure of the Presidency he has changed track on many issues, suggesting that he is a devout pragmatist. The result is nobody quite knows what tack he might take if elected. There is nothing on his website about his views on planning or smart growth.
People like planning
This makes the polling conducted for the APA all the more interesting. Two-thirds of those sampled — across political affiliations and size of community — believe their community needs more planning to restore and sustain prosperity. When asked what they want planners to work on, the priorities were jobs, education, safety, neighborhood protection, and clean water.
The key point to realise here is that the APA survey was asking people about “community planning”. While that is a notoriously vague and ambiguous term, in the US it does have some substance. This is because one of the initiatives of the Obama administration has been the Sustainable Community Regional Planning Grant Program.
The grants are awarded on a competitive basis. They are open to multi-jurisdictional and multi-sector partnerships as well as regional consortia consisting of state and local governments, metropolitan planning organizations, educational institutions, non-profit organizations and philanthropic organizations. They are carrots to induce such bodies to work together to “integrate housing, land-use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure developments in a manner that empowers regions to consider how all of these factors work together to bring economic competitiveness and revitalization to a community.”
So this is not just the conventional land use regulation through zoning and sub-division controls that constitutes the “bread and butter” of many of the APA’s 40,000 members. It is a more positive and integrated form of planning, with a strong focus on jobs and job creation. That is what those surveyed by APA are backing. Might a pragmatic President Romney be willing to face down his own activists and give the American people what they want? Could he prove to be the kind of environmental hero that President Nixon was forty years ago?