Archive for development conflicts

Should “Urban Studies” be a mandatory high school course?

More than half the world’s population lives in cities, and that percentage continues to grow.  Yet, how well do urban residents understand cities?  Do they know where housing comes from? what about food? or clothing?  How much does they average urban resident know about how cities are governed?  Or what legislation or bylaws affect their daily lives? (and how to get them changed?)

Too often lately I’ve been reading comments or quotes in the newspaper that suggest an otherwise intelligent, well-read person doesn’t fully understand how cities work.

Maybe, graduating from high school should require passing a course that includes (or is substantially) “urban studies.”

Here are some topics that I’ve learned about from life, work (or this blog), that many more people should understand.  And I certainly could have benefited learning about by age 18.  Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments.

1. Housing and housing costs.  Why are houses or apartments or condos in some cities and locations more expensive than in others?   Although there are complicated nuances worth elaborating on in a course, in essence it comes down to supply and demand.  If there are not enough homes where people want to live, then prices tend to go up (whether rents or purchase prices).

Too often lately I’ve read comments that suggest people don’t understand this basic issue.  High housing prices are not caused by greedy developers or landlords.  They charge what people are willing to pay (and most people try to find the best deal).  When the market is flooded with homes (look at many places in the US), prices go down.  When the government stops individuals from building or renting homes for profit, they don’t do it.  And the homes that remain become more expensive.

2. Container shipping by boat, rail or truck is how the food and clothes and other things we need and use in cities get to us.   Trying to stop container terminals, logistics facilities, and trucking routes, for example, without figuring out an alternative ways to nourish and clothe the people in cities, is pointless.  Sure, one location may not be appropriate and citizens can speak out, but they need to suggest alternatives that make more sense and show they grasp the consequences.  Preventing a logistics facility in one area might result in more truck traffic (and pollution) if goods have to be transported further. Similarly, stopping truck traffic on one main street diverts it, and may result in longer routes, more pollution, and higher prices.

3. Congestion.  Although on the surface building more roads seems like a solution, all the evidence points to the opposite.  The more roads, the more vehicle traffic.

These are three topics worth covering in a mandatory course.  Yes, they can be controversial and have multiple political sides–but so do most topics covered in history classes.  A student emerging from high school understanding both sides of the issue (or all three or four sides, in some cases) is far more prepared to be a productive, helpful person making our cities function better than someone who has no idea there even is a side or an issue–than someone who has no clue how the apple in her lunch or jeans on her legs got there.

Gentrification and diversity

The challenge as many North American metro areas urbanize — evolve into higher density, urban playgrounds — is maintaining diversity in these new and renovated neighbourhoods.

An article by Aaron Renn of the Dallas Morning News is circulating among the urban bloggers that notes how “White” some of the cities often considered models for future urban development are or have become (Portland, in particular).  While many of the statements in the article ignore some historical context, this paragraph hits a challenge of our times:

Many of the policies of Portland are not that dissimilar from those of upscale suburbs in their effects. Urban growth boundaries raise land prices and render housing less affordable exactly the same as large lot zoning and building codes that mandate brick and other expensive materials do. They both contribute to reducing housing affordability for historically disadvantaged communities. Just like the most exclusive suburbs. 

This paragraph holds true if the city’s urban planners and voters don’t also push for different forms of housing — a diversity of housing options to maintain a fertile environment for a more diverse population, if you like.

Gentrifying urban spaces need: small and larger rental options, of varying age, quality and price;  home ownership options of all variety from high rise condo to ground-oriented row house — and some single family homes nearby.

Sure the latter might only be affordable by the highest income cohort group, but this group is as important to the diversity of a neighbourhood as artists, coffee baristas, and junior software programers.

Problems arise in an urban space when one group — whether poor, rich, or in the middle dominates to the point of shutting out all others. And lets face it, mono-cultural life is not what people want when they choose urban spaces over suburban ones.

Urban Chickens or Pigs Anyone?

It looks like barnyard animals could be making an urban comeback in North America.

The Toronto Star summarized a Dutch  firm’s idea of farming pigs vertically, in multi-storey buildings.  Apparently it’s more ecologically responsible:

Proposed by the Dutch architectural firm MVRDV, the argument is that it’s more efficient to raise swine in highrise farms than on the ground, where they take up a lot of room. According to MVRDV, if pigs in Holland were raised organically – i.e. fed 100 per cent grain – three-quarters of the country would have to be set aside to meet their needs.

By giving these pigs wings and stacking them in the sties in the skies, the land below remains free and transportation and distribution costs can be cut. Each tower could feed 500,000 people annually. The pigs would also get to enjoy well-ventilated spaces with great views.

Meanwhile in Vancouver, chickens are scheduled to make a come back (while in New York, Seattle and Portland apparently they never left).

If barnyard animals can humanely be kept in dense urban spaces, and contribute to increasing urban sustainability, without creating new, more serious problems, then I’d welcome them.

But somehow in Vancouver, which sits right next to thousands of kilometers of wilderness, I can’t help but think that chickens would simply attract and feed more bears, cougars, foxes, coyotes and other animals that really don’t belong in the city.

Do you have your own chickens? would you welcome 40 storeys of pigs moving in down the street?

Creative destruction from Wal-mart’s arrival

Long-time readers of this blog will know that while I’m personally not a fan of Wal-Mart, nor ever shop there, I do support their right to exist.  If they provide what consumers want, it seems somewhat futile to try to stop them.

But here’s some new research from the University of Alberta: Wal-Mart can bring about the creative destruction necessary to generate the revival of locally owned businesses nearby.  From the Globe and Mail, October 24 2008:

Liz Westman had reason to be anxious when Wal-Mart set up shop in Okotoks, Alta., in late 2002. Within a year of the giant discounter opening at the other end of town, sales at her home decor store dipped almost 10 per cent. It was the classic so-called Wal-Mart effect: Business began to shift to the newcomer and away from the town’s main street, where her store is located. Ms. Westman, however, responded swiftly.

She ditched products in her store that were also carried at Wal-Mart, such as picture frames and candles. Instead, she returned to her shop’s higher end roots of custom window coverings and one-of-a-kind sofas and chairs. Sales at Homeworks Custom Interiors recovered, and have since doubled to about $1-million a year, she says.

the entry of Wal-Mart into a market pinches less than 10 per cent of local stores’ business, says Paul McElhone, associate director of the retailing school at the University of Alberta’s School of Business.

“As bad as it is [when businesses fail], these are often marginal businesses anyway,” Prof. McElhone says. “When Wal-Mart comes to town, it makes other businesses better.”

The article goes on to describe how a Wal-Mart on the outskirts can actually bring more people into the historic downtown — assuming the community and business owners make an effort to keep it vibrant and relevant to present day consumer wants. Having the only Wal-Mart in a large trade area means people will come to your town.  Having other interesting places to go shop, eat, browse, etc. makes the town a regional destination.  This happened in Okotoks:

 Local merchants’ concerns about the new competitor’s impact prompted the town to draft a downtown renewal plan. It poured $6-million into planting trees, widening sidewalks and creating a central plaza around an old clock as a gathering place.

Many downtown shops went through their own rejuvenations. A picture frame store is being converted to an art gallery. Upscale restaurants, antique shops and home decor boutiques have sprung up. People from outside of Okotoks flood into town to shop.

Okotoks is not alone.  A comprehensive study revealed the value a Wal-Mart can have.  According to the Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity at Ryerson University, “retailers’ sales rose faster in districts with Wal-Mart stores – an average of 27.2 per cent – compared with areas without the discounter, where sales grew 18.6 per cent.”

I may have to rethink my view of Wal-Mart as a destroyer, and also start to see it as a source of inspiration or, as one Okotoks resident put it ” a kick in the pants” to local business owners to stop being complacent and start being creative.

Parking and cities

Few things can make a street feel less engaging and less safe than a parking lot or stand-alone parking garage.

In most cities, new buildings — whether private homes or office towers — must offer a certain amount of off street parking. But are those minimal standards too many in an era when transit, walking, cycling and overall less driving is becoming more common and even essential?  Do parking spaces enhance or detract from a neighborhood?  Probably depends on the neighborhood.  There is increasing discussion on city and planning blogs as well as in the press about the relationship between parking and creating livable urban areas — or should I say the inverse relationship.

For many businesses and retail or restaurant entrepreneurs, something that frequently stops them getting their dream business open is city hall demanding more parking.  The most ludicrous bylaw on parking I’ve heard is in Vancouver — and I doubt it is a-typical.  If you want to open a restaurant that doesn’t serve alcohol, you do not need to provide parking.  If you want to serve alcohol, you need to provide off street parking.

As reported via Planetizen on MSNBC there is an article describing how a number of planning departments in North America are starting to make exceptions.

Alice and Jeff Speck didn’t have a car and didn’t want one. But District of Columbia zoning regulations required them to carve out a place to park one at the house they were building.It would have eaten up precious space on their odd-shaped lot and marred the aesthetics of their neighborhood, dominated by historic row houses. The Specks succeeded in getting a waiver, even though it took nine months.

D.C. is now considering scrapping those requirements — part of a growing national trend. Officials hope that offering the freedom to forgo parking will lead to denser, more walkable, transit-friendly development.

Opponents say making parking more scarce will only make the city less hospitable.

If a city is less-hospitable to drivers needing to park, is it “less hospitable?”  Are neighborhoods built before the automobile “unhospitable” or are they different and even walkable?  And, if they are “less hospitable” why are real estate values holding in many such areas while falling elsewhere? Again, from MSNBC article:

“Half the great buildings in America’s great cities would not be legal to build today under current land use codes,” said Jeff Speck, a planning consultant. “Every house on my block is illegal by current standards, particularly parking standards.”

This suggests that revitalizing older neighborhoods might mean returning to their roots — walkability — rather than trying to make them fit the automotive era.  Indeed, this is happening:

In Milwaukee, one of a small group of cities that has eased minimum parking requirements, did so because they were impeding redevelopment of struggling neighborhoods, said John Norquist, the city’s mayor from 1988 to 2004.

The MSNBC article is worth a read.  The author raises the dilemma between making a city work for cars and work for people, which are not mutually exclusive all of the time.  Even people who live in walkable neighborhoods want to get around by car sometimes.

But this doesn’t mean automobile use should come first in city planning.  Designing cities around places to park large empty metal shells appears to be coming to an end in some municipalities.

Edge city growing pains

In the past couple weeks there have been (at least) two excellent blog posts about “edge cities.”  Edge cities are small cities or large towns interconnected with and attached to a larger metro area like a suburb.  Unlike bedroom communities, edge cities contain business parks as well as homes and significant retail space.

I expect we’ll be hearing much more about edge cities in the coming years.  They have the potential to offer people more affordable homes — and perhaps more space — than living in prime urban areas, but unlike many suburbs sometimes have the density to offer walkable neighborhoods (now or in the future), a variety or retail and restaurant locales, and rapid transit to the larger metro area’s business districts, as well as significant employment and business opportunities themselves.

Right now, we’re starting to see edge city growing pains.  In particular, the challenge of making these places slightly more urban, with higher density housing, retail and restaurants, which in turn will support more transit.

Dave Atkins of the Dave Writes Blog (and a book reviewer for All About Cities) offers an interesting summary of what’s coming to his edge city of Westwood, outside Boston.

Westwood is a town of almost 15,000 located on route 128 about 13 miles southwest of downtown Boston. Developers have just broken ground on Westwood Station, a 135-acre mixed-use, transit-oriented Smart Growth community—and an attempt to, in one massively-planned effort create a new mini-city. Its advocates describe a new urbanist utopia. But the fault lines of change are many:

  • The project is seen as a long term solution to local financing needs—a cure for the cycle of suburban property tax overrides necessary to keep schools funded. But the current economic downtown may jeopardize everything.
  • A significant number of residents oppose the scale of the project and feel betrayed by the town. Lawsuits to force traffic mitigation are followed by large public meetings of angry citizens. The project is supported by most, but some fear it will destroy the community as it pits one side of town against the other.
  • Another development, Legacy Place, only a mile away in Dedham, will complement or compete with this project.
  • Within the span of only a few years almost 2 million square feet of new mixed-use development will be completed—on top of two existing towns: Dedham and Westwood—towns that historically were one town. Within a decade, this region is likely to be transformed.

We may be witnessing the birth of a second generation “Edge City.” Can the mistakes of the past be avoided? Will this be a massive suburban sprawl nightmare or a model for the future of urban planning? Will the project integrate with the town or be a separate, tolerated entity?

Atkins asks important questions about what is happening in Westwood, which could also be asked of projects around North America.

Ryan Avent of the Bellows Blog, meanwhile, quotes from a recent article in Mother Jones about how edge cities typically grow until they have enough homes and businesses to create major motor vehicle traffic jams, but then do not evolve further to communities that would support a good transit system.

The density-gap corollary to the laws of density: Edge cities always develop to the point where they become dense enough to make people crazy with the traffic, but rarely, if ever, do they get dense enough to support the rail alternative to automobile traffic.

Of course, in any attempt to increase density, anywhere, numerous local residents often fight against it.  Sometimes for good reasons, but often for the wrong reasons — wanting to stop any change at all.  This creates growing pains.

Book Review: The Concrete Dragon

Image from Amazon
The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What it Means for the World by Thomas J. Campanella

Reviewed by guest blogger, Dave Atkins.

Thomas Campanella’s book is a timely, eye-opening analysis of the wrenching urban revolution transforming China. Written in a clear, conversational tone, but packed with data and anecdotal stories that demonstrate the author’s insight into China, this book will amaze, confound, and challenge all those who seek to plan and manage urbanism.

The first chapters describe the scale of urban transformation underway in the Pearl River Delta, Shanghai, and Beijing. For those unfamiliar with China, it is an exciting story of rapid progress, amazing growth, and boundless ambition. But after laying the historical and political contexts, Campanella begins to systematically detail the human costs of growth–principally the destruction of neighborhoods and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. It is ironic that the Chinese character for “demolition,” Chai, has become a symbol of resistance–whereas in the west, it is a yuppie tea at Starbucks.

This is NOT a protest book. But the stories of displacement, the sacking of architectural history, and the value systems underlying this march to progress speak for themselves. Apart from being appalled at the human costs, what can westerners take away from all this? Three themes emerge:

  • Scale - Everything good and bad about western urbanism is amplified by several orders of magnitude. We begin from the sheer size of Chinese urbanism: 102 cities in China have more than 1 million people; compared to 9 in the United States.
  • Distinctions - urban “renewal” in China is nothing like that in US history. Understanding it is complex, especially in regard to suburbanization:
    • The city remains the dominant political unit and administrative unit, with suburbs possessing little relative clout. In the US, suburban communities taxed their wealthier base and built better schools and infrastructure, strengthening the cultural bias against cities. In China, cities have long been the ticket to stability for people, with mobility restricted and city-dwellers guaranteed food while the rural population starved.
    • Suburbs have a completely different context than in the US. In China, suburbs are populated with gated, self-contained communities. Buyers choose from all inclusive lifestyle estates with Anglicized (and intentionally bourgeois) names like “Latte Town, Glory Vogue, Yuppie International Garden, Wonderful Digital Jungle, and–cutting to the chase–Top Aristocrat.”

      Jobs have followed more or less in sync with the development of housing, so these suburbs are not “bedroom communities,” but more like mini factory towns. The concept of danwei–the communal work-unit model, and the housing form of siheyuan – courtyard-based living compounds–permeates development practices in sharp contrast to more open community development models in the US. In China, in the midst of extreme density, there is a tendency to organize into self-contained units. In the US, for all our proclaimed individualism, there is a bias towards community integration and an assumed role of government that is very different than China–a country we might assume would be much more communal.

    • The automobile is rapidly becoming central to Chinese experience. In the US, bicycles are a symbol of sustainability, recreation and fitness. In China, they are rapidly becoming associated with an image of a backward past.
  • Timeliness - August 8, 2008 will mark the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing. The urban revolution is part of a national drive to present a shockingly modern China to the world in time for the Olympics. After reading this book, I come away with the impression that what is going on with Chinese urbanism is more significant, more focused, and more imperative than even the US drive to land a man on the moon in the 1960s. It is impossible to understate what 8/8/8 means to China. Other books, such as China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future — and the Challenge for America by James Kynge describe the implications of China’s economic growth and associated social problems, but Concrete Dragon puts things in an infrastructural context, literally describing the architecture of supremacy.

I am not a professional urbanist, but I found the depth of this book impressive and the themes thought-provoking on many levels. The culture is so different from the west and yet the same types of changes are being attempted–on a massive scale–yielding unpredictable results. As an intellectual laboratory, it challenges our perspectives. As practical history, we are about to witness the birth of something spectacular.

Reviewed by guest blogger, Dave Atkins.

Book Review: Suburban Transformations

Review by Guest Blogger, Dave Atkins

How can we transform our suburbs and edge cities into memorable and sustainable places? This is the central question behind architect Paul Lukez’s book, Suburban Transformations, in which he uses five case studies of proposed suburban renewal to introduce the Adaptive Design Process.

Lukez considers what has made great European cities memorable by examining how cities like Florence and Cologne evolved into unique, distinct places. Traces of the old such as the amphitheater, the Roman aqueducts, and the medieval walls, and are now juxtaposed with modern functionality. He concludes that a community’s identity is a function of the successive transformations of a site over time.

In our suburbs, we have typically erased history with each successive development. Even new urbanist and smart growth projects generally begin by wiping out the old. As a result, suburbs have no identity; the developments reflect the popular design theories of the day but often tell us nothing of what came before. Eventually, the development becomes old and stale and is demolished to be replaced again.

The Adaptive Design Process describes a fairly technical toolkit for considering how incremental and adaptive development might proceed to transform instead of replace a region. As a lay person, I am not sure how I would make use of this to improve my community, but I think the approach lays out a framework for talking about alternatives to the typical either/or development practices. I would love to hear, from developers and planning professionals, how this approach could be translated into practical, local action.

Key characteristics of the Adaptive Design Process

The adaptive process aims to bridge the past and future by breaking development into six phases:

  • mapping,
  • editing,
  • selecting tools and typologies,
  • projecting,
  • simulating, and
  • recalibrating

The case studies illustrate how a redevelopment might proceed–instead of making one master plan and implementing it, the development of a location adjusts.

Key tools of the Adaptive Design Process

A symbolic representation of development helps model history. Lukez describes a coding notation to signify how structures have changed over time. For example, he describes the operations of “erasing” and “writing” on a site to support the formulation that Identity = Site + Time. This can be expressed as a “spatial-temporal typology” with a string of symbols like “(WpT1)(WiT2)(EexT3).” These operators describe how a piece of land was divided into parcels (Writing/Parcelling at Time=1), then various buildings were built on each pacel (infilled at Time=2), then a connecting parkway/walk path was cut through the middle of the development (excised at Time=3). This notation could allow the story behind a particular site to be “coded” as a series of operations that could then be analyzed. Having such a coding sequence would make it possible to record large amount of data for software analysis and ultimately rendering in visual models.

Mapping and cross-mapping can be powerful tools to understand history and plan the future of a place. The case studies illustrate specific examples such as how the Burlington Mall (northwest of Boston) was built over a major aquifer, or how noise patterns, sight lines, and traffic patters are all interrelated and should be considered in redevelopment. Part of the difficulty of evolving suburbs in the way that great cities have evolved is that it has been easier to simply start over, believing nothing significant was already there. But mapping and cross mapping can help to uncover a history that might be quickly bulldozed away.

Use what works. Lukez is not arguing that a site should be reduced entirely to a matrix of numbers and maps. But the use of these tools can open up design possibilities that were not otherwise apparent. Suburban development has typically required action within a very limited window of economic opportunity and there were no systemic tools to consider other approaches to the massive, generic development. I believe Lukez is providing a toolkit that will not automate planning, but will give planners who want to do better the tools to articulate and calibrate their vision.

In the end, this book raises many questions–chief among them whether the process I have summarized is something that could be actualized in a real economic setting. My sense is that this toolkit is most useful to the progressive planner who allies with a technical architect and can use it to sell a vision of progress that is substantively credible to developers and the general public.

I had the opportunity to meet the author at a presentation of his book in Boston last week and was able to ask a couple of questions. Clearly, the big question is how can this be made attractive to planners and developers. Part of the answer might be in sustainability–the idea that with the right vision and process, we could develop properties in the suburbs with much longer lifetimes. Instead of constructing a mini-city that will be good for 15-20 years perhaps this process would enable a longer time horizon so that lifetime economic value would be greater. But are there any developers who dream of starting a city that will last 1000 years?

My main question though was how the adaptive process might relate to my own community where the massive Westwood Station project is going to create a mixed-use, smart growth development of 135 acres, bringing 1.5 million square feet of office, 1.35 million square feet of retail, 1000 apartments, and 60,000 cars a day to my town of 14,000 residents. The short answer is that it is probably too late; this project has been planned by one architecture firm to be the ultimate smart growth project in the country. Perhaps if multiple firms were involved, there might be some opportunity for adaptation.

I think the greater value of the ideas in the book are for communities that are trying to improve themselves from the ravages of past development. One case study in the book talks about the Dedham mall (about 2 miles away from me) and presents a creative plan to transform the landscape and community. In town after town, we have seen segregated development, where we have a classic town common in one part and a big mall somewhere else to capture the tax dollars to pay for fixing up the town. No matter how “smart” the growth is it will not provide identity when it is segregated to a corner of town.

Visionaries are often discounted as impractical, but it seems to me Lukez has made a substantial effort to provide a level of detail and workability to these ideas that, in motivated and skilled hands, could begin to translate vision into reality.

Reviewed by Guest Blogger, Dave Atkins


As increasing numbers of people seek small ways to reduce their impact on the environment, it’s interesting that one simple option is against the law in many cities — hanging clothes to dry on an outside clothesline instead of using the dryer.

Should things change?  Environmentalists and energy conservationists argue yes.  Others say no — that the use of clotheslines is unsightly.   The summer of 2008 may be the start of a “back to the future” battle for clotheslines.

The Province of Ontario, in Canada, has had a law on the books since 2003 that allows them to abolish local laws that ban clotheslines.  They are now discussing carrying through by the summer of 2008, at least for people who live in detached houses and row houses.  So soon, the majority of people in Ontario maybe able to use a clothesline.

In the United States, 60 million people live in communities governed by Home Owner Associations, and the majority ban clotheslines.  As reported in the Christian Science Monitor:

At last count, in 2005, there were 88 million dryers in the US, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. Annually, these dryers consume 1,079 kilowatt hours of energy per household, creating 2,224 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Besides the global-warming and cost-saving aspects of clotheslines, proponents say hanging out clothes requires exercise and time outside – elements that are missing from many Americans’ lives. “So much of our lives have become automated,” Mr. Wentzell says. Plus, using a clothesline makes “your clothes last longer and smell better.”

Despite clotheslines’ purported benefits – and a scent that can rival dryer sheets’ “fresh rain” fragrance – “the overwhelming majority” of community associations regulate or ban them, says Frank Rathbun, vice president of communications for the Community Associations Institute in Virginia.

Apparently some US states are considering taking similar steps as Ontario Canada and over-riding home owner associations.

Although not everyone will switch to clotheslines, if more people had the option it could mean a 10% reduction in dryer use, saving thousands of kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

But many home owners are worried about property values declining because of laundry (somehow compared to the sub-prime mess and economic slow down, worrying about a clothesline seems trivial – however please correct me if I’m wrong).

In your city or town are clotheslines allowed? in your area who do you think will win the battle – the environment and clotheslines or home owner lobby groups?

Technology for improving city governance

For some, city hall, city council, and the planning department moves to fast.   Initiatives for new zoning bylaws or transportation plans might go through the governance process in a matter of months, with many residents feeling they did not have enough time to digest the plan and comment on it.  For others, of course, city hall moves too slowly.  They want action, not process and procedure.  (If both sides are unhappy, it may often mean that the pace is about right.)

What if there were a way to allow for easier and broader public participation on initiatives that affect them?  Perhaps this would reduce the numbers feeling things are moving too fast.

Dave Atkins recently drew up a plan for how social media technology such as Wiki documents might improve the town governance process.  Although I see some rough spots in his plan that need refinement, it’s worth a read and a ponder.  Here’s the essense of it:

  •  Individuals can contribute when and where they have time and expertise – Rather than attend a series of meetings, a person can follow the development of a document over time and submit their modifications at 3am or whenever they have time. If a person has special expertise, they can fill in with much greater detail or correct misunderstandings of details that often escape review in higher level discussions.
  • The entire process is public – the wiki is hosted on a public website and can be set up to send automatic notifications of topic changes to interested persons via email.
  • The process itself can be engaging – A wiki is no cure-all, but it provides a much lower barrier to entry and a way for residents to research the current status of an issue–to better understand how to join the conversation.
  • The process is more transparent – [For example, ]Massachusetts and most states have enacted Open Meeting Law legislation to prevent public matters from being decided through back room deal and crony networks.

Atkins admits to some challenges, including mass chaos, but suggests perhaps a registration process to contribute to the wiki.

I wonder whether a combination of a wiki and a discussion forum would work best.  A limited number of authors would have access to change the wiki pages.  But they would do so in response to the public forum discussions.  Anyone could contribute to the forums (although registration as a resident or other interested party might be required, as it typically is to speak at a city council meeting).  Having to take the time to register and be approved would avoid anonymous nonconstructive comments.

Also, anyone could view the process of changing the documents and see the links to the discussions that brought about the changes.

Here’s where I could see the potential of Dave’s idea:  I attended a neighborhood meeting about the Vancouver Eco-Density charter last week.  There seemed to be some suspicion in the room that this was all a ruse to allow developers to make more money by building more multi-unit buildings in currently-single-family neighborhoods.  I don’t believe this is the case (but I have no inside knowledge either way, I’m just an interested observer here).

Assuming that the plan is indeed an effort to make Vancouver live in the ecological footprint of one planet, then allowing everyone to see the process of developing The Eco-Density Charter — and allowing everyone the option to participate — might go along way toward increasing “buy-in” and reducing suspicions.

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