Squelching

I trash Richard Florida a lot on this blog, but I like a passage from his column this week at the Atlantic:

Jane Jacobs identified almost exactly the same dynamic when I asked her some years ago why only a handful of places pioneer innovations and unleash the creativity of their residents, while most are content to sputter along, stagnate, and even die. “Each and every community,” she told me, “is filled with lots and lots of creative and innovative people.” The trouble is with a small core of people she dubbed “Squelchers,” who are instinctively opposed to doing anything new or different. Unfortunately, these people are often a town’s business and political leaders. You’ve probably seen them in action; maybe you’ve even bumped up against them yourself.

Only a handful of places are endowed not only with a great research university, but a culture that tolerates and actively encourages risk-taking.

Florida gives Tree Town a shout out, noting, “There are cities in the once-dying Frostbelt — such as Ann Arbor, Madison, and even Pittsburgh — that have built new knowledge and creative economies around their great universities.”

I think this is important because, from the view on the ground here, Ann Arbor is full of squelchers.   Most of our area’s success stems from the constant influx of brilliant people coming in from all over the world to work and study at the U.  But they are counterbalanced by a vocal segment of long-time residents who fear the city’s increasing density and congestion, and a micromanaging city bureaucracy that attempts to regulate everything within its grasp.  Recent examples abound, such as the planning advisory committee that failed to relax the city’s restrictions on multi-family dwellings, or the zoning that prevented a small business from expanding the range of merchandise it sells, to cite two.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the urbanist blogosphere recently on the role of community input on planning and development, catalyzed, I think, by Ryan Avent‘s The Gated City (which I will eventually get around to reading and posting about).  Alon Levy has had a couple of excellent posts on the topic.   Mary Newsom summarized the key question with particular succinctness:

(W)hat if the public really doesn’t want any development at all? A survey from The Saint Index found that 79 percent of Americans said their hometown is fine the way it is or already over-developed. Some 86 percent of suburban Americans don’t want new development in their community. The anti-development sentiment is the highest in six years of Saint Index surveys.

So if you try to involve the community and listen to what they want, do you end up with a plan that forbids growth? How smart is that? Should planners heed community wishes, even if they know what the community wants is impossible or imprudent?…

The challenge for planners, it seems, is first to educate people on the repercussions of their choices and then, to show them choices for other ways to develop: tree-lined urban streets, with shops and shop windows on the sidewalks, to choose one example. But the planners can’t stop there. Step Three has to be to make sure the supporting ordinances and standards require the good and disallow the bad.

Having seen the effects of Detroit’s sclerosis on that city, I am vigilant for the signs of similar sclerosis that are emerging in Ann Arbor.  Indeed, while it suffers from its own inertia in many ways, I see Detroit benefiting from an increasing sense of adventure, flexibility and openness among its residents in terms of land use and planning — attitudes lacking in Ann Arbor.  Channeling community activism and local governance in a positive and productive direction, away from the reflexive squelching that increasingly prevails, will be one of the great challenges facing Ann Arbor in the 21st century.

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2 responses to “Squelching

  1. You’d probably view me as a “squelcher” since I am a neighborhood advocate. But I’d like to challenge the idea that one group of people (the planners you admire) are entitled to dictate to another group of people (current residents and active citizens) as to what the “good” outcome is. Just because you have what you consider to be a clear vision doesn’t mean that you have an absolute lock on the truth.

    I’m happy about what is going on in Detroit, believe in building a community that welcomes new people, especially young innovative ones, and am from somewhere else myself. But I don’t much care for a viewpoint that public opinion should be disregarded if it doesn’t fit one particular model.

  2. VA, I don’t think neighborhood advocacy automatically = squelcher. The idea of the squelcher comes from Jane Jacobs after all, who’d probably have been called a squelcher by Robert Moses for organizing the opposition to the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Detroit for that matter could have benefited from some aggressive squelching in the 1950s when they shattered mile after square mile of black neighborhoods to build its own expressways.

    I think the difference between good squelching and bad squelching is in the eye of the beholder sometimes & varies depending on the particulars of each case. Ever since my rant against Tom Whitaker this past spring I’ve made a conscious attempt to refrain from further comment on the ongoing soap opera in Germantown, for various reasons, but you’re right insofar as you & I are probably on different sides of the fence in that instance ;-)

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