Saturday, December 10, 2011

Development and Democracy Revisited 2 of 2

Organization: the core of institutional arrangements.

There are few individual citizens in any region who can take the time out of their day to protest any action by their local government. Developers are paid to support their projects and have extensive financial resources to back their long-term agenda. Other special interest groups tend to be less well-funded and have a far more diverse set of agendas than a singular developer. They can generally be divided into two larger groups: environmental and social. Environmental groups may be concerned with open-space, with regional transportation, with watersheds, or with endangered species. They may want bike lanes or they may want dams to be destroyed. Environmental groups tend to unify on few issues together, making their stretched funding even more piecemeal. Social groups stand as the other main opposition to a development; often being concerned with income inequality, fair housing, access to public transportation, and racial inequality. Social special interest groups tend to have very finely honed agendas that make unity of one issue nearly impossible.

The social and environmental groups constitute the majority of organizations that can successfully shape the outcome of a project. Often these groups are able to garner low-income housing, preserved open-space, and set aside investments for public services such as schools and roads. In Portland, these groups are widely successful. They have a unity and organization that is rarely seen on a non-national level. This could be credited to the liberal nature of the region, but I believe that to be a cop-out. The success of those organizations is no doubt partly attributable to a favorable political climate, but the power of a good network that has full access to all parts of the system cannot be underestimated.

In Portland, there are groups with liaisons to developers and politicians. There are lawyers retained merely to be prepared for a legal action if necessary. There are mailing lists and activists on phone trees. Portland groups have action plans and contingencies, networks and connections. They are a force that must be dealt with before anything gets approved.

Now, obviously other regions have more cash-strapped and less comprehensive networks of social and environmental interests. Of those two, one is rectifiable. In Reno, the region is small enough that accessing local politicians is rarely hard, I was able to schedule over hour long interviews with nearly every major representative in the region. The same goes for developers. One developer I interviewed stated it pretty succinctly, “I live here, I go to the grocery store here, I don't want to face angry neighbors and I don't want to make crappy houses.”

There is a strong willingness to try to make things amenable to all parties. The problem remains the weak network. Time after time I have heard stories of projects that aren't decided at public meetings, but days or even months before. The smoke-filled back room is not a myth; many deals are carved out with what are perceived to be the key stakeholders months before the actual vote. Notably absent are the environmental and social groups.

To be a key player it is imperative that these small organizations cultivate a base of connections that can be utilized and reasoned with. In 2008, I worked on an election campaign to install a pro-environmental representative. She lost. It was a gamble to try to take an anti-development stance and take a coveted elected position. Her opponent nearly outspent her by 12 times. The failure in the election cycle meant, for anti-development groups, a major setback in the off-years; the years that are most crucial to long-term policymaking decisions. By going all in on their candidates and initiatives, these non-developer groups went bust and had to leave the table.

It is necessary that these groups, in order to maintain their voices, hedge their bets on all the other bettors—especially the house. By trying to change the dealer or the rules, the environmental groups play a tough game that may not come out to their advantage. It is a far lower risk to ante up at the table and find a pretty blond to hang on the shoulder of the current high roller.

But even this is not enough. Environmental and social groups are often seen as destructive forces; anti-economy, anti-development, anti-growth, anti-individual rights. Without a constructive approach it is easy to label groups as simply NIMBYers with and emphasis on the N. Something I often heard from pro-development people was, “I don't see them bringing anything to the table.” And they have a point. Environmental and social groups can have a tendency to fixate on the negative qualities of a development and see the concessions made by a developer as piecemeal and token. Cultivating good attitudes and design policy—helping in making those developments work—is what shifts an actor from anti-growth to pro-smart growth.

So do something about it

I guess we are at the part where I start talking about my recommendations; these stem from a wide body of literature (including my favorite Nobel prize winning Economist) and in-the-field study.

First, insist on Alternative Dispute Resolution ADR. Decision making processes work best when all the interested parties are communicating openly. Having a neutral third party as a facilitator can greatly aid in the ability of parties to feel that they are heard and understood. It also helps eliminate perceived biases coming into a room. As Ellinor Ostrom—my favorite Nobel prize winning economist—has found, it is imperative that all affected parties understand the rules and have clearly delineated stakes in the outcome of the management of a common pool resource (CPR). A piece of privately owned property may not seem like a CPR but the extension of city services (road, water, fire, police, sewer, power) and its effect on CPRs (water and air quality, water quantity, traffic, view-scapes) are very much community interests and must be addressed as such.

Second, invest in relationships and networks. Building networks of like minded groups and interests to be mobilized can be the difference between one man at a town hall meeting and forty; better networks have seen hundreds or thousands (look at unions). Good relations with local policymakers can greatly alleviate the need for people to attend a town hall meeting last minute and can lead to back-room access. Good relations with 'the opposition' (I use this word tentatively and will explain this further in a moment) are also important. If a developer is aware of the concerns of someone they respect and deal with on a regular basis, a developer (any person really) is far more likely to take those into consideration when proposing a new project. Pretty simple, a person is far more likely to listen to friends than strangers, especially strangers who say they are the devil and destroying the beauty of the land.

Third, focus on needs and values. I hesitated to use the word opposition before because good comprehensive problem solving should never have sides. All problems are merely needs or values that are being expressed in a specific way—what us ADR professionals call positions. Positions get people into trouble because they can never be reconciled. They are what will kill any forward progress. Pulling out people's underlying values and needs gives all people the space to solve problems creatively and collaboratively. During the interviewing process in Reno, it became apparent that 'Developers' do not hold universal views and are far from absolutist corporate shills trying to pave every open space. In fact, many ascribe to the same principles that environmental and social groups purport to defend. These developers often end up feeling cornered though because they are threatened with legal action for something they see as a legitimate economic stimulator to the local economy and are lost as to how they can actually implement an environmental or social policy.

Which brings us to the fourth point, create constructive policy. If developers have a course of action to take they are far more amiable to making specific changes. Developers want to be perceived as an asset to the community and helping formulate positive alternatives could be one of the most viable solutions. It would be much easier to have a developer who was well-versed in green, dense, low footprint buildings that served to enhance the regional plan than it would be to fight tooth and nail with a developer that wanted to put large tracts of homogenous homes outside the UGA.

In conclusion, there are many complex institutional arrangements that can benefit certain groups and those elements can't be ignored, but certainly there are ways to combat a well-established routine. It takes a lot of start-up effort to achieve some of these objectives but ultimately it smooths out the process in the long-run. It effectively changes the game without fighting anyone in the process, a form of institutional judo. I cannot stress how important it is to break the cycle of town hall fighting, referendum scrambling, and underfunded legal battling. To be an interest on the fringes of the political process is the worst place to be and it drains the precious time, energy, and money of the few politically concerned citizens in a region. Little victories like Washoe County Question 3 (tying regional growth to water resources) are quickly erased by back room deals where the environmentalists are excluded. A good organization is part of the institution not one that fights it.