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When it comes to new growth and development, westerners are downright schizophrenic. We want it both ways.
On one hand, growth is good. Development means more choices for shopping, restaurants and entertainment. It means our kids might have a chance to get a job locally instead of moving away.
Yet, we recoil at the changes wrought by growth—the strip malls, the traffic, the housing developments—and mourn the good old days when mega-homes didn’t lord over every bend of the river, when we could leave doors unlocked and let children roam unsupervised.
Since westerners put such a high premium on freedom, we distrust the tools available to manage growth: county-wide zoning, development restrictions, stream-side setbacks and land use ordinances. As a result, despite broad agreement about the ills of rapid growth, land-use planning efforts too often falter.
Resource Media’s analysis of land use planning debates illustrates one contributing factor to this impasse: When planning advocates talk about planning, they usually talk about process. Meanwhile, their opponents talk about to core values—their freedom, property, livelihoods and ability to prosper and care for their families. The resulting frame positions planning advocates as outsiders—technocrats and bureaucrats intent on imposing arbitrary, top-down rules and regulations. Planning opponents, meanwhile, often enjoy the sympathy afforded the underdog as they take up the cause of individual landowners everywhere, fighting what is perceived to be an oppressive bureaucratic machine, commandeered by special interests, intent on violating their property rights.
Sound familiar? If so, then take heart. People in your community share the values that underscore planning efforts. People care deeply about where they live and their quality of life. They strongly support protecting clean water, clean air and natural areas. They value wildlife. Many are passionate about expanded trails, shorter commutes, more walkable neighborhoods and bike paths. But the way we talk about planning generally fails to connect to those values and the benefits provided by thoughtful land use planning.
Instead of talking about growth, development and planning in the way that average citizens experience them—traffic, crowded trailheads, higher taxes and expensive homes on the one hand, versus family-friendly neighborhoods, expanded trails and clean air and water on the other—planning advocates use an impenetrable jargon to convey their work. Urban design. Subdivision regulations. Master plans. Density. Zoning. Compliance. Sprawl. These terms do not resonate. They emphasize process over payoff. They fail to connect to values and evoke the benefits of land use planning.
To help find a more effective way to communicate the value of land use planning, Resource Media examined land use planning debates in communities throughout the West. We have found that conversations that start with planning end in failure. The degree to which a campaign or policy initiative succeeds or fails is often a reflection of the extent to which core values like safety, security, fairness, affordability, freedom and family are used to describe the initiative.
Based on our research and fieldwork, we believe a carefully crafted communications strategy can help shift land use planning debates to increase public and political support for planning objectives. If we can describe the benefits of smart land use planning in ways that reflect the values of real people, we can bring the community to the table. And if we can get the community involved early, planning can assume its rightful place at the heart of our cities, towns and counties. A thoughtful communications and outreach strategy can help empower communities to take control of their local land use policy decisions.
Remember: land use planning isn’t about land or use. It’s about values. Planning is not an end in and of itself; it’s a tool to solve real-world problems. Think of planning as a verb—something our communities do together—versus something that is done to us. And while people will never agree on everything, they share many of the same values: security, fairness, integrity and personal liberty.
With millions of new residents expected to arrive in western communities in coming years, how we grow will become increasingly important, especially when we consider the impact of growth patterns on climate change. Planning advocates have a choice. They can continue down the old, predictable course, or they can change how they talk about planning to show that it is something a community does together to chart its own future.