The clock is running
Auckland Council issued a discussion document yesterday seeking public input into the Auckland Plan. It sets out “ideas and initial proposals” and a series of questions. It asks for responses by the end of May. There will also be consultation after the plan is drafted in June.
I’m not going to say anything about the merits of the ideas in the Document – but you might care to look at the New Zealand Herald’s initial take on it here. But I do have some thoughts on the nature of engagement with the people for whom the plan is being prepared. Seeking submissions in response to a discussion document follows a familiar but not especially encouraging path.
Getting the public to endorse our plans
Growth management strategies are intended to promote the quality of life. They are justified on the grounds of enhancing liveablity and strengthening communities. Such high-sounding outcomes sit among other laudable objectives: reducing vehicle emissions and fuel consumption, improving housing affordability, increasing opportunities for walking and cycling, promoting public health, improving urban efficiency, and protecting agricultural land.
It’s hard to disagree with such outcomes. It must be comforting for the public to read that they are all there for the taking if people will embrace policies aimed at increasing urban densities.
After all, what citizens would endorse a plan that included among its outcomes higher costs for overloaded infrastructure? Or a lower quality of life, increased congestion, and concentrated pollution? Or reduced mobility and congestion making it harder to get to work; or urban form that increases the prevalence of heart attacks or diabetes?
In other words, the authors of discussion documents almost inevitably contain the debate and shape its outcomes with the options and questions they present. So when the document indicates that, say, Option B – usually the compact one –will deliver the goodies, why not just tick the box and be done with it?
The Preference Paradox
But then, why don’t all those people who ticked it go and live in smaller dwellings, closer together, and walk or catch the bus to the shops, the movies, or work if that’s what Option B is all about? Unfortunately, while the majority might say “Yes, that’s how it should be done” only a minority translate that into their personal behaviour.
Of course, that’s a bit on an over-simplification. Whether the favoured growth management tools of the last twenty years – which are usually about making the city more compact – can deliver on the outcomes claimed for them is a moot point, not one I am going to go into here.
However, there is an interesting paradox at work which frustrates those planning outcomes: what people say is not necessarily reflected in what they do. And as long as people resist the rules that they seemed to support in submissions, then those rules will not even be tested.
NIMBYism is the reality
So what is it that goes wrong? Well, we shouldn’t be surprised by a tendency to behave in ways which prioritises personal or family benefits over collective community benefits. We are also familiar with NIMBYism – resistance to change in one’s own backyard, change which we are nevertheless happy to see others wear. Or perhaps people tick the box in expectation that the better public transport Option B promises means that with more people taking the train they will be able to drive to work quicker.
Why don’t planners take the reality of apparently contradictory behaviours into account when they write plans or draft options? Or why not plan for real behaviour? Or find ways to encourage the adoption of more “socially responsible” behaviour? Pricing comes to mind as an option, along with education.
(To be fair, planners and policy makers do promote education as one of the tools in the toolbox, but usually adopted somewhat half-heartedly and almost always after regulation).
Are planners disengaged?
The answer may be that planners are just not very good at identifying with the community. Planning is intrinsically patronising. As planners, we favour prescription based on principles that are no more than abstractions or feel-good statements in the minds of the people we address them to.
Engaging with the public in planning is frequently too structured and calculated to offer true insight into how communities work, their spontaneity, emotionalism, irrationality, inconsistency, diversity. This shows in discussion documents which encapsulate and simplify planners’ views of how the world should work. That’s not surprising; by definition planners premeditate, calculate, extrapolate, and prescribe. We seek generalisations to make sense of disorder. We dismiss the outliers and focus on the averages. We try to reduce the chaos and dismiss the exceptions.
That’s not to knock what planners try to do. It is important to see and respond to patterns, distill movements , and paint the big picture. But let’s not be surprised when the formulaic plans, the orderly maps, and the rational rules that we impose on our disorderly society don’t produce the results we hoped for. When we get down to implementing our plans, we better have listened very carefully to what people are saying and not just to how they react to what we say.
Just occasionally we may have to think like the communities we work for; decide when to accept apparent disorder and when some bottom lines are needed; when can we allow for individualism and diversity and when collective needs (including environmental needs) should prevail.
Seeking submissions: the end point of engaging the community
This is all a long-winded way of saying that seeking submissions on options is a highly constrained if not distorted way of engaging with the community on development matters. It will not reveal people’s preferences. It is no basis for understanding behaviour. And it will not tell us how people, households, and businesses will respond to our plans.
Submission-based engagement constrains dialogue, limits public input, and stifles creativity. It plays to the articulate, active, and informed. Responses are self-selecting, often self-serving, and unrepresentative.
At the very best, submissions can be used to check that our draft plans reflect what the community has already said it wants or could live with. But first those questions have to be asked. People need to be listened to before they are quizzed. And seeking open-ended information from communities requires entirely different methods of engagement from submission-seeking if planners (and the politicians who employ them) are going to win the trust and occasionally the compliance of the communities they serve.
 Of course, that goes for the planners and policy-makers, too, many of whom live on or beyond the city edge (or enjoy coastal second homes) while prescribing intensification for the average citizen.