Tag Archives: direct democracy

“Hometown Democracy” in Florida

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 10, 2004

In 2004, there was a voter referendum proposed in Florida called “Hometown Democracy.” It was an effort to substantially increase the use of direct democracy over representative democracy (due largely to many Florida residents feeling as if their elected officials were not listening).

This is my take on this constitutional amendment to go to direct democracy…

In general, I am quite uncomfortable with the idea. In some ways, the amendment would be an obstacle to the “re-use of vacant/abandoned lands” efforts that have become an important issue, because citizens would have a high likelihood of voting against nearly all proposals to intensify a land use designation on a property — and such “upzoning” is often needed to make it viable to re-use abandoned lands.

It also strikes me that the direct democracy folks are an extreme form of NIMBYism (the Hogtown Greenway Bike/Pedestrian Path Debacle is a good, infamous example of the dangers of direct democracy in Gainesville). While I am sympathetic to the thought that nearly all upzonings in the past have delivered us bad development (auto-oriented national chains and big box retailers and huge asphalt parking lagoons), and that it would therefore be handy to have citizens be able to trump weak-kneed politicians who so often cave in to Supercenters and Drive-Throughs (etc.) by reversing a zoning or land use decision, it seems to me that this is a sledgehammer rule that would lead to a lot of unfortunate, unintended consequences.

Indeed, in so many places (including Gainesville), if we were to lock in the status quo by having NIMBY citizens always voting against upzonings, we’d be locking ourselves into a dispersed, suburban, auto-oriented downward spiral that we are in today. Often, we need to have selected properties upzoned from residential to non-residential so that we can have a more walkable, compact community that is vibrant, sociable, and less dominated by excessive car travel. But it would seem that with direct democracy, about 99 percent of all such upzonings would be voted down.

It strikes me that the crucial change we need is to revamp the land development codes for places like Gainesville so that in-town developments deliver us walkable, pleasant, friendly projects that don’t overwhelm neighborhoods with big roads, big traffic, big noise pollution, and big light pollution. In other words, requiring that development build in a neighborhood-friendly, traditional manner.

The key to a better future does not lie in stopping all growth and development. The key is stopping auto-oriented development, rapid land consumption at the periphery, and BIG roads. We desperately need well-designed, walkable, in-town development.

Gainesville’s land development regulations require project design that delivers suburban, auto-oriented development everywhere. In my opinion, we must move away from that destructive, one-size-fits-all approach that says everyone should live the suburban lifestyle. Some of us should have the option of living a walkable urban lifestyle or even a rural lifestyle. The Gainesville code largely says we have only one choice: suburban.

I say we should revise our codes so that we set up at least 3 lifestyle zones, with accompanying regulations. Urban Zone gets compact, walkable design regulations, Suburban Zone gets big setbacks and other car-oriented dimensions. The Rural Zone gets small village cluster and farm/woodland regulations. That way, citizens will increasingly urban-to-rural-transect-Duany-Plater-Zyberk-smbe accepting of new development projects in their neighborhoods. They will hopefully live in their lifestyle zone of choice, and will eventually find that the 3-tiered development code results in new projects that promote their lifestyle. The nearly universal desire to fear the next proposed development in the neighborhood (no matter what it might be) can transform to that happy time in our decades ago past when we actually looked forward to the new development proposal.

As Padriac Steinschneider once said, the opposite of bad development is good development, not no development.

However, I might be sympathetic to the idea if it were somehow restricted to unincorporated areas remote from cities where we don’t want any development.

 

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Direct Democracy a Good Idea for Land Development and Transportation?

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 11, 2008

Is it a good idea if Florida’s state constitution is changed to allow citizens to vote by referendum on proposed land use and zoning change?

This nation has suffered from several decades of artificially low energy costs and enormous subsidies of various sorts for drivable suburbia (with big roads leading the way). These factors have caused massive distortions to the market signals that most citizens (with the exception of a handful of urban design activists) respond to by preferring a car-based lifestyle. As a result, our cities have been abandoned as residential and commercial has decanted to remote, drivable locations.

Healthy cities require agglomeration economies to thrive. That is, cities become healthier when they become denser, more intensive and more concentrated in jobs, retail and housing (that is, more compact). The substantial and long-standing low-density land use dispersal, then, has been deadly to cities, which have mostly become emaciated, scary ghost towns populated by a dwindling number of dysfunctional people who have no other housing choice but to live in the squalor of abandonment, highway overpasses, auto pollution, and the poverty of a dying city downtown.

Concurrently, there is substantial market pressure to grow houses (instead of corn or panthers) in formerly remote cornfields and natural areas (ie, big profits due to big demand for such housing — demand that would be nearly non-existent without free-to-use big roads and parking). So much pressure that corruption of elected officials is

rural landscape

rural landscape

nearly inevitable, as developers have an enormous vested interest in “contributing to” [bribing?] elected officials willing to enable a growth in low-density markets (through bigger roads, more parking, more farm-to-suburbia upzoning, etc.).

What is to be done to save valuable outlying areas, reduce the pressure to disperse, and restore the city? (which is clearly needed if our civilization is to have any future at all)

Personally, I am encouraged to know that cities across the nation are seeing substantial rejuvenation in recent years. Lots of new downtown housing, which is bringing the health-giving increases in density, intensity and 24/7 walkable vibrancy. This rejuvenation is probably due, in part, to a rise in transportation costs,  Boomers (who are often childless) moving into adulthood and senior years, an increasing disillusionment with the car-based lifestyle (which many have found to be rather sterile), and the growing recognition that the lifestyle of walkable urbanity is exciting, interesting, diverse, fun and convenient.

And safer than the drivable suburban lifestyle, I should add, since your chances of being hurt or killed in a car crash in suburbia are much higher than your chances of being mugged.

This trend is certainly quite helpful in reducing the pressure/profit/desire to sprawl into important peripheral locations. Cities, after all, are now attracting people instead of chasing them to drivable suburban areas (clearly the case as we see how increasingly unaffordable it has become to find central city housing – unaffordable because of the exploding demand for town center housing).

A remaining problem, however, is the market-distorting drivable suburban juggernaut, which continues to chug along at break-neck speed due to on-going massive public subsidies and the inertia associated with our long history of these ruinous subsidies. Not to mention the gigantic problem of all of the white elephant, low-density development patterns and suburban-inducing big roads/big parking we’ve built over the past 70 years — all of which will induce drivable suburbia even after we experience a long period of high transportation costs and the inevitable ratcheting down of public subsidies for suburbs. There will be, in other words, a lag period once the foundations of suburbia start subsiding.

Again, what is to be done, given the above?

It scares me that the promoters of citizen land use/zoning referendums may be correct with regard to the drivable suburbia problem: We need to move toward more of a direct (instead of representative) democracy (ie, Mob Rule) when it comes to proposed local government land use/zoning changes.  Have a referendum vote of citizens each time land use or zoning for a property is proposed to be changed in the community, instead of just letting elected officials decide.

Given the above, it is hard to imagine that we can insulate elected officials from the corruption that inevitably results when there is a lot of money to be made in building suburbs.

I should also note here that it is not just corruption that would lead elected officials to vote for low-density suburbia. It is also the fact that an elected official who is not a wise and courageous leader can take the easy route to getting and staying elected by being what I call a Motorist Populist. Making cars happy is nearly always a crowd pleaser — even at Sierra Club meetings.

Therefore, maybe it is true that we are left with this direct democracy idea of letting citizens decide on zoning/land use changes, because we have lost trust in our elected officials to escape corruption.

Maybe we must pay for the sins of our foremothers and forefathers who created a car-happy world in the past, in other words, by opting for direct democracy.

It is probably true, given the above, that the best way to end suburbia-inducing upzonings and land use changes in peripheral locations is to bypass corrupt elected officials and give citizens the ability to decide through referendum.

However, the idea of direct democracy is rather terrifying to me. It seems to me that there is a strong likelihood of unintended consequences when we shift community decision-making to every voting citizen in a community. Even if the citizens are relatively well-educated, the Law of Large Numbers means that such votes will inevitably lead to lowest-common-denominator mediocrity. The reality is far worse, though. Instead of being “relatively well-educated,” most citizens will be entirely ignorant of what they are asked to vote on. That scares the hell out of me.

Are we safer with a couple of corrupt (or populist) elected officials? Or Mob Rule?

As Richard Layman points out, citizens living in car-centric, car-happy America will inevitably vote parochially and counterproductively when it comes to votes for in-town development proposals, because the market-distorting subsidies have compelled most citizens to vote for drivable suburbia, and against the community-wide interests of more density and intensity within city central areas. Citizens are often, in other words, their own worst enemies when it comes to in-town development.

I think it is clear, then, that Mob Rule is counter-productive to making cities more healthy and attractive, because they would typically vote against beneficial in-town development.

Citizen referendums on proposed zoning and land use changes would maybe be good in stopping farm-to-suburban upzonings. But it would work against a needed companion that is highly unlikely to be approved by poorly-informed, car happy citizens: Compact, walkable developments that make cities more healthy and attractive (which indirectly reduces the desire for low-density suburbia).

Can we conclude that Mob Rule is the best way to fight drivable suburbia and loss of important peripheral areas? If so, is it so beneficial that it more than compensates for the enormous obstacles that Mob Rule would have for creating more compact, healthy and attractive cities? Is the citizen referendum stick so powerful that on balance, there is less suburbia with it, even if we have diminished the carrot of attracting people to healthy cities by impeding city improvement?

I guess it comes down to this: Which is more urgent? Which is more powerful? Which is more sustainable? Which is more self-perpetuating? Which is more of a lynchpin? Saving the last vestiges of (relatively) pristine wildlands via citizen referendum? Or restoring walkable urbanity in our long-decimated cities? (a restoration which is inhibited by the car-happy Mob)

It is not clear to me what the answer would be.

 

 

 

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Should Neighborhoods Be Given the Right to Vote on Land Use Changes?

By Dom Nozzi

In the fall 2015 elections, Boulder citizens will be voting on Ballot Issue 300, “Neighborhoods’ Right to Vote on Land Use Regulation Changes.” It is a form of direct democracy. Many citizens in Boulder have lost confidence in the ability of their elected representatives to “listen” to neighborhoods and vote accordingly.

But there are reasons our society is a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy. Direct democracy does not work – particularly in a complex society such as ours. If it did, we would simply need computers to measure public opinion on community issues rather than electing representatives.

Direct democracy is a form of “mob rule.” Emotions and lack of knowledge will mean that citizens will regularly vote against their own best interests.saintreportpicture3

Had direct democracy been used in Boulder in the 1970s for the conversion of Pearl Street Mall into what has become a much loved pedestrian mall, it would have never been approved, as it would have lost badly in a direct vote. There would be no Boulderado hotel – perhaps the most loved building in Boulder today, no Holiday neighborhood – an excellent and admired example of a walkable mixed-use neighborhood, much less residential and office development in downtown Boulder, and no Mapleton neighborhood – a charming and attractive Victorian neighborhood that is so cherished by so many that its homes are exceptionally expensive.

There are many additional reasons why direct voting as proposed by Measure 300 is a bad idea.

For example, the town planning profession is trivialized by suggesting that no advanced knowledge is necessary to make intelligent decisions about community development.

If direct voting is a good idea, why are we not, say, having a neighborhood vote on whether a community tax increase should apply to the neighborhood?

Is Boulder comfortable with its taxes being increased substantially to pay for such a large increase in community voting and added time needed by staff to prepare such votes?

Renters will not be allowed to vote.

In a society such as ours where there are enormous, counterproductive subsidies in place that distort the “signals” we citizens get, it is inevitable that many votes will be counter to neighborhood and community interests. For example, very high subsidies for car travel (free parking and underpriced gas) lead many to be artificially over-wedded to car travel.

“Right to Vote” will give even more advantages to more wealthy, large developers who are powerful enough to mount successful campaigns to prevail in a neighborhood vote (compared to smaller, less wealthy, local developers). Similarly, more wealthy neighborhoods will be advantaged over less wealthy neighborhoods for similar reasons.

Measure 300 really does nothing, when it comes right down to it, to protect or promote quality of life. It turns out that it is a “no growth” effort masquerading as a community benefit.

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Hometown Democracy: Should We Give Citizens the Right to Vote on Proposed Development Projects?

By Dom Nozzi

I worked as a long-range town planner for 20 years.

In 2007, a constitutional amendment was advanced in the state of Florida that would give citizens the right to vote on whether they approve of or disapprove of a proposed development in the community, or a proposal to change the zoning or land use designation of a property. On the surface of it, such a form of direct democracy sounds like a great idea.

But is it?

Over the past several decades in America, even town center residents (who live in a relatively dense, compact, mixed use location) have regularly been angry opponents of infill development in very appropriate locations.

This is predictable.

Predictable for two reasons. First, because nearly all development that has occurred over the past century has been awful, car-based schlock. And second, because when one lives in a world of massive subsidies for car travel and suburban sprawl, the citizen concern that overwhelms all others is the single-minded focus on MINIMIZING DEVELOPMENT EVERYWHERE.admin-ajax (7)

The citizen must plead for this because nearly all Americans live in dispersed, low-density, single-use locations that require car travel for nearly every trip. This means that the number one priority for most Americans is minimizing density (or opposing any form of new development) everywhere (including in the relatively dense town center, where compact development is most appropriate and desirable).

Why?

Because cars consume space so voraciously, car travel becomes dysfunctional and nearly intolerable with even a relatively small population. The level of frustration goes up exponentially when the neighborhood population increases, because there will now be even more people consuming enormous amounts of road and parking space!

Therefore, if one is compelled by community design and government subsidies to drive everywhere, the only possible community design agenda is to angrily oppose density increases (or any new development) every time it is proposed – and no matter where it is proposed. I am (but shouldn’t be) astonished by how many times I’ve seen even town center neighborhood residents fight like the dickens to oppose new development (and the fear that “spillover” parking by the new development will take away “our” neighborhood parking) in or nearby the neighborhood. Again, this is predictable in a society where car pampering — and the extreme car dependence that results from such artificial promotion of the car — means that nearly all of us have a vested interest in fighting to stop new development.

The same sort of negative citizen response regularly occurs if there is a proposal to change the zoning or land use of a property within the community. After all, one would think that the adopted land use and zoning plan for a community is designed to promote quality of life. It therefore seems wise to “follow what the community long-range plan specifies for land use and zoning designations,” instead of letting some “greedy developer” harm the community plan by selfishly changing such designations.

However, city and county land use and zoning maps don’t tend to be a “plan” at all. For nearly all communities, the adopted land use and zoning maps are not designations chosen by planners, citizens and elected officials to achieve a better quality of life. Rather, such maps tend to merely adopt what is on the ground already. If an area has low-density residential development, the map will specify “single-family” for that area. If another area has offices, the map will specify “office” for that area.

That ain’t plannin.’

It is a spineless, leadership-less way of memorializing what already exists. No thought whatsoever went into an evaluation of whether certain parts of the community should evolve into a different land use pattern to achieve community quality of life objectives. Maybe once or twice in my 20 years as a town planner did my city meaningfully propose a land use that differed from what was on the ground already.

In the early years of our nation, Thomas Jefferson pointed out that a healthy democracy depends on an educated electorate. I don’t believe he wanted the direct democracy envisioned by giving citizens the right to vote on proposed developments or proposed changes to land use or zoning designations. I don’t think that direct democracy is at all workable – logistically – nor do I think it improves decision-making. Indeed, particularly when there is little citizen education, having large numbers vote inevitably dumbs down decisions when lots of uninformed people are able to vote about complex societal decisions.

Are we comfortable with the idea of dumbing down community design decisions? What sort of future can a community expect if citizens are given the such “direct democracy” power, and use it in a short-sighted way? A way that is now unduly, artificially distorted by car pampering, which leads most citizens to desire low-density sprawl and happy car travel? Won’t that lead to decisions that leave a community without a “Plan B” when faced with extreme climate change or peak oil problems? A community, in other words, without the resilience to adapt to a changing future? A community that suffers significantly because it did not plan for land use and transportation patterns that would reduce costs and provide options when the price of low-density land uses and car travel become unaffordable?

An important concern with the direct democracy of citizens voting on proposed development or proposed land use changes is the risk of driving development further out into the countryside, away from existing town centers.

As I look around the nation over the past several decades, this sort of sprawling is already happening – even without the added boost of citizens voting for more sprawl.

When I see remote subdivisions sprouting up like weeds, all I can think about is how we are paying for the ugly sins committed by our forefathers and mothers who were part of a pro-car generation. We are still embedded in that pro-car world. A world where the price of car travel is substantially hidden from us, so we drive more than we would have without such a clouding of our awareness. A world where we feel it is necessary for us to vote for nest-fouling, pro-car, pro-sprawl decisions because we are trapped in car dependency. In the end, we have become trapped in being our own worst enemies.

I am firmly convinced that representative democracy works better than direct democracy – particularly in larger, more complex societies such as ours. Most citizens do not have the time, interest, or wisdom to be sufficiently knowledgeable about community planning or transportation issues that must be decided upon.

Despite all of the above, I must admit that I have some sympathy for direct democracy applied to planning and transportation decisions to the extent that the amendment is an expression of unhappiness about the long parade of awful car-centric road projects and strip commercial sprawl developments that have occurred in American communities so frequently since the 1940s. I would have loved the opportunity to have been able to vote against the monster highway widening projects and massive shopping center developments that have been built in my community (and using public tax revenue to boot).

So in a sense, I am sympathetic to the idea of applying direct democracy to town planning. But overall, I believe the idea does more harm than good. It is a sledgehammer that wipes out the good with the (admittedly) bad.

Examples of good? Increasingly, developers and property owners are proposing high-quality, sustainable projects because there is growing evidence that compact, mixed-use development that promotes a higher quality of life, an affordable lifestyle, and transportation choice is the most profitable way to go. In part, this is due to the emerging Millennial Generation, which seeks more of a lifestyle that is based more on town center living and reduced use of car travel than previous generations. And in part, it is due to price signals and growing concerns about a sustainable future in a world where unstable energy and climate change are making a car-based lifestyle seem increasingly inadvisable.

By killing good and bad, we are left with the status quo, which is awful in so many instances (every American community is infected by unlovable, unsustainable, strip-commercial sprawl). We NEED developers and property owners to propose projects that will heal such car-happy insults to our quality of life.

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