Home Management Contemporary Urban Planning
THE FRAGMENTATION OF POWER
The environment in which the planner operates is characterized by a diffusion of political, economic, and legal power. This condition is probably true for any planner anywhere, but it is particularly true in the United States. The U.S. Constitution was designed to limit the power of government not only to protect the nation as a whole from tyranny but also to protect minorities from what has been termed the "tyranny of the majority." The system was clearly not designed to facilitate quick and decisive action by government. Political power in the United States is fragmented in several ways. First, it is distributed among different levels of government. State and local governments are much stronger in relation to the national government than is the case in most of the other democratic states of the Western world such as France or Great Britain. In general, state and local governments raise much more of their own revenues than do their counterparts in other democracies. Financial responsibility and political autonomy are related. The relatively greater autonomy of state and local governments in the United States goes back to the Constitution, which, as its writers intended, sharply limits the power of the federal government. Resistance to central authority is an old American political tradition.
Political power is also fragmented through the so-called separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. That separation goes back to the founding of the country and the intent of the drafters of the Constitution to restrain government by structuring it so that the power of each branch would counterbalance the powers of the other branches. Planning as a government activity is clearly a function of the executive branch. However, implementing virtually any plan requires funding. Both the levying of taxes and the appropriation of funds are legislative functions. The powers of both the executive and the legislative branches are, of course, constrained by the judicial branch. That branch, at the federal level, is nominated by the executive branch and confirmed by the legislative branch. At the state and local level the situation is mixed. In some cases judges are appointed as in the federal model. In others they are elected.
In addition to being fragmented along the executive-judicial- legislative line, local government may also be fragmented in an administrative sense. A metropolitan area that constitutes a single economic and social entity may be divided into dozens or even hundreds of political jurisdictions. In addition to governments, there may be a variety of districts that have some governmental powers and responsibilities. School districts, for example, generally have the power to tax and sometimes have the power of eminent domain. In many states the school board members are elected directly by the residents of the district, and those members, in turn, choose the district's superintendent. The administrative structure that runs the schools thus exists in parallel to the structure of local government but is not a part of that government. Yet both structures tax the same population, both may make land-use decisions, and both may issue debt and make capital investments. Similar comments can be made with regard to water, sewer, transportation, and other authorities.
The United States has a strong tradition of respect for property rights. Conflict over the exact location of the boundary between the rights of the public and the rights of property owners is inevitable. The determination of the boundary is ultimately made in the courts, that is, by the judicial branch. We also note that the courts are often the guardians of individual rights and in this role may require certain actions by the other branches of government. Court-mandated school integration is perhaps the best-known example, but there are many others. For example, how the courts interpret the language of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1992 determines exactly what steps municipalities must take and what expenditures they must make for individuals with disabilities.
Power in the nongovernmental sphere is also widely distributed. The citizens in their role as voters are the ultimate power. But groups of individuals also constitute power blocs. The citizen as a homeowner is part of a very powerful bloc, as any planner working in a community with a large percentage of owner-occupied housing units quickly learns. In many communities the citizen as a member of a labor union is part of a powerful bloc. The citizen as a member of an environmental group such as the Sierra Club or a local conservation group is a member of another bloc. Those who own substantial amounts of property, whether vacant land or structures, constitute still another source of power. So, too, are the community's employers. There is a very strong relationship among land-use planning, capital investment, and construction activity. Thus the construction industry—both management and labor—is often a major participant in planning decisions and in planning controversies.
Not only do citizens participate in the planning process both as individuals and as members of groups, but there is also a certain amount of citizen participation organized by the planners themselves. This is done partly to involve the public in planning questions, as noted before, but also because it is often a legal requirement. Much federal funding for highways, water and sewer systems, local economic development projects, and the like requires evidence of organized citizen participation before monies can be disbursed. Such requirements are not readily evaded. In fact, they are self-enforcing because the planners and municipal officials know that if the requirements are not met, the project may well be stopped by a procedurally based lawsuit which claims that the federal citizens' participation requirements were not met.
Most planners, on balance, look favorably on citizen participation, but it can have its frustrations. The planner who takes a comprehensive view of the city or town may be very frustrated by citizens who are tremendously concerned with what happens in their immediate vicinity but relatively unconcerned about the "big picture." It is the experience of most planners that citizens participate very readily on issues close to their homes but that it is usually very difficult to get them involved in larger-scale questions like regional planning. In a sense, the citizen's perspective is often like perspective in drawing: Objects that are close to the viewer appear much larger than objects of the same size that are farther away. Then, too, even if you as a planner are strongly committed to citizen participation you may feel very frustrated when your professional judgment, perhaps backed by many hours spent studying a particular situation, is rejected because it conflicts with citizens' (or politicians') casual opinions. Of course, this is the same frustration that the economist, the policy analyst, or any other expert experiences when giving advice in a political situation.
It is a basic fact of political life that it is easier to mobilize people in opposition than it is to mobilize them in support. Thus often there are groups that have the power to prevent things from happening, but no group that has the power to make things happen. Citizen opposition has shot down many a planner's brainchild. In the sense that any citizen has the opportunity to make his or her voice heard, citizen participation is democratic. But it is not always as representative as one might at first think. Citizens' groups and movements are self-selected and may represent a very small percentage of the population, but local governments often respond to the pressure of vocal and determined minorities. The idealistic young planner who sees his or her ideas about, for example, affordable housing stomped to death by prosperous homeowners at a public meeting may come away from the experience wiser, sadder, and harboring mixed feelings about the benefits of "power to the people."
The person who had the most effect upon the physical form of the New York metropolitan area is, without doubt, Robert Moses.2 Moses, whose career started early in the twentieth century, well before the age of citizen participation, was brilliant, forceful, extremely adept at political manipulation, and sure that he was right. In his early adulthood, at least, he was also idealistic. He was, in large measure, responsible for the building of highways and bridges, the building of parks, the construction of all sorts of community facilities, and the destruction of large amounts of housing and many small businesses to make way for his projects. He had little interest in what the public wanted, but rather in what he thought was needed. He was both widely admired and widely detested. It is difficult to evaluate his overall effect on the New York region because it is hard to say what the region would be like if he had not lived. All one can say with any degree of certainty is that it would be quite different.
Nineteenth-century Paris had its own Robert Moses—named Baron Haussmann. He, too, was possessed of an iron certainty, great ability, and great forcefulness. If you go to the center of Paris, the part that most tourists see, it is likely to strike you as a splendid piece of urban design and a wonderful place to spend some time. Of course, if you had been one of the many thousands of poor nineteenth-century Parisians rendered homeless as Haussmann razed whole neighborhoods to make way for his vision (see the photograph on page 171), you may have had a very different view of the man. In any case, he would not have concerned himself with your opinion, and probably not with your welfare either.
But regardless of how the planner may feel about citizen participation, and in the writer's experience most planners have some ambivalence on the subject, it is here to stay. The days when people used "you can't fight city hall" as an expression about accepting the inevitable are long gone. A population that is better educated, more affluent, less deferential to authority, and possibly more generally suspicious of "the establishment" than it was decades ago is not going to sit passively on the sidelines. The day of the Moseses and Haussmanns is long gone.
The planner usually finds little within the community on which there is unanimous agreement. Majority positions can often be found, and compromises reached, but it is rare when all parties can agree on precisely what constitutes the public interest. When propositions are stated as generalities, they often elicit more agreement than when they are stated as specific proposals. For example, we all favor enhanced environmental quality, but raise the issue of shutting down a particular facility and you quickly find that one person's environmental protection is another person's unemployment. Planning, like politics, is in large measure the art of compromise.
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