The Trouble with Small Thinking

Dec 22, 2009   //   by PlanSmart NJ   //   Speaks Out Blog  //  Comments Off on The Trouble with Small Thinking

PlanSmart NJ wishes all our members, supporters and readers a very happy holiday season! In response to popular demand, we are sending you a link to last year’s
12 Days of Planning

And in the hopes of provoking thoughts about the big picture and the long-term in the New Year, and linking them to solutions to the immediate crises we face,
here are my thoughts on the trouble with narrow thinking!

A provoking series of articles by Canada’s National Post titled “Rethinking Green” has been posted on a popular U.S. planning website, Planetizen. Two recent articles claim that riding public transit and recycling may be counterproductive to environmental goals.

The premise for this critique, it turns out, is “All things being as they are today.” The reporters point out that running empty buses, as we do today in some places, is bad for the environment. As is stockpiling recyclables that have no current market value.

The reporters quote no one who explains why buses may be running under capacity, why there is no market for recycling plastic or glass, or what can be done to change these conditions. Nor do the reporters explore possible solutions: running different kinds of buses on different routes, for example, or creating programs that shape the market for recyclables.

Furthermore, the reporters do not examine the seriousness of the problems that these policies were designed to address, e.g. If not by providing public transit, how can growth capacity be increased without the congestion of auto-dependency? If not by recycling, how can the huge waste stream into landfills and incinerators be reduced? The authors’ implication is to go back to the old ways or give up trying to change anything. And that is simply unacceptable.

Make no mistake, like these reporters, PlanSmart NJ makes a point of always holding policy-makers accountable for the actual results of their policies, rather than their stated intended results. However, these reporters do so in an irresponsible manner.

The thinking (it doesn’t rise to the level of an analysis) is simply too narrow. It does not inform or challenge the reader — or our policy-makers — to solve problems in the real world. And the reporters’ narrow selection of sources is designed to bolster their shaky argument.

The same kind of narrow thinking is often applied to criticize Smart Growth goals. Driving automobiles is so pervasive, the argument goes, and it will take so long to change land use patterns to capture more trips in public transit, there is no point in pursuing policies that attack auto-dependence.

But there are plenty of reasons that this argument ignores: changing land use patterns will help address climate change, energy consumption, housing prices, growth capacity, regional equity, environmental quality, and many other desirable outcomes.

Just because a solution will take a long time, or can only be successful if implemented within a package of reforms, is no reason not to tackle it.

It is true that we have made little progress in shaping new land use patterns to reach our goal of sustainability. There are many obstacles embedded in many parts of the land use system that support sprawl: the tax structure, zoning, state agency regulations, and many people’s expectations. Reform in all these areas will not be easy. Or quick. But the good news is that government can remove these obstacles – it can even change people’s expectations. Government simply has to have the will to do so.

So let’s challenge our policy makers, but let’s not assume that slogans or rhetoric will produce results. And let’s never give up trying to solve our society’s most vexing problems.

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