I attended Whites Creek's first community planning meeting last week the day after the Nashville Sounds meeting introducing their video update of the construction of downtown's First Tennessee Park. In at least one way the meetings were dramatically different. By my count Whites Creek turned out at least 3 times the number of those attending the Sounds' video promotion. The ballpark meeting had a lot of empty seats (and a lot more press coverage). It was standing room only in Whites Creek (with no news media coverage to my knowledge). The turnout reflected to me the high level of interest in having some influence over the future in Whites Creek.
However, most of the agenda (I stayed the first hour and a half of the two hour meeting) was directed towards rehash of the past three years of "Nashville Next," Metro Planning's gimmicky process to bring more people into county-wide planning for the next two decades. In fact, I would count this meeting as my first Nashville Next meeting and respond to it as that because I am not convinced it was about Whites Creek at all.
Mr. Bernhardt took questions, but not until after he finished what seemed to be a stump speech and one-size-fits-all media presentation of Nashville Next. He pitched their speaker series, their early visioning workshops, their summer "lounges" and their social media tools. He also presented the statistical analyses from which the assumptions of Nashville Next arise.
One of the future trends cited was one about how population growth would increase in the next 25 years, but that families with children would decrease. That seems to be Metro's justification for planning smaller homes in denser areas.
That will be fine if the future trends hold and there are no more baby booms in the next two decades.
However, 20th century baby booms tended to follow catastrophe and calamities that beset people. Statistical analysis about future trends cannot predict those. In the U.S. two world wars (and perhaps the Great Depression) generated baby booms in the 20th Century. The Baby Boomers (births 1946-1964) were a generation that blew "future trends" out of the statistical water. My problem with strong reliance on statistical analysis of future trends is precisely this: they can only predict what will happen if all things remain equal and cultural and environmental shockwaves are not factors on population levels.
Anything can happen over the next 25 years that could cause another boom in population. If Nashville puts all of its eggs in the basket of ramping down housing options so that individuals and empty-nesters are the largest populations served, it is setting itself up for inability to handle future crises and unexpected changes in the trends.
Also bugging me about this component of Nashville Next is the appearance of the tail wagging the dog. Planners are placing an emphasis on Millennials (which is definitely a generation that has to influence current policy) and their current preferences for smaller living spaces, robust public transit and childless lifestyles. Some developers stereotype Millennials as lifestyle tourists who want urban homes to be places that they can chill with their posses before heading out to restaurants and bars. They base the stereotype on the same statistical trends that planners use to promote nextification. If that stereotype is true, is the clubbing motive anything to build long-term, diversity-focused community plans on?
Building exclusively toward specific interpretations of future trends will drive people out of the city. If homes are built strictly for empty-nest, lifestyle Millennials, other generations, other configurations of families will be forced out of the urban core. Out to places like Whites Creek (a rural rarity since it is very close to the urban core), which will then lose its character and become one among many suburbs. The assumptions that Nashville Next planners carry with them, even where based on statistics can have profound repercussions across the county.
When Mr. Bernhardt eventually got around to Whites Creek proper, he challenged the audience to answer a single question as they continue in future meetings about their community plan: "What is rural?" He warned them that there is a tendency for neighbors to identify what they don't want in their community instead of declaring what they do want. Hence, his challenge to define rural seemed to be his attempt to hedge against falling into a "not in my backyard" posture.
Outside of being lumped in with people who are looked down on as NIMBY, those attending were encouraged by another speaker to leave their "knives" and "bullet-proof vests" at this meeting and not to bring them to future meetings. During my entire time there I saw no threat of proverbial weaponry used against planners.
These kinds of insinuations about community leaders attending these meetings strike me as cynical and jaded. Meeting organizers should be inviting robust, vigorous debate, which includes dissent so that all views are out on the table. As long as no one is verbally threatening or harassing someone else, civil debate should foster disagreement so that consensus can be reached. In the south we seem to confuse being civil with deferring rather than demurring. Forcing people to act genteel can create resentment, lead to passive aggressiveness and block authentic resolution of conflicts.
Openness and criticism are just as vital to the planning process as are closure and consensus. Any plan for Whites Creek (or for anywhere else in Nashville), should include an invitation to people to honestly share their thoughts: good, bad or indifferent. It will not always be smooth and harmonious, but open debate free from aspersions (like seeing NIMBY motives where there is no evidence of such) will make for better planning.
One final issue arising from last week's meeting has to do with the process of Nashville Next, which is unapologetically striving to replace the community planning process with a more county-wide vision for the neighborhoods. I thought that Mr. Bernhardt was clear in his remarks that Nashville Next is more about shaping planning county-wide over moving from community to community to do so. If that truly is the case, then will the views expressed by Whites Creek residents eventually yield to countywide wishes once the "lounges" close, community meetings end and the planners sift through all of the data?
If Davidson County believes that rural areas like Whites Creek ought to lose its self-determined character for the sake of flipping it into a bedroom community for a downtown workforce, why should the community yield? Simply because the interests of the many outweigh the interests of the few? Not in a liberal democracy. And yet, for all of its branding this is what the organizing principle of Nashville Next seems to be in a nutshell: giving the county more credibility than neighborhoods in dealing with housing issues that directly impact those neighborhoods.
The test of this planning process is how it ends up treating minority voices. You may doll up the planning process all you want with lounges, hipster idiom and social media campaigns, but if it does not treat the people of Whites Creek in inclusive ways when the final decisions are made then it will not be democratic or worthy of our support.
UPDATE: The social media person at Nashville Next responded to the comments on this post below on Sunday. Here is the tweet:
If this clarification of the process is supposed to give me faith in Nashville Next and put my concerns to rest, it fails. The question remains, how can we trust that future growth and zoning will reflect the character of the Whites Creek community and will adhere to the idea of community-based planning if future outcomes are predetermined by 15,000 responses by people, most of whom do not likely come from Whites Creek?
Here's another question: what makes planning at a county level (which itself predetermines and limits the influence neighborhoods will have) better than community-based planning? The concerns are entirely different. But this is an arbitrary move. By the same logic, would not regional planning be better than county planning? Would not state-level planning be better than all of the rest?