Thursday, September 26, 2013

Do Nashville Next now or else: Tuesday next you will have much less influence over what Nashville will be like in 2040

Planning with post-it notes
A number of well-intentioned, honest people I know are participating in Nashville Next. I respect their participation but after years of participating in the processes that Metro Planning has said they used to maximize community input to determine growth and development for our neighborhoods, I do not have faith that the new process is anything but a glossy distraction to authentic democratic processes that I can actually believe in.

I also question whether all of the past participation by community leaders is now rendered moot by what looks like a gimmick with post-it notes, giveaways and a spinning wheel. From the outside looking in, it looks like a sideshow with barkers pulling people in with promises of influence with little in the past to warrant validity of their word. If you keep one eye on community plans and the other on the machinery of Metro government, you know that the former is consistently compromised by the exceptions developers and property owners plead for themselves.

More post-it notes
When planners market Nashville Next by saying thousands have given feedback and influenced the process, I have to wonder what it was about the past community planning processes that I participated in that no longer applies. I understand that community plans last 10 years whereas Nashville Next is supposed to last 25 years. I understand that planners are attempting to shoot for a countywide context to frame future neighborhood development discussions.

However, after watching so many compromises made by the Planning Commission and by the Metro Council to the integrity of past community plans, I have to wonder whether a larger plan with a farther horizon is even more susceptible to death by a thousand exceptions in favor of developers who have money and lawyers on their side. I also am not sold on the proposition that supplanting an organic neighborhood context for sustained growth with a countywide context is warranted. Regional growth is happening and residents have and will have little control over it. We are more realistically going to exercise influence in our neighborhoods than we are in Davidson County or in the Middle Tennessee region.

I received an email this week from a Nashville Next proponent suggesting that participating in Nashville Next means thinking like a planner or developer. While I do share some of the values of planners and developers to a greater or lesser degree, I do not think like planners or developers when I consider quality-of-life issues in my city. And why should I? Isn't learning about our different priorities why we talk to one another in community meetings on growth? Why should I not come to these meetings thinking as a resident or as a neighborhood leader or as a member of particular communities would? Nashville Next claims to be interested in diversity, so why can't I come as I am? More importantly, why should not planners and developers be required to think in terms of the values of my affinity groups if we are all equal players in this game that Nashville Next has afoot?

The nexting wheel
Asking me to think like a planner and developer seems to be setting me up later when planners and developers want to make changes to the plan that the community supposedly influenced that curb the policies more closely to their priorities. Developers in particular have financial and political muscle to make that happen. Within a regional context, the power of neighborhoods to resist them is dissipated and diffused.

And does it strike anyone else as premature that the cut-off date for community input on priorities a 25-year plan is September 30, 2013? Why put a deadline on a 25-year plan? Do you think developers are going to adhere to this deadline and not try and influence Nashville Next in the future? Nashville Next was kicked off in mid-February. Is it even realistic to place my faith in a 7-month process to chart the next 25 years?

I do not question the intentions of the many folks who want to have faith in the process. I question what is going to happen to their priorities once their window of participation closes. I am concerned about what happens to Nashville Next after it moves out of the forum stage to the back rooms of the policy makers and politicos who take it upon themselves to interpret the priorities of the community. And as they interpret the priorities, to whom are they accountable? The public that has been informing community plans for decades? The elected officials running government and Nashville's corporate elites who finance those officials' campaigns for office?

Nashville Next organizers are fond of saying that anyone who cares about Nashville is invited to attend and to discuss. (We all know that access to influencing policy is not that easy, and it gets particularly harder the lower in the class structure one goes.) I care about Nashville. But I do not care to join in a planning process that has yet to earn my trust. There are many priorities in community plans that are still unrealized, and now I am faced with Nashville Next, which further marginalizes neighborhood plans with a focus on regional priorities. The next step is a step too far for me.

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