Thursday, July 17, 2014

Whites Creek gets nextified

Education advocate Anthony Cody recently tweeted a sentiment on another subject that applies to the recently launched community plan process in Whites Creek: "the test of a democratic process is how minority voices are treated".

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?


  1. Thanks for the report...lets me know I didn't miss anything by missing the meeting, as I've already heard the "Nashville Next" pitch. The planning commission, which heartily supported development of Bell's Bend, absurd as it was, seems to be a rubber stamp for development. The fact that the bottomland along White's Creek is some of the best farmland in this part of the state probably means nothing to them, since, under our current economic paradigm, housing makes more money than agriculture. Let 'em eat houses!

  2. The beauty of Nashville is the diversity of not only its people but also its housing styles. It is a shame that everything is being designed around the Millennials. Who wants it all to be the same? Research shows that people are living longer and would like to live in the type of housing and environement they enjoy. We are Nashville. We are not all of the same generation.

    Why does the Planning Department feel that so many of these couples will be childless? If so, guess we will not need pediatricians, schools, toy stores, parks for our kids to play, or even Vanderbilt Children's Hospital. With so few children to grow up and take care of our city in the future, maybe we should call it Nashville Last instead of Nashville Next?

    As long as there is romance, there will be babies. One cold winter, power outage, or war could take care of that. This generation of young people will not be taking their kids to school, ball practice, or piano lessons on the AMP or the city bus. Please?

    Let the communities of Nashville plan their own community, not their neighbor's. Nashville Next seems government controlled. We will support our neighbor's plan, but we don't want to create it nor do we want them creating ours.

    After citywide planning meetings with Nashville Next, each community will get to choose from three options. That's crap. Those options have been pre-planned since DAY 1. Nashville Next is a dog-and-pony show designed to deceive the people into believing it was their idea. The pre-planned ideas were those of Bernhardt and the wealthy developers who treat Nashville as one large Monopoly game.

    If people leave Nashville it is only because they are tired of this control. What happened to property rights? More than 90% of the population have never heard of Nashville Next, and the 10% who do don't have time to spend in countless meetings and planning sessions.

    Nashville Next is just a way to control the community plans by taking away the plans of the people and replacing it with the plan of Bernhardt and the Planning Department.

    Let's elect a new mayor who will rid us of Bernhardt and Nashville Next and will listen to the people who actually live here!!

  3. What do you do if you don't like any of the three Nashville Next choices? We have three pre-planned cookie cutter choices to choose from.

    All 3 plans have 8-12 stories buildings at major intersections along the pikes. They are very careful to say that new construction where they tear down trees or build in rural space is not necessarily the first choice. Nowhere does it say that trees or rural space will be protected.

    First it was developers, now it is the Planning Department that is speculating. They say 200,000 new people in Nashville. Are they taking into consideration all of the people who will die in the next 25 years or those who will leave because this city is too much like Atlanta? Bigger is not always better.

    Don't like Nashville Next at all!!

  4. The three ideas came from the first meeting with input from 15,000 people. That's so BS. Planning obviously realizes that some people will figure out that they are scamming Nashville. That's why they have to try and put out the fire as quickly as possible. They also know Mike Byrd follows their every move and speaks the truth.

    I do not believe that 15,000 people wanted 8-12 story buildings along the pikes. First I don't believe there were 15,000 different people (or 15,000 at all). Second, I'm sure they were given the preconceived pieces of the puzzle to insert.

    Just like all Planning Department meetings, just an illusion to make the public believe that they had a say so.