Friday, August 08, 2014

The grand narrative of NashvilleNext does not tell the whole story

This is a textbook example of how public relations flacks, when allowed to tell stories uncontested, dominate the community's narrative.

Colby Sledge has been hired to tell the story of NashvilleNext, Metro Planning's instrument to apply a county-determined grid across neighborhoods and local communities for the purposes of promoting future development and growth. You may remember Mr. Sledge from his days as a newspaper reporter or from his days as a hired partisan with the Democrats or from his days in charge of a "neighborhood" group that advanced the Mayor's agenda, whether that agenda involved tearing down the Fairgrounds or trying to help Sarah Lodge Tally defeat Jason Holleman.

Today Mr. Sledge is leading the community outreach goals for NashvilleNext via Karl Dean's favorite PR firm, McNeely Pigott & Fox, LLC (or "MP&F"). He tells an evolutionary story, one in which visions of Robert Altman's classic film "Nashville" (1975) give way to ABC's current glitzy soap opera "Nashville". That unqualified 40-year cultural gulf is large enough, but he also misapplies it as a metaphor for what happened in Metro Planning in the early 1990s vs. what is happening in 2014:

It’s no secret that the city’s last general plan update, way back in 1992, didn’t quite hit the mark. That plan predicted unmitigated suburban boom, which was accurate … until the city started booming, too. Urban neighborhoods were mentioned, but their design and character was left to subsequent planning processes.

The plan’s development also wasn’t the most public process, resulting in something that looked a lot more like a thesis than a blueprint: plenty of theory, but not a whole lot of direction from actual Nashvillians ....

These days, Nashville looks a lot more like Hayden Panettiere’s version than Robert Altman’s ....

So amid all these challenges, city leaders tasked the Planning Department and our agency with including as many Nashvillians as possible in NashvilleNext, and to do so in a diverse, inclusive, and instructive way.

Those of you who like me have participated in the community planning process since the turn of the century may already notice a problem that goes beyond that of trying to compare 20 years of Metro policy changes with 40 years of pop culture: in his enthusiasm for mapping the next 25 years of planning, Mr. Sledge fails to account for the last decade.

He is obviously trying to get to the purpose of this self-aggrandizing piece: he still has to discuss the cute effectiveness of the little nosepickers MP&F used for the promotional ad campaign to entice people into the planning process. But Colby Sledge failed to tell our whole story. When Metro Planning Director Rick Bernhardt flipped the planning process into a community planning process years ago it was a positive move. Many of us met with our fellow neighbors and Metro planners on occasion, expectant that the emphasis on grassroots generation of community plans would help hold developers and planners accountable.

Granted, there were plenty of times developers adjusted and gamed the rezoning process, and it was a challenge to hold community plans together when the Planning Commission and Metro Council prostrated to the influence of lawyers and lobbyists for developers.

But Metro Planning under the same director has abandoned community planning in favor of first getting a county-wide, prepossessed formula for growth everywhere and predetermining the decision local communities like rural Whites Creek will make before their process gets off the ground. That is the story that hired gun Colby Sledge is not telling.

He makes it seem like we went from Nashvillians having no influence over the planning process in 1992 to having the most influence they can have in 2014. The truth for some of us is different: we went from having no influence to what was ostensibly a significant degree of influence that we could exercise with community plans to having our influence contracted by a county-wide process that softens the impact of organized neighborhoods to protect their quality of life from unsustainable growth and avarice.

For some of us, NashvilleNext looks like a step back toward 1992, away from community-based planning to planners justifying their own decisions based on monolithic county-wide polling without regard to diversity. It is set up to support a tyranny of a majority rather than a dynamic process of consensus. That is the story that paid narrator Colby Sledge is not telling.

The example of Whites Creek is instructive: they cannot determine their own plans without regard to non-rural areas of the county, which have higher density and thus more power to determine Whites Creek's plan. The rest of Davidson County will determine what growth looks like in Whites Creek even though many in Davidson County have never set foot in Whites Creek.

That is a plot line Colby Sledge conveniently leaves out of his story. Those of us who do not have the wealth or influence of MP&F should still try to make sure it gets put back in whenever the story is told.

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