Urban planning as a profession has a history of unilaterally imposing designs and policies on a public that has often been disappointed with the results. Judging by the majority of suburban landscape that has eaten up America in the past 60 years, it is not too difficult to imagine why we have been so disappointed.
We have more roads than we can afford to maintain, homes and neighborhoods that seem to be designed as throwaways just in and strip malls that most suburbanites try to prevent by playing the NIMBY (“Not in my backyard”) card. This is not to suggest that urban planners have some evil plan to ruin the places we call home and even though they have done that in some cases, not consulting the public on design issues can have unintended consequences.
In the midst of the Civil Rights and other empowerment movements of the 1960s and 70s, social critics began demanding that urban planners consult the public before finalizing designs and codes. According to activists, there should be stakeholders involved in the process from the very beginning.
There are some very practical reasons for doing this, such as people are not likely to fight against a decision of which they are a part of making. In addition, residents and stakeholders are essentially experts in regards to the areas in which they live and do business, and dismissing their opinions is like snubbing an economist when deciding how to reduce a national debt. Unfortunately, urban planning is inherently political, and sometimes politics disregards the warnings and contributions of those who know best.
Now that we know public opinion is valuable, what do we want? The National Association of Realtors recently released its 2011 Community Preference Survey, a compilation of data from more than 2,000 Americans.
- 12% of us want to live in bedroom communities;
- 60% of us would choose proximity, amenities and reduced commuting time;
- 80% of us prefer single-family detached homes to other dwelling types.
We still want our privacy, but maybe we have learned that we do not need an acre of land to get it.
What can urban planners learn from these preferences? How can planners use this data to inform plans and development in the future to meet our changing desires?