They Call it Democracy

Democracy and land use: what does it look like?

Exactly one year ago yesterday, I sat down and wrote what was the first post on this blog, an enterprise undertaken with a mix of curiosity and frustration. The outcome of this effort was intended to be personal (running the whole land use code through my brain) and catalytic, triggering, perhaps a top to bottom review of the code with an eye toward at least creating an inventory of the good, bad, and the ugly.

The latter didn’t happen, and efforts to undertake regulatory reform have slowed since this time last year. The frustration indicator on my dashboard has been in the red a lot lately, and I am starting to wonder whether the rear guard action some of us undertook in Roosevelt, Pioneer Square, and on regulatory reform last year is really going turn things around and toward the big changes we need.

So I decided to dial it up a notch, writing a post about what it would take to shake up city government, then I wrote a reprise of my call awhile ago to create a Party of the Future, and then another post about the need to infuse our efforts to convince elected officials to make good land use and transportation decisions with financial backing.

All of this has been met with the usual derision in the comments section from the expected company; the NIMBY set, the McGinn haters, the I-took-a-class-in-that graduate students, the anti-growth crowd, and, of course, the inevitable stalker Blue Light. However, what has been interesting is the response from people some might call “allies,” people who support smart growth, density, and transit oriented development.

The level of angst and worry bumped up noticeably when I said that there is a “right” and a “wrong” answer to the policy questions that surround growth and planning. I suggested “we are right, they are wrong.” This rankled colleagues and fellow travelers. It also flushed out worry about turning single-family homeowners against us. We should spend our time trying to persuade and convince the most dominate constituency in Seattle, they said. Single-family homeowners, will surrender their political dominance and what one commenter called their “special status” in land use decisions, because we ask nicely.

Next the sweat broke out when I combined culling the goats from the sheep on land use policy with the suggestion that we raise money. My post saying not only are we right, but we should play to win, raising enough money to fund candidates or at least shape the process, led to the smart growth movement’s Captain Renault moment.

Smart growthers were, “Shocked! Shocked, to find out there are politics involved in land use!” It turns out that the idea of organizing a group of like minded people on the right side of a very important argument, and then raising money to win the argument politically is somehow distasteful, mean, and even (gasp!) un-democratic!

Members of the peanut gallery might be surprised to know that the epithets hurled at me at Publicola (fascist, megalomaniac, elitist) are actually nothing new. You see, I was the Tobacco Tsar, and I’ve been called far worse than what the kids in the Publicola comment pool have dished out. But all of this worry from “smart growth movement” and from other people who write and think about transit and even do the work, brings back memories.

When I worked in the tobacco prevention arena I took a leap into something that can be dangerous: intellectual consistency. If smoking is indeed the leading preventable cause of death (the leading cause!) why were we being such weenies about fighting the tobacco industry, offering brochures and key chains at health fairs while the tobacco industry was dealing death every day at the local grocery store? Shouldn’t we urge those stores (the ones who also support breast cancer screening) to stop selling the leading cause of death? Not according to Safeway, who said:

‘You can’t tell people not to buy a legal product like cigarettes (at grocery stores) any more than we can tell them not to buy certain foods,’ Cherie Myers told me. She’s Safeway’s director of public and government affairs. ‘That’s why we live in America.’

So that’s why we live in America, to buy cigarettes at Safeway. I had no idea. The Founding Fathers were certainly gazing down from Olympus approvingly at Ms. Myers the day she explained that.

And what about banning smoking in apartments, another effort I explored and talked about publicly? Outrageous! Out of bounds! It can’t be done!

Surprisingly to me at the time, those comments and the hand wringing came from people within Public Health, not from the public. In fact, I’d say in all the time I was working to limit access to tobacco and exposure to second hand smoke in King County I got less than half a dozen angry e-mails from actual citizens, smokers or non-smokers, complaining about our efforts. It was people inside the tent that were the most scandalized by following the logic of what they so blithely plastered all over the place, that smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in America.

What makes death from smoking preventable and smart growth possible is making social and political change. How should we make that change happen? Prayer? Voodoo dolls of NIMBYs? Santeria? Is anyone willing to sacrifice their backyard chicken for the ritual?

I can’t think of any other way to make change happen than to engage the system, get in there and win one for smart growth. That means having the courage of our convictions, raising the money, and holding the process and the politicians accountable. Why do we agree with this idea when it comes to other things, but not our own principles about growth? We’re wasting precious time trying to convince people who won’t be convinced because the status quo is comfortable. To me, that isn’t democracy, it’s insane. Why would you keep doing it?

Come to think of it, maybe I should take my own advice.

The headline of this post was inspired by the Bruce Cockburn song “Call it Democracy.” Included in the post is also “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” I could go on and on about Cockburn, but why don’t you check him out yourself when he’s here in Seattle on June 4.

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