1. This is one of the most important blog posts I’ve seen in months. For a decade, I’ve been saying publicly that the New Urbanism should NOT become the lapdog of any political party, right or left, but should instead focus on plain-spoken, common-sense community-building that spans the political spectrum. The New Urbanism began, after all, as private-sector, for-profit development.

    But because left-leaning voices amongst our colleagues have been the most strident in recent years it has become increasingly easy to pigeon-hole the New Urbanism as a left-leaning movement. So now we need this excellent advice from Nathan on how to chart these new waters.

    The best thing, however, is to get back to our roots as a movement not beholden to any particular political orientation for one very simple reason: the things that we are doing last much longer than politics. Politics only last until the next election unless there’s a recall, in which case they end even more quickly. But the streets, squares, and parks can last for centuries. So the worst thing we can do is to allow our work to be stalled… or worse… when (not if) the political party we’re beholden to loses power. It happens all the time. We need to last longer than that.

    • Logan Bayless says

      I noticed that my city, Lawrence, KS, retained Place Makers in order to revise our smart growth program, Horizon 2020. I search Place Makers and then stumbled upon this article that details how to respond to so-called conspiracy theorists. Firstly, I would like to say thank you for posting this very useful intelligence. I hope that when I approach my city council about Horizon 2020, I can expect these responses to my concerns about unconstitutionally implementing a set of international guidelines to the local level. I fall under all three categories I suppose, but my attention was caught by one statement under your “conspiracy theorist” section. It says, “Request evidence from the objectors that supports a connection between your local smart growth planning efforts and Agenda 21.” My city is a member of ICLEI which is widely recognized as the vehicle for implementing Agenda 21 smart growth programs at the local level. ICLEI admits this repeatedly in their own documents. Read them at Here are a few excerpts…

      “Twenty years ago, with Agenda 21 being adopted by the Heads of States and Governments at the Rio Earth Summit, Local Agenda 21 was spearheaded by ICLEI and may be regarded as a global success story of moving towards sustainability.”


      “A rich history at our backs… At the 1992 Earth Summit
      in Rio de Janeiro, ICLEI initiated the Local Agenda 21
      movement, inspiring thousands of local governments and
      communities worldwide to put in place local strategies
      and actions for sustainable development.
      …and a bold vision for tomorrow 20 years later, ICLEI
      keeps driving the local movement towards sustainability.”

      You say that we are conspiratorial for thinking (in your words): “These opponents might also assert that local planners are conspiring with the federal government to force everyone to live in high-rises, abandon their cars, and give up their private property rights.” And here is an excerpt from our very own SmartCode written by PLACE MAKERS! Tell me if this doesn’t support our claim that Agenda 21 seeks to place us into cramped city high rises!

      21-100.2.2 The Community
      a. That Traditional Neighborhood Developments should be compact, pedestrian oriented and mixed- use.

      (from SmartCode Lawrence, Kansas)

  2. Matt Korner says

    Never underestimate the power of Trader Joe’s.

    Everyone wants one within walking distance of his or her home. But, too often, planners are not focused on the real value smart growth and greater intensity adds to a neighborhood in the form of new amenities.

  3. This is a fantastic article, and I think you really hit the nail on the head spot on. I’ve been a libertarian for years and am finishing up planning school – I’ve been around all kinds of republicans, tea party groups, Anti-UN people, conspiracy theorists of the most extreme caliber, etc. Your approach is exactly the way that you need to talk to people to get your point across.

    The one other point I would address is that there’s also this notion that the sprawl and motor vehicle culture that we have here is all the result of the free market, which it isn’t. It’s all designed by policy from yesteryear to today as we try to shape the world we live in. Once they get that the reason that things are the way they are because of big government policies, you just need to tie in the bit about more freedom, more choice, and better fiscal responsibility in regards to infrastructure in regards to smart growth and you have an argument that people can at least approach reasonably.

    The bottom line here is that we all want two things out of our world – peace and prosperity. We just have different ways of going about it and need to work to find common ground.

  4. From our experience in North Idaho, this blog post is absolutely on target — the taxonomy and techniques here are exactly correct. The only thing I’d add is that one shouldn’t actually expect to “win” the argument. There is great value in simply being the most objectively reasonable person in the room.

    • I love the sentence, “There is great value in simply being the most objectively reasonable person in the room.” That is my “take away”.

  5. Emanuelle Goldstein says

    Thank you for this article. I am a citizen actively engaged in monitoring local planning efforts. Most planning activities are quite reasonable. I have observed activists on both sides. There are hard-core environmental and social justice “stakeholders” who have tried to manipulate planning efforts for theie own political purposes. There are also Tea Party activists using fear (e.g., the spectre of UN-control and one-world government, Bilderbergers, etc.) to push their own agenda. I refuse to be sucked in by either side.

  6. Commissioner Zimmerman says

    Thanks for this article and advice.
    I am a city Planning Commissioner, and have worked in the land planning industry for 25 years. At our commission hearings, and as we craft our revised General Plan, I often suggest land use policies for our city that allow for housing choices that support various lifestyles and desires.
    But when I use words like “Transit-Oriented”, or “Clustering” in the discussion, the emails start coming from watchdog groups. The messages accuse me of being controlled by Agenda 21, etc.
    To be honest, I did not know what the agenda was until I researched it last week.

  7. Thanks, Nathan, for a very straight-forward, even-toned article on a very big subject. As Steve said above, good planning cannot be about politics but about better communities. As you and others above suggest, we’ve increasing become subject to tighter and tighter development rules that have pushed the free market, personal choices, and long-term stability out the door. We now regulate land use in the US more tightly than any socialist country in the world, arguing for 45 minutes about which way a dumpster will face. Meanwhile, our sprawl neighborhoods are not being retrofitted; we “retrofit” by calling a moving company. We’ve institutionalized decline.

    Politicians and government planners are now seen as less reliable than faceless, nearly anonymous blog posters. Many on the left have attempted to reduce us to Orwellian terms and now the other side of the spectrum are doing the same. To have a goal of economic sustainability, where taxpayers aren’t always on the hook for too wide streets, miles of infrastructure for few homes, is adjudged to be “aligned with the United Nations.” Yet looking how we got here, starting from such architect planners like Le Corbusier, any self-respecting Tea Party member would be appalled. While they do complain about the status quo, they stand ready to defend it over allowing more housing choices, more transportation choices, and less regulation of uses.

    I think it is that distrust of institutions and a lack of planning exposure that does have many seemingly defending the indefensible. Your suggestions of listening and identifying the actual concerns are the right first steps. The opportunity is to educate on the economic opportunities and personal freedoms that are at the heart of New Urbanism and form-based codes. And, again like Steve said, separating ourselves from the left-leaning voices and helping the right-leaning voices to understand we all want the same freedoms.

  8. Great article Nathan…I just wanted to add one thing. I think one of the most important things to do when confronting a Tea Party activist is to put the onus on them to articulate their vision of how things should be laid out. Smart growth advocates have to formulate a complete vision for what they think is right and put it out for everybody to judge. Our plans are complex and nuanced, so it makes it easy for some to nitpick small details and discount the whole thing. I believe that if you put it on your counterpart to articulate a plan, it can help them see flaws in their own thinking.

  9. planning permits says

    Urban planning also became popular because of the growing need to get factory workers into healthier housing, rather than stuffing them into firetrap tenements. With the advent of unions, workers had advocates to help lobby for better housing. Hence, “mill villages” and “steel villages” sprang up in larger cities. Thanks for sharing.

  10. “We want to restore the community to what it was like when you were growing up. We want to make it safe for your kids to ride their bikes to school, cross the street, and breathe the air. The best way we can restore the feeling of community and safer streets is through good planning practices. Don’t you want your kids to grow up in a safer, less polluted region? Wouldn’t it be great if they could safely walk or bike to school so you don’t have to drive them?”
    “Do you want this, or do you have a different vision for the region? If you have a better solution, please share it. That’s why we’re having a public meeting.”

  11. OT I suppose but what astounded me here are the references to Agenda 21. Most local planning bodies in the UK completed their Agenda 21 strategies by 2000. OK they then put it on the shelf thinking, ‘done that, move on’ but that’s another story. Is Agenda 21 suddenly coming forward as a straw man from the Tea Party or is something else going on?

    No one here would ever link it to the ideas of Corbusier. It was about local choice, local control, ‘greening’ of business affairs and in general many ideas that taken at face value would be right at the heart of Tea Party activists. ‘Taken at face value’ is of course the key, because it became just another procedural hoop to jump through and I didn’t see much actual commitment to delivery – in particular its overlap with the planning system caused conflict and confusion. It was another layer rather than being integrated.

  12. Did a bit of googling and found this:
    It is so full of inaccuracies, misrepresentation and nonsensical statements that I find it hard to believe anyone can give it credence. Is this sort of nonsense about sustainability widespread in the US?
    I suppose the fact that they appear only to have discovered it in 2011 after the idea has been mooted since the early 1990s at least, says all you need to know about how on the ball they are.
    I did a lot of work on the Agenda 21 strategy for the English council I worked for in the 1990s. I did a huge amount of research then and have continued to monitor the issues surround it since then. It has always seemed to me that at the core were ideas that Libertarians of both left and right could endorse. I don’t subscribe now to some of the more statist proposals attached to that work, but the core premises remain valid.

    A sustainable Britain (and US) would be one based around local food, local manufacturing and an active community. What we are actually getting of course is ever more intense corporate control of our food supply, our energy, our water – and our government.

  13. Councilman Douglas Athas said:
    “We now regulate land use in the US more tightly than any socialist country in the world”

    I can tell you that it has ALWAYS been so, but not just countries like the Soviet Union or its satellites. I started studying Planning in 1966. I graduated in 1971 and have always had an interest in comparative planning studies. I have had many discussion on USENET and similar fora with planners across the world including Canada and the US, European countries and in Hong Kong and New Zealand.
    The US zoning system has always been more intrusive than the equivalent in the UK and probably much of Western Europe. Couple that with the appalling excesses of HOAs and you have probably the most regimented planning system in the Western world, in so far as it impacts on individuals and small businesses trying to make their way in the world. the Chinese approach to development is more authoritarian – and perhaps more effective in the short term – than anywhere else in getting major infrastructure built, but individual concerns don’t really enter into consideration in that society. In fact many areas of activity in the US are regulated in ways that simply would be laughed out of court in the UK.

    I don’t yet know the answer is but my studies have always suggested to me that it isn’t zoning – it is simply too inflexible.The work of people like Chris Alexander and Stewart Brand offers a conceptual framework, but essentially I think we need less central planning by anyone – including bodies like HOAs and more peer to peer activity.
    This blog post is a good summary:

  14. Great article, Nathan. I’d like to underline your paragraph on using “planner speak” like sustainability and smart growth. These terms are great for the office, but not with the public or the media. We need to learn to put ideas in layman terms so to find commonality with the ideals of others and better relate to the public. “Planning” is difficult enough to define. We need to do a better job of communicating so that others will understand our role and value to the places they call home.

  15. The paragraph about Libertarians “Many libertarians have found refuge in the Tea Party because of their shared belief in limited government. They’ve been around the public planning process for decades, and their core belief is that the government should not tell citizens what they can and cannot do with their property”
    But my experience with the public is that they DO want the government to tell THEIR NEIGHBORS what they can or cannot do with their property.

    The public wants all services but of course they do not want to pay for it.
    THis includes EVERY body.

  16. As someone applying for grad school in urban planning, I can say your advice is invaluable and I will take it to heart when I am a planner.

    Thank you!


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