We’re OK. Ya’ll, Not So Much: Your guide to understanding national polls

Last week brought a barrage of polls about Americans’ attitudes. And despite the spins some of the sponsoring organizations offered, the underlying message is that we seem to be holding steady with our conviction that the farther we get from our own little corners of the world, the less confidence we have in the competence and good will of others.

Here’s a graphic that tells you all you need to know:


           

That’s from a Gallup poll taken June 11-12. While it’s about general economic conditions, the same hierarchy of trust applies on other issues. And it’s not just Americans who tend to think this way. What’s happening in the Eurozone right now is a pretty good indication of how hard it is to arrive at a consensus for regional action when loyalties are focused at local levels.

I was reminded about the us/them factor when I saw the American Planning Association poll released last Thursday. Here’s the question and the range of responses that underline how the dilemma for planners:

Tied for most-trusted leadership with 43 percent of responses are “neighborhood representatives” and “business professionals,” whom we often see as investing their energy in NIMBY blocking maneuvers or in defending business as usual. The group with the most capacity and the most direct responsibility for “implementing change,” of course, are “elected officials,” who finish sixth in this poll.

Surveys like these underline the degree of difficulty in responding to change in a democracy, where people get to vote their delusions as well as their informed opinions.

Most of the biggest challenges to community health — whether you’re measuring health by environmental, social or economic metrics — come at us from levels behind local control. For instance: The top concern of respondents in the APA poll and just about every other measure of American attitudes is jobs. And in the short term, which is the term in which decision-makers in politics and business feel forced to act, job creation has more to do with global, national and regional economic trends than with anything local officials — let alone “neighborhood leaders” — can do.

Like responses to climate change, terrorism and other issues with far-ranging impacts, strategies likely to make a difference in the economic environment that enables job creation are those that bring into play resources beyond the capacities of local actors. Which is to say, resources at levels of authority that tend to inspire the least confidence in poll respondents (and voters). We are more likely to withhold our support for actions through global, national or even regional institutions that have the best chance for advancing the goals we say we believe in and more likely to invest our trust in individuals and institutions that have the least chance for leading change and may, in fact, thwart it.

For a snapshot of how the irony plays out when it comes to the national debt issue, check out the Pew Research Center’s poll, released on June 14. Center president Andrew Kohut says, “While there is a clear and broad consensus in the U.S. about the importance of dealing with debt and deficit, that is where the clarity and consensus stops — undermined by the disconnect between the public’s stated desire for a smaller government delivering fewer services, and its resistance to spending cuts and, in other cases, tax increases.

“ . . The survey did find that fewer Americans supported spending increases than in previous years, but even with those declines, the number of Americans favoring increases still outnumbered those favoring decreases on 15 of 18 issues tested. In addition, a substantial number are willing to see spending held steady.”

           

To get beyond the frustration about this persistent disconnect, planners have to extract from these issue rankings an updated version of the old “Think global, act local” principle. Too often, we insist on starting with issues like sprawl and climate change, then deducing from those problems the contributions to global solutions that can be made at the local level. That’s a losing strategy.

Take a look at the rankings of concerns in the APA poll.

           

Note that in the “low priorities” category are some of the highest priority concerns for Smart Growth-style planning: Responding to climate change, multimodal transportation issues, and at the very bottom — sprawl.

Now look back at the Pew rankings, and think of them from another perspective: What are the concerns Americans seem to be most willing to address with spending priorities?

Most are issues that are easy to connect with the goals of Smart Growth, as long as you begin with impacts on the local and community levels, as opposed to national or global challenges. Robin Rather, whose Collective Strength firm handled the polling for the APA and for last year’s Smart Growth America/Ford Foundation project, emphasizes the “Act local” lesson from the projects.

To get at potential support for “sustainable community” goals, Robin’s survey questions first defined the term in local-speak: “An urban, suburban or rural community that has more housing and transportation choices, is closer to jobs, shops or schools, is more energy independent and helps protect clean air and water.“

Same with “community planning”: “ . . a process that seeks to engage all members of a community to create more prosperous, convenient, equitable, healthy, and attractive places for present and future generations.’’

By refocusing the discussion from outside experts’ prescriptions for solutions to bottom-up strategizing about issues people care about in their own communities, the APA and Smart Growth America got their survey bullet points. Among them:

  • Most Americans – regardless of political affiliation – support sustainable communities.
  • Community planning is seen as needed by a wide majority of all demographics.

A silk purse from a sow’s ear, no?

I don’t think it’s an understatement to suggest that the short-term future of meaningful planning in America depends on absorbing and applying these lessons.

–Ben Brown

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Comments

  1. Jay McLeod says:

    Great article.
    Technical problem: can’t see the first letter on every line…like it’s been cropped off.

  2. The pictures are unreadable on my blackberry. Probably should write out the important data or get better resolution. :(

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