Participation in the public planning process does not make you a terrorist
This year, I have heard an unprecedented amount of criticism directed at community groups participating in the planning process. In one instance, at a meeting with business leaders and political leaders, I heard one of the proponents of the University of Southern California’s almost $1 billion dollar expansion call some neighborhood advocates participating in the plan development process “terrorists.” Now, this may have been a joke, even if a distasteful one. Also, to this person’s credit, the statement was later placed in perspective that the groups working on this plan amendment have good interests and fight for great community amenities. However, I have two main observations about this incident.
Observation 1: Participation in the planning process is not terrorism
I feel strange to have to write this observation, but I believe somebody needs to state it. I recall a discussion I had recently with a professor who used to be involved in advocacy in the 1960’s and 1970’s. She said that if the advocacy community was upset with a decision being propagated by a city in the 60’s and 70’s, they would storm city hall. She commented on how the times have changed since then because advocacy groups are hiring urban planners to help them file comments and participate in the planning process. Sure, there is still the organizing and attending hearings en mass, but there is also this willingness and desire to shape their communities through planning.
One online dictionary defines “terrorism” as “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.” Advocating strenuously for the community by filing comments, attending hearings and testifying and lobbying decision-makers hardly fits this definition. This type of participation in planning should not be discouraged, and efforts to label community advocacy as “terrorism” or “wrong” are misplaced. Overall, we should encourage groups, particularly neighbors of development, to participate in the planning process. Sure, it sometimes gets messy. But, democracy is messy sometimes. For example, I was frustrated with opposition to bus-only lanes along Wilshire by some resident groups. Still, I would not call this advocacy “terrorism,” even if I disagree with their position.
In the USC example, neighbors are concerned about displacement because they feel that USC is not accommodating sufficient student housing in these plans. They fear that students will continue to spill out into the neighboring community displacing long-time residents as they have been for the last decade. I understand these concerns, and I think these are valid issues that should be discussed in the planning process.
Observation 2: The days when low-income communities of color were excluded or decided not to participate in the planning process are over
Planners and business interests need to realize planning discussions are going to need to be more inclusive moving forward. As planning is being pushed in all corners of the City—from specific plan amendments for stadiums to community plans—people are engaged. The vast majority of these folks are not engaged under some conspiracy. They are engaged to make sure the interests of their communities are protected. And, the frustration over the USC specific plan amendment is emblematic of this. Los Angeles is sprinkled throughout with communities that are suffering from failure to plan effectively and disinvestment. Many groups are looking to the planning process to help remedy these failures. I encourage this, and I hope businesses, city planners, and our elected leaders encourage this as well. Indeed, it is crucial to the democratic process that more people are engaged in the processes that affect their livelihood.
In the case of USC, I hope this great University (my boss who is a Bruin fan may later bust my chops for saying this) can complete its development plans. But, I hope they do it with a community benefits package that will make all of us proud. Proud that through the shared struggle in the planning process, we achieved an outcome that benefited the entire community.
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