31 October 2017
Photo courtesy of CleanTechnica
Image: Metropolitan Area Rapid Transit Authority in Atlanta, Georgia
Karen Trapenberg Frick, Assistant Adjunct Professor of City & Regional Planning at the College of Environmental Design, published a commentary in the latest issue of Urban Planning titled “Plowshares or Swords? Fostering Common Ground Across Difference” which examines finding common ground across differences between community participants in city planning.
In the commentary, Frick states that due to the current political climate in the United States, which is rife with polarization, it is difficult to move forward with public policy and planning processes. Such divisive polarization has caused the dramatic interruption of public engagement as participants are so ideologically divided that they do not trust their counterparts. Frick believes that to resolve the issue at hand, opposing actors must “seek common ground on contentious, ideologically charged issues connected to sustainability.”
During Frick’s research on contested sustainability planning and infrastructure processes, unexpected areas of convergence emerged in three regions: the San Francisco Bay Area, the Atlanta, Georgia region, and the City of Gainesville, Florida. Despite the geographical distance, in each of these spaces “convergences arose despite staunch disagreement over which planning strategies would support prosperity in these areas,” Frick wrote.
Through these case studies, Frick established four areas of convergence between the participants over transportation policy and process: First, in Atlanta, conservative activists supported a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) tax as a replacement for the gas tax because they believed electric/hybrid vehicle drivers were not paying their share of transportation system costs. This belief aligned with progressive activists who also supported this task as they believed the funding could be directed at improving transit, bicycle, and pedestrian projects.
Second, in both the Bay Area and Atlanta, conservative activists disagreed with running costly rail lines in low-density areas. This sentiment aligned with environmentalists and other progressives who would also rather see transit investments in central cities for equity and efficiency purposes. Similarly, in Gainesville, conservatives “supported improved bus service for low-income residents for reasons related to equity and cost.”
Third, in both the Bay Area and Atlanta, conservative activists questioned the legitimacy of the planning process, suggesting that “ planners merely went through the motions to arrive at a predetermined outcome.” Likewise, progressive activists had similar concerns and questioned whether public forums were meaningful formats of public input. Fourth, in Atlanta, activists from all party alignments opposed a 2012 sales tax as it was perceived as “a regressive across-the-board-tax rather than a user fee.” Similarly, planning scholars also agreed that sales taxes were a poor means to fund transportation infrastructure, arguing that states should move towards a user fee approach instead.
Frick uses these examples to argue that finding common ground is pivotal to overcoming planning issues. She cites an unnamed Tea Party leader who once advised her, “When the left and right sits down and actually communicates with each other, many times both sides are amazed that there is agreement on issues.”
Frick suggests policy planners utilize agonistic theory in civic engagement where participants could come to consider their opponents as legitimate adversaries rather than as enemies unworthy of engagement. To foster the agonistic ethos, Frick suggests that activists and planners jointly conduct analyses in the presence of independent mediators trained in conflict resolution. It is Frick's belief that with the adoption of this ethos, common ground can be found and planners can work towards implementing effective policy change.
This commentary fits into Frick’s current research focuses on the politics of major infrastructure projects and conservative views about planning and planners’ responses. Read her commentary in full here.