Thursday, November 11, 2004

Urban planning and the public good

This is what happens when the public good is an objective in urban planning.

Another battle at the Ontario Municipal Board may be brewing over Reservoir Hill. The city's planning committee will vote today on whether to approve changes requested by city staff to a site plan submitted by Ayerswood Development Corp:
[. . .]
The company, owned by developer Tony Graat, is seeking permission to build a 12-storey apartment building on the historic site.
[. . .]
The city has fought development on the hill, considering it historically and environmentally significant.
[. . .]
The original development plan by Ayerswood was for two 12-storey buildings on the site.

The city rejected that plan, sending the fight to the OMB.
[. . .]
City staff and two neighbours contend the plan does not position the highrise building in the centre of the two proposed buildings as the OMB requested.

City staff are also not happy the site plan proposes the building be moved farther off Springbank Drive, meaning the foundation will cut deeper into the hill.

In response to an urban planner who has given thoughtful input on the subject of urban planning (October 12 and October 21): Is profit a scary thing when compared to the "checks and balances" provided by statist planning? This kind of politicking and waste of time and money sound much scarier to me. Checks and balances sound good, but the social and environmental factors of which planning is supposed to be mindful cannot be measured by or stated in anything but arbitrary terms at best and completely politically self-serving terms at worst. Is the public good served by having only one 12-storey building rather than two on the site of historical and environmental significance? How? And who determines the hoops through which the developer must jump to use its own property? Is the building too close to road or too far from the road? Nobody seems to be able to make up his mind.

Any conception of the public good is necessarily arbitrary to the individual who makes his own rational judgment about what is good for his property. There is no tenable or definable concept of the public good for there is no such thing -- there is only a number of individuals. These individuals may freely associate and possibly in such numbers that they might consitute a majority in a given area at a given time -- this is your ballot box -- yet to call the common interest of such an association the public good is to regard it as something superior to the individual good of others who are not part of that assocation and to maintain a precedence over their interests. This cannot be done without resorting to coercion or interference. In a totalitarian society, individual interests do not even have to be acknowledged. But in our wishy-washy planned state, we pretend to acknowledge the rights of individuals to own property and at the same time try to hold collectively established notions of the public good over what people can do with their property -- whose property is it anyway? This results in arbitrary distinctions of what is good or not according to the collective vs. the individual because nobody knows where the individual ends and the collective begins -- and it sounds completely ridiculous to me. The public good is a seemingly disinterested objective that is decided by humans who are interested in maintaining their publicly funded status -- or if we wish to be fair, the advancement of the public good only coincidentally serves the interest of those who are paid to advance it.


Dick said...

The reason I read this blog is to figure out exactly why the Christian conservatives and libertarians paint 'liberals' with the evil blood red strokes they do. Is it rooted in a deep-seated suspicion of anything collective? Are there truly political conspiracies lurking around every corner? Why is that evil overbearing ‘statist’ empire always stickin‘ it to the gentle, unsuspecting land developer anyways?

From what I understand from the post, all other factors with the exception of economics should be thrown out the window simply because useless things like heritage can't be arbitrarily measured - and thus are unequivocally politically corrupt. Leave it to the property owners as they are pure and uncompromised.

The role of planning is to balance the public good with the individual good. Staff did not say not to build it, they said simply place it where the 2001 OMB decision designated it in order that the development does not impact the heritage as significantly. Simple enough. I think that's a fair compromise - and that's a very pro-development stance. Who's wasting taxpayer money now? Why is this company refighting a battle at the board that's already been fought? By the way, Alan Patton is the applicant's lawyer and legendary Southwestern Ontario spin doctor, not a planner. That should speak volumes in itself.

I particularly enjoy your logic and the omission of the site as a war of 1812 battlefield. Anything relating to public good is corrupt and thus is null and void I suppose. Build the towers, make the dollars, screw the heritage. Now that's 'rational judgment about what is good for his property' in its truest, free-market form.

Don't think for a minute that Ayerswood didn't know it was a historical site when they bought it... that's why they got it on the cheap. They're pushing their luck as developers always do, and are abusing the process as the dispute was settled three years ago.

And finally the truth comes out...

'The public good is a seemingly disinterested objective that is decided by humans who are interested in maintaining their publicly funded status -- or if we wish to be fair, the advancement of the public good only coincidentally serves the interest of those who are paid to advance it.'

As one of those you are explicitly implicating, I take great offence to the idea public servants are only self-interested and corrupt. As I said from the outset, I don't buy into pubilc choice theory. Most see public service as a civic virtue.

My role as a planner is to balance what is determined through consultation and expertise to be the public good with that of the individual. To slyly dismiss public servants as money grubbing, self-interested power grabbers is a cop out. While I happily promote the questioning of institutional frameworks, I find it harsh to debase those of us with professional ethics to the level of demon in the libertarian mindset: 'humans who are interested in maintaining their publicly funded status.'

Nathaniel said...

Hey Dick, nice to see that you are willing to comment here. Would you care to define public virtue? And "common good" as well, while you are it? Can you tell me how you think you have more of a pulse on the "common good" than all the consumers you represent do? Are you acting for the majority, or some special interests of the minority that tweak your mind a bit?

I do believe you are probably quite sincere in your job, and that you truly believe that you do a good job! Don't get me wrong. But if the majority truly are the ones with power, as all democratic societies believe, then what exactly is there for you, to limit the majority in how they spend their dollars and cents?

Have you ever read, by the way, Fountainhead? You should.

Dick said...

I would contend that one cannot get through high school - let alone a first year University course - without reading Rand. Sadly, I didn't see the light those many years ago and haven't yet.

I would propose that 'civic virtue' in my mind is the sacrifice of self and resources for the advancement of the public good. As objectionists fear government, I fear unbridled individualism which has total disregard for interrelationship or interdependence. A compromise between the collective and the individual must be reached. A Man is not and can never be an end in himself - he will always sacrifice others to himself. That said, dismissing views with even a smidgen of collectivism as an nefarious individualistic attempt to suck at the public tit does not enlighten - nor convince - any argument.

While this may seem impossible to your everyday Randian, I think it is the most fitting definition. In regards to my job performance, I never once said that I was good at my job... in fact I'm quite shitty at it. That does not sway me from being convinced that the majority of public servants are drawn to public service by 'civic virtue'.

In regards to Ontario, this can be referred to as the overarching public good, and this can be referred to as the County of Middlesex 'public good'. Tangible public goods can be defined by those things that have been legislated through a democratic process through public consultation and approved by a majority of the people's representatives. I accept the consultation process as the best available form of defining the public good. These are the policies that I am bound by when evaluating anything relating to physical development. I can't develop the 'public good' out of thin air, I'd be decertified for that.

I think if one were to take Rand unequivocally, then yes, government and land use planning are evil as the state and economics should be completely separated. Unfortunately, the consumers haven't come around to this train of thought yet.

On a side note, I find the term 'consumers' in the place of citizens rather interesting.

Nathaniel said...

Dick, I haven't had time to go over your post in detail and respond to it more fully, although I plan to if I can get some spare moments here :).

But off the top of my head, I do believe that there are a couple of things right off the bat that I'd like to say. First, I find it interesting that you find it interesting that I would use the term "consumers" instead of "citizens." Would you explain this in more detail? You suggest that any first year University student has read Rand (I graduated from high school in 1982, - Grade 13, Advanced courses, and never read Rand). If you have a University education, didn't you take any courses on Semantics?

Secondly, if you truly believe you are doing a lousy job and you mean that sincerely, then I think you are a horrible person, Dick. But at least your honest. But how you could honestly take a pay cheque from the public trough, and do a lousy job at the same time, and especially a lousy job when it comes to "planning," then yes, you are a horrible person for continuing on in your job.

More later, when I have time, so I can make some money to get ahead after all the taxes I gotta pay..

Dick said...

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your thoughtful remarks. Unfortunately, this is something like hitting your head repeatedly against the decadent publicly funded brick wall that gold plates the JLC.

As for semantics, I thought maybe Mr. Scott would pick up on the subtlety of my comments. The context is key afterall. Humility and piousness of course come with the selfless notion of 'civic virtue' and to claim that I should stoop so low as to possibly stroke my personal ego in any fashion simply to appease objectionism would be in direct violation of that lofty goal!!!

To the London Fog, I would like to commend you on your commitment to the world of blogging and for the insightful comments regarding London's political scene - which was the reason I stopped by in the first place.

As a parting gift, I leave you this. I believe it should adequately speak for me.

Good luck and solidarity forever,