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Thread: Feelgood planning: why does it happen?

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Feelgood planning: why does it happen?

    In this thread, I describe a phenomenon I call feelgood planning.

    Projects with poor cost-benefit ratios that are destined to fail or at least underwhelm, but which are promoted and implemented because they bring a feeling of hope to the surrounding community, and possibly because their proponents are in denial about the inevitable outcome. "At least they're doing something." Such projects include new subsidized infill housing in blighted urban prairie areas, pocket parks in rough neighborhoods, and seasonal banners.


    My question: why do you think feelgood planning happens? Some thoughts:

    1) The proponents are really in denial over the inevitable outcome of the project. A good definition of this kind of "denial" can be found on Wikipedia: "Denial is a defense mechanism in which a person is faced with a fact that is too painful to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence."

    2) Proponents feel obligated to distribute funds and projects equally throughout the city, even for projects that will inevitably fail, because "it's only fair."

    3) A variant of advocacy/equity planning: proponents favor such projects over those in stable or less questionable neighborhoods, because they really feel it will empower an underprivileged or powerless group. The project might be doomed to failure, but the affected group needs it more than other groups.

    4) The proponents of such projects aren't planners, are naive about the economic realities of such projects, and really do believe that they will be successful.

    Your thoughts?

  2. #2
    Quote Originally posted by Dan View post
    My question: why do you think feelgood planning happens? Some thoughts:

    2) Proponents feel obligated to distribute funds and projects equally throughout the city, even for projects that will inevitably fail, because "it's only fair."

    Your thoughts?
    My experience with this one has been primarily through consolidated planning for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) programs as an entitlement community. Considering the pittance the city receives in CDBG, it makes little sense to do "feel good" planning activities, spreading the money out in Target Areas here and there. True, the family that receives rehab assistance benefits, but when you do a handful here and there -- given the need -- it's hardly noticeable. We've never been able to persuade the Commission to concetrate its efforts in one micro-area. Even our field reps from HUD have tried to get them to do it.
    On pitching to Stan Musial:
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    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Gedunker View post
    My experience with this one has been primarily through consolidated planning for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) programs as an entitlement community. Considering the pittance the city receives in CDBG, it makes little sense to do "feel good" planning activities, spreading the money out in Target Areas here and there. True, the family that receives rehab assistance benefits, but when you do a handful here and there -- given the need -- it's hardly noticeable. We've never been able to persuade the Commission to concetrate its efforts in one micro-area. Even our field reps from HUD have tried to get them to do it.
    Off-topic:
    You are not alone in that. We've tried getting them to focus on one smaller geographic area for a two-year period to no avail. We are going to give it another shot next year, but don't expect anything different.


    As for why feelgood planning goes on, my first thought is that elected officials don't want to make the hard decisions. They don't want to say "no" to a vocal minority even though they have numbers in front of them telling them its not the best use of funds. I do think a part of it goes back to advocacy, but fundamentally, it is still elected officials trying to look responsive to the community. Perhaps this is my cynicism showing through.

    EDIT: See also btrage's comments below regarding political capital.
    Last edited by Suburb Repairman; 05 Feb 2008 at 4:44 PM.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

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    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    I've found that, to varying degrees, "feelgood" planning tends to be behind projects that are civic in nature, i.e., convention centers, libraries, museums, city halls, new parks, etc. Communities like to build these things in order to feel better about themselves, particularly those with little to no economic growth prospects and the associated lack of self-esteem that results. if we can't get a new office park at least we can build a heckuva (insert grossly underbudgeted project), the thinking probably goes. There is also the perceived need, in some cases, to keep up with the town next door.

    Funding for these projects often means begging the state government, and thus most never happen, their fancy renderings relegated to the back corner of planning departments.

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    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    It happens because we live in a political world and these types of projects have political capital written all over them.

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    Cyburbian CJC's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Suburb Repairman View post
    As for why feelgood planning goes on, my first thought is that elected officials don't want to make the hard decisions. They don't want to say "no" to a vocal minority even though they have numbers in front of them telling them its not the best use of funds. I do think a part of it goes back to advocacy, but fundamentally, it is still elected officials trying to look responsive to the community. Perhaps this is my cynicism showing through.
    Multiply this times a million if you're in a city/county/state that has endless ballot propositions. Then elected officials can simply work to put something good on the ballot, then take credit for it if it works out - and push blame to the voters if it doesn't - "My hands were tied, it's what the voters wanted..."

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    Cyburbian Joe Iliff's avatar
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    Maybe the middle sentence of the MLK quote in my signature says something about it.

    There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions.
    Seems kinda like a defense mechanism. Doing nothing, you'd be accused of not trying. Doing a lot for a losing cause, you'd be accused of wasting your resources. Doing it half way, you can defend against either accusation.

    Being smart enough to recognize the futility, and honest enough to admit it, might be too hard for many people.

    JOE ILIFF
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    "Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think."
    Martin Luther King, Jr.

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    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I recall the comments of a professor while we were discussing the reasons behind a rash of intensive building projects at Chaco Canyon (an Anasazi site similar to Mesa Verde) even as the society was crumbling and clans were migrating out of the area in great numbers. He noted that this is a common human response to impending doom throughout time - that with the desperation of things falling into ruin, people seem to mobilize tremendous resources and build big intensive projects to "save the republic" so to speak. Often it fails and people wonder what the hell they were thinking. Maybe there is a bit of that going on here.

    I think I am still not entirely clear on what merits "feelgood" planning to Dan, though. One might argue that the New Deal's heavy investment in park building, for example, was born of a similar sentiment - "bringing a feeling of hope to the surrounding community, and possibly because their proponents are in denial about the inevitable outcome." The inevitableness being a ruined economy, tons of people out of work, and nobody with the kinds of skills actually needed. Only in this instance, it actually did contribute to improvement on many fronts.

    Is the main difference that these projects were actually well-funded? Was it just a different world then? Is this not an apt comparison?

    I also wonder about the practical implications of the alternative - ie. giving up on a place because you have seen the writing on the wall. Here in New Mexico, the Spanish farmers have traditionally used a system of irrigation canals called acequias to flood irrigate fields. This is a common-pooled resource and as such, when summers are dry, everyone gets a little less water - not just the small farmers, everyone. The principle that everyone should get some slice of the pie, despite how hard times might be, could also be at play here. Its pretty hard as a City Councilor to vote for building or improving a park in the good part of town when a lack of public space, safe play areas, etc. in the poor areas seem to compound problems of crime and violence. Its not so much that the park will save that community, perhaps, but that the cold reality of writing them off is just too hard to bear. It shows, if even on a rudimentary and ill-fated level, that someone still gives a crap about the underclass.

    I also come at this from a slightly different angle in my own work. As someone working in a poor community and having recently created a pocket-park on a previously vacant lot, I would say that part of the intent is to build, from a small local level on up, a sense of concrete change in people's lives. Will this do it alone? Of course not. But the hope in a lot of these projects is that they will provide a catalyst for future action. My case is a bit different than "feelgood" planning, I think, but only slightly. Our park is not sponsored by the City. They did not just show up one day and build it for the community. Instead, we built it ourselves and so it matters a lot more to people. However, this project, the community garden associated with it, and the community parade and celebration we also organize, came out of a redevelopment plan that, I think, has a lot of "feelgood" elements to it. The difference is that this is a very motivated community that has gone after its own monies to implement many of the recommendations of the plan (which were also drafted in conjunction with the community itself). Feelgood or not, there is big change happening here and we are some part of it for sure. But of course it needs bigger levels of impact as well - issues of education, job training, job access, housing assistance for low income seniors, drug activity, etc. are all real obstacles for folks here that must be addressed more systematically at the City, County and State levels.

    But for a kid feeling lost and seeing nothing but despair and decay around them, a little garden where they can feel safe and connected to others that care, can go a long way.

    I would agree with hilldweller, though, that these big ticket items like convention centers, libraries and museums (and lets not forget stadiums) almost never have any impact on "turning a place around." And what else would you expect? Do you think poor folks with limited job skills and a high school education are going to become museum curators? These kinds of projects have a tentative link to any kind of economic development that would benefit poor neighborhoods. Plus, in my experience, no one wants to live next to the stadium. Except the people who don't have any choice. Only now there are even more dark parking lots and scary corners to attract drug dealing, illegal dumping, etc.

    BTW, I hate seasonal banners. As if I need a sign to remind me that its 'Winter!"...
    Last edited by wahday; 05 Feb 2008 at 5:35 PM.
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    Feelgood planning ain't good

    My community is building a conference center. The proponents of the project argued that this centre would revitalize our downtown. Since then these same proponents have supported low density subdivisions because they were "sustainable." As well, they have argued for extending the city's boundary to "address the issue of urban sprawl."

    I used to think the proponents of the conference centre as simple, misinformed rubes. This group has little or no experience with the real effect of these centres. Now, I'm inclined to believe that they are cynical manipulators, motivated entirely by self interest and the satisfaction of their petty egos. These people are the modern equivalent of snake oil salesmen, and they are the most potent force shaping modern cities.

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