California dreaming

The City of SLO

If the future form of Christchurch’s central city now hangs in the balance, the outcome will depend upon the weightings given to two quite distinct sets of ‘instincts’ about how to create a vibrant, sustainable, thriving city centre.

One set is clearly being backed by the government – at least in its rhetoric. It amounts to a belief in a ‘business-led’ recovery in which individual property owners and businesses are given as much leeway as possible to make decisions about their land and buildings.

It is for this reason that, as I posted previously (here and here), Volume 2 of the Central City Plan developed by the Christchurch City Council has been “put to one side” while the Central City Development Unit develops its ‘blueprint’ over the next ninety-odd days.

Specifically, what are being put aside are the proposed regulations that would affect building heights, designs and parking options as these may be “a barrier to achieving the objectives of that [Central City] plan” (Minister Brownlee on CTV’s ‘One on One’ interview, 19 April). Also being set aside – this time from Volume 1 – are the ‘visions’ around transport options and financing.

The other ‘instincts’ are that it is the people of Christchurch, not just the business and property-owning community, that will, collectively, know how best to create a city that will have the kind of human vitality and vibrance to both draw people here – to visit – and keep those here, to live and flourish.

That was the ‘philosophy’ presumably underpinning the very idea of developing a ‘vision’ (Volume 1 of the Central City Plan) that arose out of community consultation.

The critical question, then, is “Does ‘business’ or the community know best what needs to be done and how to ‘lead’ a recovery?”

More simply, what will shape Christchurch’s city centre – the market or democracy?

On the cover of the document “Central City Plan – Business Overview“, Mr Doug Ahlers, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, is quoted as saying:

Communities that build investor confidence recover better and faster.

But, is that the first priority when it comes to the form of the central city? Should, primarily, investors be given what they want/need or should all the people of Christchurch get to decide what they want, implement that – and only then see how investors react?

In terms of the two sets of ‘instincts’ mentioned above, are recoveries from disasters most successful when they are ‘business-led’ or when they are ‘community-led’?

Time for a bit of ‘California Dreaming’ around a community-led future for Christchurch.

I’ve spent the sum total of 3 days in California – one of those days spent in Disneyland. It was the classic ‘stopover’ back in 1978 en route to the United Kingdom. I still remember the vast, wide roads, the featureless yet never-ending built environment, the frenetic sense of everyone scrabbling for your money.

I remember clearly the last day, when we were due to catch the shuttle back to the airport.

Being reasonably independent, self-sufficient types, my father, brother and I lifted our suit cases from where they had sat in the hotel lobby – while we had whiled away a couple of hours – and started to walk them out to the shuttle in front of the hotel. On our very short journey we were practically rugby-tackled by three or four hotel porters, apparently in a frenzy to help us with our onerous ‘load’. Sadly, it was less a case of ‘service quality’ than ‘tip-trawling’.

But that isn’t the ‘California Dreaming’ I have in mind.

Further up the coast from Los Angeles is San Francisco. My wife went there on a family holiday in 1987 and she fell in love with it. The beautiful old buildings – at least in the area where they stayed – the vibrancy, the community.

But that isn’t the ‘dream’ I’m thinking of either.

My dream (for Christchurch) starts at a smallish town in between: San Luis Obispo.

Dan Buettner’s book “Thrive: Finding happiness the blue zones way” has a chapter in it titled “San Luis Obispo: A Real American Dream“.

[As an aside, notice the ‘praise’ quotations on the website. Three of those quotations come from pre-eminent researchers in the field of subjective well-being (‘happiness’): Ed Diener; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi; Sonja Lyubomirsky. While not a researcher himself, Buettner has clearly impressed leading researchers with the foundations of his insights.]

San Luis Obispo (SLO) County has 260,000 (approx) residents in the metropolitan area (of which 64,000 are involved in volunteering), 44,075 in the ‘city population’ and is midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, on the coast.

A 2008 Gallup-Healthways study, found the city residents to have “stratospheric levels of emotional well-being” (p. 178) ranking number 1 in the US. They have “much higher rates of satisfaction with their local government than citizens of other municipalities” (p. 179). They also ranked number 20 in terms of mental and physical health.

According to Buettner;

The desire to live here [SLO] by any means necessary may spur a special brand of creative entrepreneurship: SLO has far more self-employed people per capita than the average community in the United States.

Between 1969 and 1979 the mayor (elected for five consecutive two-year terms) of the town was Kenneth Schwartz, now professor emeritus of architecture at the nearby California Polytechnic State University.

When he arrived in SLO in 1952 he described it as “Anyplace, U.S.A.” “a non-descript western community of 14,000 controlled by a few powerful property owners and conservative business leaders“. It “had all the trappings of a postwar California boomtown, choked with neon signs and power lines, without any of the graceful towering trees that you see downtown today.

He was offered a place on the city’s planning commission and ran successfully for mayor in 1969. According to Buettner:

Under Schwartz, the downtown area became visually attractive and more pedestrian friendly. More important, Highway 101 – the coastal freeway … no longer passed by the front of the mission and cut through the center of town. What used to be a central artery was completely blocked off to traffic, with a central mission plaza constructed in its place … The plaza has now become the sparkling crown of what is now recognised as one of the happiest cities in the United States.

(p. 178)

What was the process, beginning under Schwartz, that led to this “Sea Change” (p. 188)? One small matter is that business signs, by law, “must be small and unobtrusive“. Pierre Rademaker, resident of SLO, owner of a design company and the person who designed the original ‘Gap’ sign, approves: “Signs just beget more signs.

More importantly, Rademaker believes that one reason for what he sees as the general happiness of SLO residents is that “it’s so easy to feel connected“, mainly because “It’s easy to be involved … [t]o feel like you have a voice.

And the important point?

Rademaker traced this feeling of empowerment back to Kenneth Schwartz. “It was that mission plaza that changed everything,” he said. “Businesspeople opposed it hugely, but it turned out to be a bonanza for them.” They didn’t know they needed it, Rademaker said. “They wanted to stick to their agenda of keeping all the parking spaces and the highway…”

By contrast, the mission plaza that was constructed was the main tourist drawcard and, as Rademaker continued to explain:

“It created the space we use for concerts in the plaza. Every Friday during the summer there’s a free concert with hundreds of people. Afterwards, the restaurants fill up.”

So, was this just a case of heavy-handed central planning that just happened to strike it lucky?

the most important thing the mission plaza changed was the way people thought about their own city. “If you look at our business community, it went from staid to progressive,” Rademaker said. “But even better: After the referendum to close that street, [won by a vote of 2 to 1] people felt empowered to make change themselves.”

The community made the decision and then supported the planning changes that enforced it.

The process began in 1967 with a student project (‘Mission Gardens’) that involved closing the main street while “most of the downtown merchants and the council majority favored keeping the street open.” Apparently as a result of the controversy that ensued, “Schwartz wasn’t reappointed to the planning commission.” But, the struggle that culminated in the citizen’s referendum on the mission plaza turned the whole democratic process on its head:

the legacy of the mission plaza struggle was not only that council meetings became well attended, with a portion of each meeting devoted to public comment … It was also that city government became more transparent and approachable, and SLO’s citizens became galvanized for constant progress.

(p. 195)

And;

Since the mission plaza referendum, they have consistently pushed their representatives to push for two key indicators of happiness according to the Gallup data: public health and access to outdoor recreation and the arts.

(p. 195)

For example, SLO was, Buettner claims, the first municipality in the world to ban smoking in workplaces, including bars, in 1990. Since the ban, smoking rates have dropped to 13.4 percent, fifth lowest in the U.S.. Shortly after, drive-through fast-food restaurants were banned.

They “demanded more biking and hiking trails“, “put in place a strict one percent growth limit that discourages megadevelopers” and “negotiated with existing real estate holders to maintain a ‘greenbelt‘” with the city having “acquired 3,000 acres of open space” since 1994 (p. 196).

Despite its small size, the city has its own orchestra, 1,289 seat concert hall, an art gallery, a small amphitheatre …

Meander through the city’s website and notice the continuing legacy of transparency and community engagement. Have a look at some of their policemen:

SLO Police Officers on bike patrol

The comment quoted above from Pierre Rademaker keeps coming back to me: “Businesspeople opposed it hugely, but it turned out to be a bonanza for them.

Business-led or community-led?

There’s a very interesting issue lurking under the surface of that question, and it’s one that Buettner has thought about.

Being American, Buettner seems to understand something of the tensions between ‘planning’ and individual freedom, especially in the economy. Quoting Tolstoy’s famous line from Anna Karenina that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” he notes that “being happy in America is a funny thing“. Why?

As he puts it;

We value freedom to pursue happiness over any sort of planned happiness, even if the latter is a better guarantee of actual happiness. Our founding documents promise us that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right, but there’s no plan to actually achieve it. Maybe our happy cities are like Russian happy families and they’re all alike, but it seems that Americans feel a need to figure out happiness for themselves.

But, to my mind, the conflict isn’t between some imposed ‘central planning’, on the one hand, and individual freedom on the other. It’s between two different ways in which people can exercise freedom – through ‘the market’ and through democracy. It’s about two ways to, in Buettner’s terms, “figure out happiness for [our]selves“.

The Central City Plan was developed in one of the more consultative, transparent and participatory processes that Christchurch has seen for some time. Under those conditions, each one of us could at least feel that we had exercised some influence over the decision. And, for any recovery, that sense matters.

It was imperfect, of course, but as an exercise in participatory democracy it was better than most others I’ve seen in New Zealand (e.g., through Citizens Initiated Referenda). And, importantly, each voice had a roughly equal say – until, of course, business lobby groups pressured the council to redraw its rules and regulations.

Sure, markets are ‘free’ (let’s assume that for now) but the freedom is primarily at the level of how you employ ‘capital’ and is not about reflection, consideration, discussion and debate between people as equal citizens over decisions that matter to – and affect all – of us.

For me, then, when it comes to this question there’s no competition: The recovery – in the Central City and beyond – has to be community-led, not business-led.

I know – I’m dreaming.

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2 Responses to California dreaming

  1. I understand Davis, CA is similar – the popular story is that the rush hour is after dinner when the populace head out to community service/meetings.
    My experience with the pursuit of happiness is that it is often futile; happiness has found me when I am busy pursuing other goals.
    My thoughts on Christchurch have been expressed elsewhere. You are correct – until there is some effective catalyst for change, you, Mr Puddleglum, are dreaming.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Completely agree with you about the ‘pursuit of happiness’ – what you say is backed up both by long-standing philosophical speculation (Aristotle, etc.) and current research. Happiness (I’m not fond of the word, actually) is not a goal to be pursued.

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