#CNU18 Finding the right political language

Is "livability" a reckless extravagance under current economic conditions? Too purely aesthetic? Not practical enough? And what about "sustainability"? It's become the accepted language of many in the political class, as well as enlightened designers and builders. But it's not everybody's language.

This language gap surfaced during the Thursday session "Vision California: Climate Change Metrics and Mandates for Changes."

Peter Calthorpe is a believer in metrics to make the case for New Urbanism. That's why, he said, he has half his staff working on analysis and half working on design. His presentation Thursday afternoon was full of impressive bar charts and other graphics to demonstrate fewer vehicle miles traveled and other markers of urban success.

But he acknowledged that with shifts in the political winds over the past few years, "we have not found the right political language" to make the case for New Urbanism, especially to political conservatives. He noted that even a project as attractive as his plan for Redwood City, Calif., still "has a steep political road" to climb for all the approvals it will need, He noted that the term "climate change" has disappeared from political discourse, for instance. Even sponsors of the legislation meant to limit global warning refer to their bill about being about "clean energy."

The antigovernment faction of American politics, especially the "anti big government" faction, sees regional planning, Smart Growth codes, and the like as evidence of "the nanny state" or worse. "We're entering very dangerous political territory," Calthorpe said.

Maybe "frugality" is the benefit New Urbanists need to promise, someone suggested. Maybe they just need to play by the numbers - argue "return on investment" rather than "livability."

One tip, credited to Rick Hall: Don't speak of "land use." If you talk about making changes to allowable land uses, some people will construe that as an infringement on their (constitutional) property rights. A better term to use instead is "development patterns."

Doug Kelbaugh lamented that Al Gore, otherwise known as a smart guy, has not embraced urbanism as part of the strategy against climate change. Some people seem not to "get" urbanism, or to want it, and that may just be that. "This may be a bigger third rail than we even know."


More than Mandates

California took a big step forward when it passed laws insisting that the carbon impact of infrastructure and development projects be factored into the planning and approval process for such projects, but it was pretty clear from the start that this regulatory mandate would only be as strong and enduring as the case advocates could make that low-carbon development patterns perform better, offering economic and quality of life benefits that make California a more valuable and livable state.

Fortunately, that case is a strong one and we're working on making it better and better. We'll have a discussion on closely related topics today a session at 4 p.m. today — "Talking the Talk: Framing New Urbanism for Metropolitan Decision Makers" in Grand Salon B.

Thanks for the perceptive post, Ruth.


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