Almost half of Americans want to live somewhere else. Even for a nation known for its exceptional mobility, the fact that people are not only moving in pursuit of employment opportunities but are looking to move simply because they hate the place they live in reveals a much deeper problem. Economic opportunity is no longer what keeps people moving, it is what keeps them immobilized. Given the same opportunity they would relocate to the kind of place where life is good. Once the economic value of a region has been fully used up, people move on. That is the lifestyle of nomads.
Americans’ feelings of nomadism express the lack of control they have over the shape of their environment. This control was long taken away (with good intentions) to a higher level, planning. Planning by governments, planning by commissions, planning by land developers and Homeowners’ Associations. Planning works, ironically, by preserving the status quo and preventing anyone unauthorized from restoring a built equilibrium. It defines what form a city is to take and locks it up under the control of boards and committees. Because they cannot make their neighborhoods their home and move the fabric of their environment, extending their roots into it, households opt for the next best choice: moving themselves somewhere that fits them more.
When people are no longer responsible for producing their community, they no longer feel any attachment to it. There is no longer any pride of ownership the way that homesteaders who built upon the land were proud of their estate. All that remains are consumers of planning who move from one product to the next as they search for a place that feels like a community. Often that means the countryside, which by grace of having small economies has never been able to support much planning.
Participatory processes, whether they are called “participatory democracy” or “charrettes”, have been the main focus of planning theory for the past decades. The idea was that if people could be involved in the decision process to define the planning of a town this would make such a place their own, but it is no less of a surrender of control, a collective plan. Once the plan has been set, there is no repealing it. Better hope that they got it perfectly right. The inverse process is much more likely to tie people to their community. A town design that is conceived in a studio somewhere far away with zero public input, but that deliberately empowers the local citizens to transform their environment upon its realization, will realize the community’s aspirations and the individual’s dream. This fact ultimately makes the notion of bottom-up versus top-down design meaningless. Who knows whether the lone inventor of an emergent design, who gathers the input of an entire community in order to build it, is running a top-down or bottom-up process?
There is a commonly accepted idea that a good growth policy is giving free reign to land speculators. Although that creates many economic opportunities for people to find work, it doesn’t create the opportunity to build a good life. It will lay the foundation for a city of nomads who pass through to consume as much as they can of the place until they have the chance to move on somewhere else. This may be a growth policy but it will never be a community development policy, unless what is being served is the community of land speculators. A good growth process makes it equally simple for any member of the community, big or small, to transform its fabric. The best growth process will make this simple while creating a beautiful place from all of these individual changes. A city that adopts such a process will not only attract economic growth but also community growth. This balance in growth is the fundamental meaning of sustainable development.
What it will take to start this process is not gymnasiums full of shouting people, but visionary leadership. Only when the top-down drives the bottom-up is a balance achieved.