Back to the Future
When I was still a teenager, the second installment of the Back to the Future trilogy came out. It featured a future “Hill Valley, CA” with flying cars and lots of other phenomenal technology — including weather control — all firmly ensconced in the same town center that had been there for more than 100 years. It’s worth noting the date of this scene: October 21, 2015.
At that tender age, I didn’t believe we would ever control the weather, however I did believe it possible that we would have flying cars by now. At least more possible than aggressively investing in trains…that was the third movie, 100 years in the PAST.
About 5 years after Back to the Future II came out, the city of Portland looked up and realized that they needed to plan for what was going to happen in the next 30 years. Their goal, of course, was to avoid looking like the “sprawl” of Los Angeles, CA.
So they set out on their plan to create their urban paradise, but what they needed was an example of an urban area that fit their goals, and they found a perfect model. Extremely high residential density–highest in the country; fewer highways per capita–roughly half that of a typical urban area. More transit lines–about 400 miles worth. A good balance between jobs and housing–check. All those things they found in the city of…Los Angeles.
Now did it occur to the planners in Portland that they might be approaching this the wrong way? That their valued inputs (always the wrong thing to focus on) might lead to undesirable outputs? No. They did it anyway. The result was…more congestion. More sprawl. And no appreciable improvement in the economy or qualify of life for the citizens of Portland.
They did not do this, though, because they didn’t care about the citizens of Portland and wanted more traffic. They moved ahead because they lacked humility…and believed that they could mold human behavior through urban design.
Which brings us to the meeting that occurred a couple weeks ago at Palio’s in Downtown Leesburg, called together by the same players who have plagued the town with urban design pipe dreams for years now. They brought in their favorite high priests and priestesses of “sustainability” and “main street programs” to enlighten the merchants on how things should be, and the merchants were left wondering, “What does this have to do with me?”
Without any real acknowledgement of how modern Americans actually live or want to live, the planners enjoy projecting their ignorance into the future, and this meeting was no different. What they choose to ignore, is that we’re finding out that Millennials (the favorite prop for these fantasies) are indeed beginning to follow boomers into the suburbs, buy bigger cars and houses, use more energy…etc. Why? Most likely because they are getting older and raising kids. They indeed may not be the dependable source of the “sharing economy” that is being touted by the aforementioned clergy. They are slightly more likely to see, and appreciate, a future with driverless cars — not flying yet, but it’s a step — than “transit-oriented” paradises where they never have to leave their neighborhood.
No wonder, though, that many of the merchants left the meeting frustrated, and wondering how this willful ignorance will help them get customers. It’s no wonder really that they have even given up on asking the Government to “get out of their way,” because with 8pm noise ordinances, tripled parking rates, removed parking spaces on King Street, it’s quite evident that the Town Council isn’t really listening anyway. And those that do listen have seemed incapable of getting the votes to stop the worst of really bad decisions.
The Town Council should humbly accept that an approach to land use planning which professes to see 30 years into the future cannot exist in a world where 5 year “comprehensive plans” take two years to update. These so-called “solutions” are not a means to an end. They are someone else’s end, silver bullet answers with no real need for questions.
Meanwhile, we should understand that the merchants, restaurant owners, artists and business professionals in the Historic District can see right through the facade of the planners. They have seen the emperor and he has no clothes. God willing, they are set to begin to solve their own problems now to insulate themselves from the dumbest decisions of the Town Council. Because it does not appear the Council is capable of the humility, or the leadership required to change course.