Just took a long coffee break to read Cities: Who Decides?, an illuminating study by Jane-Frances Kelly from the independent Australian think-tank The Grattan Institute.

She asked: “What kind of decision-making arrangements are associated with sustained success in cities?”

Then she looked at eight cities with comparable characteristics to Australian cities – Vancouver (2.1m), Toronto (5.1), Seattle (3.3m), Portland (2.1m), Chicago (9.4m), Austin (1.5m), Dublin (1.8m) and Copenhagen (1.8m).

The report is readable, including eight succinct pen-portraits of what works in each of the cities.

Her top-line findings –

“First, high and sustained levels of public engagement in decision-making were found in many of the cities, particularly where improvement required tough choices.

“Second, cities that achieved meaningful, long-term success typically demonstrated a consistent strategic direction across political cycles. Similarly, many successful cities benefited from cross-sector collaboration between government, the business community, and civic organisations. In many cases, a level of regional co-operation was in place, with efforts integrated both within and across levels of government.

“Finally, there was usually a trigger [by which she means a crisis] for improvement, which catalysed the political will required for real, sustained improvement.

“Of equal significance was what we failed to find. In particular, the research suggested that success did not depend on any particular type of government structure. Nor was there an ideal ‘model of development’.”

The two implications for Australian cities are:

“1) Residents must be involved in decisions. Those cities that made tough choices and saw them through had early, genuine, sophisticated, and deep public engagement. This level of engagement is an order of magnitude different from what happens in Australia today.

“2) Changing structures does not in itself result in success. No one particular type of governance structure was associated with broad-based improvement. Changing structures has the danger of being a distraction.”

It’s interesting that the current success of most of these cities arose out of deep crises of economic decline and questions about the future of the city: would it have a derelict core dominated by freeways or would people stand up for the values of city life? In most cases, decisive civic leadership combined with deep community engagement shifted the historic direction of the city, putting in place human-centred city visions that have been consistent to this day.

It’s hard to imagine that Copenhagen in the 1990s, following the withdrawal of the Danish Navy, was in economic crisis with a population who had “become like beaten animals with no self confidence…” Now cities around the world are scrambling for the magic formula of “Copenhagenization”. Mostly secret seemed to be the way cities involved their people in decision-making.

In Portland, for instance, a unique alliance between a visionary Democratic Mayor and a Republican Governor in the 1970s led a community revolt against plans for inner-city freeways, galvanizing a high level of community involvement in planning and commencing Portland on it’s path to becoming America’s most livable city. 

“Portland is well known for its high quality public engagement including “all kinds of citizens’ involvement: public hearings, workshops, open houses and citizen events”. The public is “very involved in policy making, which means that they are not going to let it go very far off course”. One interviewee emphasised that Portland had benefited from “taking planning back a step and asking people what they want” rather than “telling people what the planners have decided”.

Interestingly, in most cases, a dense layer of intermediary community and business groups was pivotal in driving government to be more responsive and inclusive. In Seattle, for instance, the “culture of advocacy groups, and the way they interact with, support, and motivate elected officials has been ‘more important than anything’.”

It’s telling that no common development model was responsible in these success stories. The transformations were variously human-capital-led, culture-led, government-led and private-sector led. Success wasn’t about development fads, it was mostly about the patient, hard work of involving people in decision-making. The two cities that did this the least, Austin and Dublin, appear to have ridden an economic wave and now face some tough postponed choices.

It’s fascinating to contemplate that most of these cities effectively diluted state power by giving people choices in important decisions. The result was tough, sound decision-making. Australian governments, meanwhile, have relentlessly concentrated executive power since the 1980s [see for instance today’s Sydney Morning Herald article, Planning Powers Too Much for Minister] and the result is vacillation, risk aversion and an inability to make tough decisions. Is there a pattern?

Here is a sample, discussing Vancouver, a city whose trigger for public involvement was the need to manage galloping sprawl and the environmental impacts of growth.

Public engagement has been critical to developing a well-supported vision and plan for the City and the region, and Vancouver’s extensive public and stakeholder engagement in urban development has been recognised around the world. Rigorous public consultation started decades ago, when planner Harry Lash asked people “what they wanted” for the region and undertook to “get back to people with answers”. More recently, the City of Vancouver’s de
velopment of CityPlan
in the mid-90s directly involved over 20,000 members of the public, with an extra 80,000 individuals feeling they had contributed in some way by the end of the process. These figures accounted for around 4 and 20% of the City population, respectively.

Engagement did not promote a favoured approach, or necessarily seek consensus. Instead choices were presented, along with their pros and cons – “there’s no right or wrong answer, there’s just different consequences”. “Without this involvement I don’t think you would ever have got the same kind of agreement to build more housing choice in lower density neighbourhoods”. The resulting CityPlan process has been recognised around the world for its involvement of citizens in building a shared vision for the future.

This does not mean that consolidation has not been controversial. It has been especially challenging in the established, lower density suburbs. The City of Vancouver’s CityPlan achieved some support for increasing density and housing choice in the City’s suburbs. However, in 2007, when the Mayor “thought he knew better” how to achieve more density in single-family neighbourhoods, he lost the next election. The EcoDensity program, rolled out from 2008, has been more favourably received. It applies principles of “sensitive density”: “gentle” and “hidden” (for example off laneways). Social Bonus Zoning allows higher density development while requiring public amenities such as parks, schools, and social housing. “We’ve been able to show that the level of population growth is not the problem, it’s how you manage the growth…you need to have high quality amenity and high quality public spaces…”. People need to be able to “see a benefit to the new growth coming in”. “At the end of the day it’s about will, and choice, and attitude, because those things can overcome regulatory deficiencies”.

The City of Vancouver’s experience with cars underscores the importance of making the hard decisions. The ban on freeways in the City was critical: “the most important thing that never happened to Vancouver…a staggeringly important turning point”. “You have to pick your [transport mode] priorities. Vancouver did that many years ago”.

The depth of Vancouver’s public participation process is instructive – especially the use of an ‘ideas’ phase to stimulate people’s sense of possibility:

In 1992, the Vancouver City Council decided to develop a municipal plan. An inter-departmental team developed a four-stage consultation process:

1. Ideas (Nov 1992 – April 1993): Council invited people to form

‘city circles’ of 10-15 individuals. These circles received city information kits and access to a City resource centre. Over 300 city circles were facilitated by citizen volunteers, and their ideas recorded. Ideas were supplemented with submissions from the public, and the contributions of 3,000 people were published in an Ideas Book.

2. Discussion (April-June 1993): Illustrated ideas and models of proposed developments were displayed at a three-day Ideas Fair. Ten thousand people attended the Fair and identified ideas for further consideration.

3. Choices (February-August 1994): The issues and trade-offs raised by ideas were presented in a 40-page Choices Workbook. The workbook was distributed to 6,000 people on the CityPlan mailing list and made available in six languages, and information was also publicised through workshops and the media. Readers of the workbook completed a questionnaire indicating their preferred direction for different elements of the city.

From that came four possible futures for Vancouver, which shared common features but diverged on some elements (such as neighbourhood character and community services). The futures were described in an 8-page brochure that was mailed to all households and printed in non-English newspapers. A display of the futures toured the city, with 15,000 people visiting and completing a questionnaire indicating their preferred future.

4. Consider draft plan with Council (Feb-June 1995): Results

from the previous stages were collated into a draft plan that was publicly displayed. An open house at City Hall invited discussion with councilors.

The resulting CityPlan attempted to maintain popular features of the city, but made changes in other respects, including in relation to housing type, job location, development of industrial sites, and service delivery. The Plan Directions were used to develop new Transportation, Financing Growth, Housing, Industrial, Community and Neighbourhood Plans.

Quotes from Kelly, J., 2010, Cities: Who Decides?, Grattan Institute, Melbourne.