Thursday, December 21, 2006

Community: the intersection of private interests and public values

Our town, Healdsburg, is discussing the adoption of a new General Plan, to be adopted next year.

AN IMPORTANT PURPOSE of a General Plan is to balance the needs of the community and the rights of the individual. Individual rights, especially concerning the ownership of property and the pursuit of commerce, are well entrenched in the American climate. Community rights are less well understood.

But they are important, partly because they enable the social context within which those individual rights develop their meaning. One chooses one’s house and property partly because of the value of their site, which depends these days nearly as much on community as on climate or terrain. And commerce depends greatly on clientele, which in turn depends on community.

So the rights of the community, the public sector, should be maintained and defended. And this in turn requires constant balance between historical, even traditional rights, and the requirements of individuals (and individual businesses) as they continually change in response to changing social conditions and technologies.

One clear example of this is the problem of traffic patterns. These have changed, in a short century, from primarily pedestrian or animal-drawn conveyances to cars, trucks, and buses; and there’s no really good reason to assume that that change won’t itself change yet again as energy use, petroleum dependency, and climate change over the next forty years.

Healdsburg’s traffic accommodation is virtually unchanged since the days of the horse and buggy, though more attention is probably paid now to parking availability and to safety considerations, particularly at intersections. But where buggy use was relatively infrequent, automobile use is virtually universal. At the same time, for various reasons (not all of them good, in my opinion), walking has fallen out of favor; people would rather drive and search a parking place than walk another two blocks from one spot to the next.

Communities need to take these changes into account and plan either to accommodate their demands or encourage their adjustment. They should do this in the present, and their plans should envision continued consideration from time to time in the future, responding in real time to changed demands.

But traffic is only one example, a fairly visible one. There are other examples of the need for a community to assess and safeguard its public rights.

I am particularly concerned with three areas of concern: Pollution; Class balance; and Preservation.

POLLUTION of the air and water is generally understood and provided against in the proposed General Plan, but two other forms are less well considered: light pollution, and visual pollution. Both are analogous to the problem of noise, which is well established as a matter of municipal attention. Light pollution carries with the problem of energy waste, as well. Visual pollution is rarely considered, but it contributes greatly to stress, distraction, and a general sense of civic unease, as well as reflecting badly on the community’s unspoken concerns for order, cleanliness, and propriety.

I’ve heard such concerns dismissed as “chi-chi,” as a “Santa Barbara” sort of yearning for gentility. That would be true of an extremist consideration, but does not refute a simple civil attitude toward proper maintenance of privately owned property whose appearance impacts the public.

CLASS BALANCE is almost completely neglected except for provisions for “low-income housing.” Americans are uncomfortable with the concept of class, which fits uneasily within an essentially democratic society. But class is a real component of any American community, involving income level, skin color, ethnic descent, and cultural preferences among other things.

It seems obvious that, class differences being real and in place in our communities, it is better to celebrate and accommodate them than to ignore and restrict them. Communities should allow these differences to develop naturally, finding their own places within the public structure; but they should also be encouraged to mix in the public arena. This is done in many ways: encouraging ethnically-oriented small businesses, for example, in areas where they can be found serendipitously by new clienteles.

One way of achieving this kind of accommodation is the further encouragement of small business, even of marginal business, within the downtown. (By “marginal” I mean simply businesses whose nature is to appeal to a less profitable clientele.) To take one example: Spanish-speaking clientele should not be subordinate to English-speaking simply because of fewer spendable dollars. The answer may lie in low-income business assistance, along the lines of low-income housing.

PRESERVATION is a value clearly honored in existing civic plans chiefly with respect to architecture, though even there it is a value too readily sold out to commercial demands. Any community should maintain an up-to-date inventory of its architecture, partly with a view to maintaining historically valuable buildings, sites, and monuments.

Preservation extends however beyond physical considerations to social, commercial, and possibly other public concerns. One obvious example is the downtown Plaza, whose traditional value is well honored — though even there “improvements” over the last twenty years or so have tended to narrow its appeal to one class of user at the expense of more general use. (I refer especially to the recent intent to remove its traditional function as a meeting-place of employers and day labor.)

Another example, quite pressing at the moment, is the Farmers Market. A Public Market has a traditional and historical position, an important one, in virtually every community in the world — but has been edged out of American communities over the last century, probably in response to pressures, visible or hidden, from private commercial interests. Yet the tradition is so strong that the Farm Market movement has taken real hold across the nation.

Communities should work hard to restore the Public Market to their proper places at their centers. Markets are places for all kinds of social and commercial activity, encourage mixing of the classes and subcultures, and energize communitarian values and undertakings.

And markets should not be treated complacently, or thought of as mere entertainment or tourist appeal, or shifted from one place to another in response to emerging land-use desires by private interests. Any such attitude weakens the market by lessening confidence in the community’s support for its own necessary and valuable component.

A COMMUNITY’S REGARD for its own identity, past, and future can not be in question, if the value and sustainability of the community itself are not to be doubted.

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