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Mr. Duany. (www.dpz.com)

Andrés Duany, New Urbanism pioneer, is getting exasperated. As he explains in a recent interview with Architect magazine, the super-empowered city planners of old made some huge mistakes, but the system that’s replaced it—allowing super-interested locals to kill projects if they’ve got the time and resources to complain enough—makes it really difficult to get anything done at all.

The problem isn’t public participation itself; Duany helped popularize the charrette process, which helps communities set priorities jointly, rather than set off reactionary fights. Rather, it’s that public participation done right—that is, systematically and comprehensively engaging a cross-section of the community—can be expensive and time consuming.

Conventional public participation makes the mistake of privileging the neighbors, the people who live within a half-mile of the given proposal. So it becomes extremely difficult to, say, locate a school or an infill project. While democracy doesn’t need a great number of voters to function well, it does require a full cross-section to participate. That is the source of its collective intelligence. You can’t confuse neighbors with the community as a whole.

We propose using the jury pool or the phone book to invite a random group, which is then understood to be apart from the self-interested neighbors, just as the developer or the school board are acknowledged as vested interests. The neighbors must be seen as vested interests as well.

It’s a problem with which District residents are intimately familiar, on issues from sidewalks to density to homeless shelters. The city’s regulations heavily privilege those most proximate to proposed projects, most notably rules about who can protest liquor licenses. The mentality skews that way as well: Zoning Commission member Konrad Schlater is fond of saying—as he did most recently at a hearing on a huge building project over the tracks behind Union Station—that impact on the neighbors is the “most important” factor to consider when weighing cases.

I tend to think that’s a cop-out—neighbors’ priorities differ from the attributes that make a project more holistically beneficial, which requires more work to figure out. But it’s certainly the way our rules are set up, and how our politicians are incentivized to behave.