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Following the Energy: It’s Not a Wheel

“Let’s not reinvent the wheel.” You’ve all heard that one, haven’t you? Here’s my story about how this most unfortunate aphorism impacts public deliberations.

Long, long ago, and in what sometimes seems like a galaxy far, far away, but is actually just down the road, two communities shared a border. One was larger and one was smaller, but their landscapes and economies were far more alike than different.

One of these communities responded to the impacts of growth by instituting a neighborhood-based planning approach and spent most of three years developing a comprehensive plan and complementary land-use regulations (both its first). The process involved dozens of people on appointed neighborhood advisory committees and more than 100 public meetings. It also featured proactive efforts to ensure good coverage by the local weekly newspapers and hundreds of conversations with individual citizens. In the end, the new plan and regulations were adopted without much controversy.

Officials in the neighboring community, which had also begun to grow, watched these events and said, “Let’s not reinvent the wheel.” This was before there was a computer on every desk, so a copy of the neighboring community’s new regulations was obtained and laboriously re-typed. To give credit where it is due, adjustments were made and they did remember to change the name in all of the appropriate places. Then they set the formal hearings required by law.

A year or so of acrimony and confusion followed. Incumbents lost elections. When the dust settled, the community had no plan and no regulations other than minimal rules required by state law. Despite considerable growth, that was still true a decade later. In fact, two decades passed and this place still did not have effective growth management. Political memories are long.

What would have happened if the second community had begun by investing as much energy in public deliberation as the first? We’ll never know for sure, but don’t you think this story should be taken as a forceful reminder that people probably will not buy into plans or policies they were not asked to help write?

This story also clearly illustrates that local plans and regulations are NOT wheels. They are not manufactured. They are not technology. A copy of a wheel or the straight pins Adam Smith used to explain the capitalist economy will work just like the original, but political and social institutions cannot be copied. They must evolve. And that may take 100 meetings!

What to Read? Mechanical metaphors are deeply ingrained in our Western culture, but we should be aware of the power of these figures of speech and chose among them most carefully. Let’s not infer that the complex, organic process of ____________ consensus in a community is mechanical.

But how am I tempted to fill in this blank?building consensus?” forging consensus?” Even I, who have been thinking about this for months, am challenged to escape mechanical metaphors. But what if I stop, think about the impact of this choice, and choose to say we ‘grow’ consensus, or perhaps that we ‘nurture’ it. Do you see the difference?

A book that may help is Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (The University of Chicago Press, 1980, with a 2003 Afterword). You may have heard of Lakoff. He has attained minor celebrity status as a political advisor and commentator (see his books, Don’t Think of an Elephant or The Political Mind), but he is also an accomplished scholar who helps us understand the power of linguistic choices and how those choices interact with our cognitive wiring.

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Lee Nellis
Lee Nellis, FAICP, of Round River Planning has been helping citizens have a say in conservation, land use, and water quality issues since 1974. His articles here on the NCDD blog are part of Following the Energy, a column on the art of the public engagement.  He hopes his tales on the public process are instructive for NCDDers, and asks that you add your comments and let him know what you think!

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