Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Building security, the federal city, and disconnecting democracy

Over the years I have written from time to time about federal and local government buildings and security procedures required for getting into those buildings, as well as the ever increasing restrictions on road access to certain areas such as in Capitol Hill (including proposals to shut down 2nd Street to extend the security perimeter for the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court) and the White House. (For at least 6 years now, during the State of the Union address, in the last few years, many of the access roads around the U.S. Capitol are blocked off by parking Metrobuses across the intersections, in advance of the speech.)

After Oklahoma City, I do understand and appreciate the likely need for a security perimeter for places like the White House, and I can accept the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue there as a result.

The struggle is how to maintain security for individuals versus places, and what kind of impact does that have on "democracy." If you talk to anyone who works for a Congressperson, if they deal with the phones and letters from constituents, it is not unusual for them to mention "the nuts" or zealots they have to deal with, the people who continually contact them about particular issues, threats, etc.

National Journal Online has a brief article on the subject, “Walled Off Washington: How free can a society be when its elected officials are kept further and further away from those they represent?” in response to the tragedy in Tucson, Arizona, the killing of 6 people, and the shooting of 14 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

From the article:

Security concerns have transformed Washington, taking a city envisioned as the physical embodiment of the openness of American democracy and turning it into a garrison town that is increasingly inaccessible to the general public. To take one example, tourists visiting Capitol Hill start their trips by passing through a gauntlet of metal detectors and other screening measures in a $621 million visitors center constructed specifically to better protect what is already one of the most heavily guarded areas of the city.

The security creep that's a hallmark of life in today’s Washington has an obvious cause: The nation faces real and continuing threats from both professional terror groups like al-Qaida and homegrown -- and often mentally unbalanced -- solo assailants like Russell Eugene Weston Jr., who killed a pair of Capitol police officers in 1998. Pennsylvania Avenue was closed off in 1995 after Timothy McVeigh used a truck bomb to demolish a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. The September 11 terrorist attacks sparked an even larger series of changes, with security personnel building new screening facilities and roadblocks outside buildings ranging from the Washington Monument to the World Bank.

What separates the "nuts" who continually badger Congressional offices, or the neighborhood zealots who can make public meetings incredibly stressful and uncomfortable events (yes, I mean a bunch of people in Brookland, this guy who comes to ANC4B meetings, etc.) from someone like Jared Loughner, who didn't just mutter or make people uncomfortable, but who became a killer?

When I go to other places, I am struck by the differences that may exist with regard to security procedures, for example compared to DC Government buildings, you don't have the same kind of restrictions for municipal buildings in Seattle, but you do in Baltimore County (security screening) but not Baltimore City.

The article makes the point that "the growing distance between elected officials and their constituents adds to the anger and discomfort many Americans feel about the political system."

I think then that there needs to be an increased focus on developing more methods for participation and citizen involvement, as difficult and as trying as this can be in the face of an ever intensifying, professionalizing and more disconnected society.

The other day I came across a report from the Rowntree Foundation on civic participation in the UK, Do policies to promote community participation in governance build social capital?

The report distinguishes between might we might call rote "participating" which is how I feel about about many public meetings and processes, which aren't much more than dog and pony shows designed to be able to satisfy, without substance, public participation requirements, and building social capital and civic capacity. Some of the conclusions of the report are:

The key factor influencing levels of participation in governance was the existing pattern of 'linking' social capital: those already well-connected tend to get better connected.

Community participation tends to be dominated by a small group of insiders who are disproportionately involved in a large number of governance activities.

What social capital is created by opening up governance to community involvement tends to be concentrated in the hands of this small group. There is no guarantee that the wider community feels the benefit of this social capital, because formal governance structures are often not embedded in everyday community life.

The trick then it to redesign government and community engagement processes so that they provide the opportunity for significant substance.

If I ever get a PhD, my dissertation would be about "how to restructure the planning profession around the process of civic engagement and enablement, because land use issues are the matters most likely to engage the average citizen or resident to become involved in local civic affairs."

For the most part, that is what I have advocated for the past 10 years or so, and work to achieve in structured ways through the various discussions in this blog, as well as in the projects I am involved in, and in the planning processes and plans and reports that I manage/write when I do commercial district and sustainable transportation planning projects.

Note that while I think Internet-enabled initiatives and applications can contribute to better processes and widen the sphere of involvement, by no means do I believe that digital democracy is the solution in and of itself.

If you read comments on blogs and online newspaper articles, most are worthless. If you participate in online surveys, contests to pick some worthy project, etc., most are subject to significant manipulation and popularity contests. And town meeting processes using digital devices are usually exercises in restricting and limiting choice and consideration of a wider range of issues.

Rebuilding civic engagement in substantive ways is no easy task.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home