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 20, 2011

Government's good at some things and really bad at other things

Matt Yglesias has a response, "What Do You Need To Do To Start a Business in The District of Columbia?," to the City Paper's Housing Complex interview with the new director of DC's Dept. of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, "Meet the New Boss: DCRA’s Nicholas Majett." Matt speculates about the agency's personnel helping with the seemingly simple inquiry of how to open a business.

My response (augmented from my original blog comment):

While I consider myself a progressive leftist, I jokingly call myself an inner city progressive, where my former knee jerk tendencies have been mediated by the reality of observing and experiencing hyper-dysfunctional municipal institutions.

This is an issue of culture and I don't think it can ever truly be fixed. DCRA is a regulatory body. They see regulations and laws as the answer for everything. A perfect example is the vending initiatives. Despite all the talk, mostly DCRA looks at promoting vending as a licensing and revenue matter, not about making the city more vital and interesting, building the opportunity for business, etc.

This came up in the back and forth in my blog about DCRA shutting down a food market on the grounds of the Historical Society. DCRA has swallowed the perspective of FRESHFarm Markets about how markets should be operated--producer only, no nonfood items--and it's reflected in their regulations, which by the way, I pointed out the defects in that approach in my comments to the proposed regulations years ago.

-- When "temporary urbanism" really is temporary
-- The Liberty Market response to DCRA

Note too that my typology of why "farmers markets" (outdoor markets) are created is much more expansive than how DC's regulations for markets are conceived. In my typology, business development for commercial districts as well as for entrepreneurship are some of the possible reasons. That's not really part of what DCRA is focused upon and isn't incorporated into what the regulations allow.

Similarly, legislators like Mary Cheh--remember that most legislators are lawyers and think that you need laws and regulations for everything--believe that laws and regulations fix everything, such as for how to catch rodents humanely, and then kill them.

Over time, I've become a lot more concerned about "self help," civic engagement, deliberative democracy, empowered participation and building the capacity of citizens to better shape their communities without being vassals of the state, without looking at government to solve every problem or do everything for people, or at least for government to build frameworks whereby people can do more for themselves*.

Changing government agency attitudes about what is their purpose and therefore how to go about doing their work is a job of major proportions, one that even exceeds my goodwill about the opportunity and majesty of government to do the right thing.

You might be interested in reading John Friedmann's Planning in the Public Domain which is turgid, but makes some very good points about how govt. is set up to regularize and standardize, not to innovate, and not really about helping.

The book is about radical planning practice and how to do it. It contrasts radical vs. revolutionary practice in terms of how the latter challenges the legitimacy of the political system while the former accepts it, but works to build in the capacity of innovation and transformation.
Basic Concepts, Planning in the Public Domain
Basic concepts from Planning in the Public Domain with regard to opportunities for planning-initiated change within the political and government system and bureaucracy.

* There is an irony that people who work for government in theory are the most capable of "teaching" people on how to participate in society, because they have "the luxury" of being paid to focus on these kinds of issues. Technically and philosophically, civic education and participation ought to occur in part outside of the formal structures of government, in social spaces controlled by the people, spaces that aren't overly shaped by government actors.

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