Cities and Democracy vs. FreedomSometimes I have a half-formed idea for a post. When that happens, I throw a few notes into a draft and save it to get back to it one day. At this point, I must have 30+ of these post ideas saved up (some from years ago), but I almost never get around to finishing them because of the substantial time investment they usually need. Since today is blogging day, and I've posted plenty lately on Metro and smaller misc items, I decided to force myself to pick one of them and finish it. Thus the random subject and less than timely nature of this post.
Several years ago a Portland planner, Jeff Joslin, made a well-articulated opposition comment to one of my posts on Jane Jacobs. This quote in particular about Portland planning jumped out at me:
"Our remarkable form of excessive democracy has generated a genuine partnership between neighborhoods, the development community, and government."This comment touched a nerve with me, and I think brings up a core difference in people: collective community vs. individual thinking. Communities put democracy first; individuals put freedom first. I tend to fall in the latter camp. I agree democracy is the best way to make collective decisions, but democracy can go too far - thank God we don't a vote on where you live, go to college, take a job, who you marry, or how many kids you're allowed to have (extreme examples, yes, but you get the point on the limits of democracy). In fact, a lot people don't realize that the U.S. is actually a constitutional democracy (well, technically, republic) where a strong constitution protects many individual rights from the democratic "tyranny of the majority." We didn't really understand the subtle difference as we promoted democracy around the world over the last several decades, and then we're surprised when new democracies with weak constitutions slip towards socialism (see much of Latin America). This is a very broad, simplistic generalization, but in a free, capitalist democracy with strong, constitutionally-protected individual rights (esp. property protections), if people want something, they generally have to earn it. In a pure democracy, if people want something, they just have to vote for whoever promises it to them, even if that involves taxing or taking from the minority to satisfy the majority.
Some communities - like Portland or Austin - want to set and enforce a majority vision (or at least a majority vision among the politically active), and the minority can love it or leave it as far as they're concerned. Other cities - like Houston - don't impose a vision, and let the city develop bottom up from individual decisions. It's chaotic, but there's also a beauty in the chaos. I'm not saying one is right and other is wrong, but they are distinctly different approaches, and I think Houston should be proud of its (relatively rare) freedom-centered approach (like being the largest city in the country without zoning).
This same opposition can be seen today in the debate over historic preservation here. A community/neighborhood wants to "protect" itself, but to do that it has to substantially limit what the individual homeowners are allowed to do (which, in turn, can hurt the value of their property). From the articles I've read, it sounds like the new historic preservation ordinance started pretty heavily on the collective side, but has been "Houstonized" (can I copyright that term?) through committees to be more balanced and homeowner-friendly. It might not be the right answer for every city, but it feels like the right one for Houston.