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Wichita downtown plan focused on elite values, incorrect assumptions

From November 2010. Since then, I think it’s become clear the process is driven by the elites, rather than the people.

One of the themes of those planning the future of downtown Wichita is that the suburban areas of Wichita are bad. The people living there are not cultured and sophisticated, the planners say. Suburbanites live wasteful lifestyles. Planners say they use too much energy, emit too much carbon, and gobble up too much land, all for things they’ve been duped into believing they want.

It’s an elitist diagnosis, and Wichita’s buying it. Well, we’ve already paid for it, but we can stop the harmful planning process before it’s too late.

Consider the attitudes of Goody Clancy, the Boston planning firm the city hired to lead us through the process. At a presentation in January, some speakers from Goody Clancy revealed condescending attitudes towards those who hold values different from this group of planners. One presenter said “Outside of Manhattan and Chicago, the traditional family household generally looks for a single family detached house with yard, where they think their kids might play, and they never do.”

David Dixon, the Goody Clancy principal for this project, revealed his elitist world view when he told how that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is only found at the core. “Have dinner someplace, pass a cool shop, go to a great national music act at the arena, and then go to a bar, and if we’re lucky, stumble home.”

These attitudes reflect those of most of the planning profession — that people can’t be relied on to choose what’s best for them. Instead they believe that only they — like the planners at Goody Clancy — are equipped to make choices for people. It’s an elitism that Wichita ought to reject.

Besides this, many of the assumptions that planners rely on are wrong, like the purported demographic shifts planners rely on. Consider the recent article Urban Legends: Why Suburbs, Not Dense Cities, are the Future by journalist and geographer Joel Kotkin. While Kotkin’s article focuses a lot on mega-cities like Mumbai and Mexico City, there’s a lot to be learned by smaller cities like Wichita.

One of the issues Kotkin addresses is the effort of cities to appeal to the “creative class.” This is a hot issue in Wichita, where it is thought that we can’t attract young urbanites and their energy and upward economic mobility. Therefore, we must invest in arts, culture, and “hipness.” Kotkin responds:

The hipper the city, the mantra goes, the richer and more successful it will be — and a number of declining American industrial hubs have tried to rebrand themselves as “creative class” hot spots accordingly. But this argument, or at least many applications of it, gets things backward. Arts and culture generally do not fuel economic growth by themselves; rather, economic growth tends to create the preconditions for their development. … Sadly, cities desperate to reverse their slides have been quick to buy into the simplistic idea that by merely branding themselves “creative” they can renew their dying economies; think of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Michigan’s bid to market Detroit as a “cool city.” … Culture, media, and other “creative” industries, important as they are for a city’s continued prosperity, simply do not spark an economy on their own. It turns out to be the comparatively boring, old-fashioned industries, such as trade in goods, manufacturing, energy, and agriculture, that drive the world’s fastest-rising cities.”

The things the Wichita plan is designed to foster: increased density, increased real estate values, decreased use of the automobile, and prescription by cultural elites of what may be built in which locations — these things drive away many people, Kotkin says: “Nor is the much-vaunted ‘urban core’ the only game in town. Innovators of all kinds seek to avoid the high property prices, overcrowding, and often harsh anti-business climates of the city center.”

The sprawl and the alleged unsustainable lifestyle of the suburbs that elites like the Goody Clancy planners clearly disdain — here’s what Kotkin says: “Consider the environment. We tend to associate suburbia with carbon dioxide-producing sprawl and urban areas with sustainability and green living. But though it’s true that urban residents use less gas to get to work than their suburban or rural counterparts, when it comes to overall energy use the picture gets more complicated.” He cites examples in the article.

But the planning process might not be all bad, Kotkin concedes, noting that “To their credit, talented new urbanists have had moderate success in turning smaller cities like Chattanooga and Hamburg into marginally more pleasant places to live.” Chattanooga is one place that Wichita planners and their acolytes have visited recently.