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Marin 2016 - Part X: Endgame

I began this series by talking about how the failures of local representative government lead directly to bad decision-making and unsustainable community impacts. Referendums, initiatives, electing new representatives, and pushing back to force better governance and enforce the law is essential. But, even if all of these things are successful, the forces against change are considerable.

There’s no question that financial challenges on the state and national level result in significant financial consequences on the local level. They have a direct impact on the options available to local city and county governments, which do not exist in a financial vacuum or a public policy vacuum.

HUD in Washington DC, has been hard at work creating racial profiling databases of all communities across the country, in order to use public funding as a hammer to force a city or county to zone for high density, multifamily housing. Even if we put aside for a moment HUD’s ludicrous and, frankly, racist notions that multifamily housing next to freeways is an equitable solution to housing minorities or that minorities should be categorically considered poor, the pressure they are applying is having a serious impact on available funding sources and local attempts at appropriate planning solutions.

Unfortunately, HUD’s approach will only ensure that the federal government will continue to waste vast sums of taxpayer’s money and add to their long list of historic failures. This is a good example of one of the central problems of our times.

Ironically, we seem to be suffering from a combination of too much government where we don’t need it and too little where we do. Housing affordability or environmental sustainability cannot really be resolved only at the local level. They are too dependent on state and federal policies and regulations. Conversely, however, the implementation of appropriate solutions for growth, planning, housing affordability and environmental sustainability can only be accomplished at the local level. Once again, top down interference in what is or is not an appropriate local solution, generally makes matters worse.

Still, even with all this considered it’s too easy to blame all our ills on “big government” or some amorphous corporate influence. Even if it’s true, isn’t the community also complicit?

Apathy, disinterest, claiming to be “too busy” to participate, and outright abdication of the responsibility to stay informed are all equally corrosive.

Armchair democracy

Today, too many people define “participating” as leaving clever quips in comment forums online, from the comfort of their couch. Maybe this helps explain why so many incumbents, regardless of how incompetent or corrupt they may be, continue to win re-election at an astounding rate. Unfortunately, democracy is not a spectator sport. Lack of personal participation has a very high price.

If anyone needs a reminder of that, just drive by WinCup. Just don’t try to attempt it during commuting hours.

You might find it surprising that in Marin, many people have no idea what’s going on in the county or in their own town, much less in the region or the world[1]. When candidates went door to door during our recent elections, it was not uncommon for them to report residents asking things like “What’s a supervisor?” So, who is going to do the heavy lifting of bringing about better governance and the changes we need?

It always seems to come down to just a few tenacious souls, who are willing to speak out. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to be enough to turn the tide.

But, there’s another phenomenon that makes it hard to affect change. It’s called “shifting baselines,” a term coined in 1995 by fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly, at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Randy Olson, PhD, a marine biologist, science filmmaker, and lecturer at the University of Southern California, popularized the term through viral videos and documentary films.

Simply stated, the concept of shifting baselines is that a person will tend to judge something based on their personal experience of it, not the facts.

In his work, Dr. Olson tells about how 40 years ago, when a person went snorkeling in the Hawaiian Islands, they would see thousands of fish and come away saying, “Wow, did you see all those fish?!” However, today people go snorkeling in the same spot and see only a hundred fish. But, if it’s their first time there, they still come away saying, “Wow, did you see all those fish?!” It’s all about what your comparative baseline is.

So, experience and information is not the same thing. People can read about environmental degradation or loss of small town character, but they won’t be motivated to protect it if they haven’t personally experienced it. It’s just how we’re made. To newcomers, Marin is perfect and they don’t think that adding big apartment buildings is such a big deal. They arrive assuming and accepting that WinCup if just another part of what makes Marin, Marin.

In any case, if this is human nature, how can we get people to value something they have no personal reference for? Is it a waste of time to rail against the urbanization of Marin and the increasing dysfunction of its government?

I don’t know, but what I do know is that we have to just keep doing the right thing regardless of the odds. And, part of doing that is considering alternative approaches.

Complete Communities

Sometimes the problem is not just about bad outcomes but the decision making process itself and the information that informs it.

As I’ve said many times, top down, centralized planning is an outdated, 20th century idea. We live in a bottom up, choice drive, technologically enabled world. Yet with so much technology all round us and so many possibilities available to us, we’re still running our cities as if it were the 1950’s. This is embarrassing to say the least.

Having reliable real time data and interactivity could enable better planning and development outcomes that are more appropriate to the specific needs of each circumstance.

In 2014, Community Venture Partners proposed a planning initiative called “Complete Communities.” It was a technological antidote to Plan Bay Area. The goal remains to develop community-based methods to address planning decisions by creating a suite of interactive, Internet-based survey and data analysis tools, to promote more appropriate types of growth and development in each participating community.

The nine county wide database would enable planners to better understand cumulative impacts of their decisions. Since top down planning has been so deficient in this regard, a corresponding "bottom up" planning approach could also help us arrive at more appropriate funding allocations and planning solutions. The current absence of a balanced planning approach continues to produce the worst of all worlds: development driven primarily by politically motivated grants funding and private interest profits, with little regard for community values and housing needs.

This Internet-based, community surveying / data-sharing platform has been proposed to be implemented throughout the San Francisco Bay Area in collaboration with the Association of Bay Area Governments (“ABAG”). The data collected from municipalities and the public, combined with other publicly available land use and Census data would produce a more accurate picture of regional planning and growth.

The Complete Communities toolset allows each community to conduct polling in real time. Polling topics could include affordable housing, growth, development, public amenities, jobs, traffic, parking, infrastructure and schools, to urbanize or not, and other issues of shared community concern. Both public and private users would be asked to prioritize their community's needs and indicate their visions for their future.

For example, users might be asked to rank various types of affordable housing by those they feel are most needed in their community. Potential affordable housing types might include low and very low income housing, senior housing and assisted living, housing for those with disabilities and special needs, homeless shelters and women’s safe houses, live/work housing opportunities, cohousing, multifamily housing rehabilitation and preservation, building conversions, sweat equity housing opportunities, second units, micro units, lofts and starter homes, migrant and seasonal worker housing, and other types appropriate to a particular community’s housing needs.

Through the surveys, residents could also weigh in on public policy guidelines and incentives that might be offered to help promote their desired housing and growth outcomes. Conversely, planners in each city and county would input their local planning regulations, zoning data and data about projects in development, into the system, creating a comprehensive snapshot of the unique characteristics of each community.

The resultant data would be displayed in real time, using color-coded graphics, comparative database display tools, and Google Maps imagery. Users[2] could "data-mine" the results to compare and contrast how individual communities align with each other or their region.

Critically, the online platform would also allow member communities to crowd-source planning and design solutions, or financial assistance and consulting advice, or anything else they might need. As a problem solving tool, crowdsourcing has often proved to produce superior results more quickly and at a fraction of the cost of traditional consulting arrangements.

The platform can also be used to promote development that fulfills specific local public policy goals.

For example, a city might indicate that it will look favorably upon proposals that redevelop economically and functionally obsolete structures, or replace underutilized building types, or hazardous or unsafe conditions. Incentives might be offered for proposals that provide significant low and very low income units, or other types of housing that are needed. Other incentives programs might address desirable green building techniques or the creation of public amenities (i.e., a path, lane, park or public space, etc.), or improvements to public safety.

These kinds of data tools are invaluable to understanding how growth and planning are occurring in the region, and the impacts of local, state, or regional planning initiatives.

CVP met with ABAG officials to discuss the proposal, who agreed that this real time data would be beneficial to their work. They clearly indicated that they needed this kind of data as much as residents do. Our discussions even delved into how it might be funded. Of course, if the project were to be implemented, it would mean that the public would have access to data about all the planning and project proposals afoot, everywhere.

Then the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (“MTC”) made its move to take over all regional planning and neuter ABAG. MTC apparently has no interest in “open source” or information sharing.

We can do better

As discussed in Part IX, regionalism is somewhat inevitable as our population continues to grow. As I’ve noted throughout the series, in an increasingly interconnected world, we cannot simply act as if what we do in one city is not impacting what happens in neighboring cities. So, we do need some way for cities to share information and coordinate their planning approvals.

But, there is a huge difference between regional coordination and regional control. Better coordination and cooperation are desirable things. The latter, however, which includes legislation such as Plan Bay Area 2040, is just another top down disaster in the making.

I’m not going to end this series by pretending I have a list of answers. The challenges we face with regional forces and dysfunctional local government will take a joint effort of the best and the brightest minds we have. This suggests that we need to find better ways to engage those minds and benefit from those minds. It’s no longer enough to present proposals to the public and ask for their input as if it’s an afterthought to a predetermined goal. We have the capability now to engage the community in generating ideas, policies and proposals using various forms of crowdsourcing. And since we have some of the best educated and brightest minds on the planet living in our county, it’s a shame we’re not taking full advantage of that.

Crowdsourcing solutions

When Mill Valley decided to build a public restroom in Depot Plaza, downtown, they did what all cities do. They hired an architect to do a design. But during the long public review process, a private citizen brought in a design of his own, free of charge, and asked the City to consider it. This “over the transom” proposal was superior to the hired consultant’s designs, and was eventually adopted by the City. The question is, with Mill Valley having more architects per square mile than almost anywhere, why didn’t the City consider crowdsourcing the design as a competition?

This approach is applicable to so many of our challenges, yet not a single City or County agency has tried it. Why?

Consider public transportation for a moment. There is no question that Marin is severely deficient in offering a variety of reliable public transportation options for everyone -- the old, the young, and everyone in-between -- that can get people to where they want to go, when they want to go there, faster and easier than driving. This may be the number one issue we should be addressing to alleviate traffic congestion. As I’ve noted before, solutions from companies like Uber and Google and Ford are popping up almost daily around the country. So why aren’t we looking to crowdsource proposals for new ideas to address our needs? Why aren’t we issuing Requests for Proposals for that before we determine the scope of the project needed, instead of paying consultants piles of money to develop plans based on predetermined parameters?

Demonstrating alternatives

Demonstrating viable alternatives to high density, regionally driven development, or to address how and where growth and development should occur in Marin County, is as important as protesting bad, local decision making. There is an almost endless list of opportunities for us to do that -- more than any one person can imagine. But, here are a few examples of what Community Venture Partners is doing.

The Marin Post

Since better decisions are informed by better public access to information, Community Venture Partners created this publication, The Marin Post, in June of 2015. The Marin Post may be the only 100 percent citizen journalist news magazine in California. We have no staff and no editors before publication. This free, online publishing platform is available to anyone who wants to inform the public about subjects that are not otherwise being covered by traditional media. The Marin Post provides a forum for diverse voices to be heard. It is by its very nature, proudly “politically incorrect.[3]

The Marin Post has obviously struck a nerve and is addressing an unmet need, because in its short existence, and without the benefit of a single dollar spent on marketing or advertising it has served over 24,000 individual readers, served up over 108,000 page views, and given over 81 writers[4] the opportunity to post their opinions and in-depth content. It has become Marin’s premiere publishing platform for alternative views and investigative journalism.

The Larkspur Landing Aquaponic Farm and Senior Assisted Housing Project

Soon after the defeat of the Larkspur Landing Station Area plan CVP began working on a proposal to develop a senior assisted living housing facility in combination with a state-of-the-art, aquaponics greenhouse farming facility on a portion of the 10 acre, vacant parcel near the corner of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Larkspur Landing Circle (owned by the Ross Valley Sanitary District). The proposal for the site, which is currently zoned for yet another housing / retail / office / hotel development, will involve a collaboration of uses that are better suited to serving local needs.

The need for senior assisted living is assured by our aging demographic, and the aquaponic farm and educational research center will train disadvantaged residents in 21st century job skills, and donate a minimum of $100,000 per year in free, fresh, organic food to those most in need in the community. Toward this end, CVP is co-developing groundbreaking technology for its fisheries management, crop yield enhancement, and grow lighting and climate control systems.

The remaining acreage on the site would be available for overflow parking for the Country Mart and the ferry terminal, or for the location of a new RVSD headquarters building and corporate yard, or a combination of all these.

This proposed combination of uses would demonstrate a local serving, sustainable development model that would avoid increasing the most egregious impacts on the City of Larkspur: adding more traffic congestion at the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard / Highway 101 intersection, and adding a significant number of new students to Larkspur’s already crowded school system. The two proposed uses (senior assisted living and aquaponics farming) would arguably create the lowest impacts of any type of development possible at this location.

Affordable housing with car-share

CVP is currently exploring opportunities to develop micro-loft, infill housing with car-share available for all tenants, included in the rent. Smaller footprint micro-units ensure greater affordability. Renters are relieved of the need to own a vehicle because an alternative fuel vehicle car-share will be included in the rental cost. Units would employ green, zero carbon building techniques and be equipped with state of the art communications networks and energy saving appliances and mechanical systems.

But, these proposals barely scratch the surface of the kinds of innovation we’ll need. The possibilities for productive and positive change are endless.

Paradigms shifting

So long as local government remains locked into an “us vs. them” mindset, it will only insulate them from the benefits of the free flow of information and ideas, and make their situation worse. Conversely, residents need to resist the temptation to retreat into blanket judgements about having to get rid of government intrusions in our lives, altogether.

However, in order to turn the tide, we have to stand toe to toe and push back against government mismanagement and malfeasance at every opportunity, even if just on principle.

The imperious Edmund Burke model of representative government will never survive the internet age. Everyone is watching everything, 24/7. They say that an error on Wikipedia, the world’s largest open source repository of knowledge, is now corrected by someone, somewhere in less than three minutes. Do elected representatives really believe they have safe harbor from this incessant fact-checking?

Democracy has always been messy but if it is to remain viable it will have to become even more so, in a good way. There is too much at stake to ignore this trend.

So what could local government be doing right now?

With the demise of ABAG as a truly representative organization, Marin needs to look for ways to create its own ABAG-like forum to engage in the kind of collaborative efforts and information sharing I’ve discussed. Fortunately, it’s right in front of our noses. It’s called the Marin County Council of Mayors & Councilmembers. It, in fact, already is the mini-ABAG I’m suggesting. If you read its web site you would think this is exactly what they are.

It talks about promoting “cooperation and good working relationships between governments,” and “supporting legislation beneficial to member cities” and resisting “State and Federal preemption of city responsibilities by providing effective local leadership through active legislative efforts.”

But, instead of being a dynamic voice for localism, it is a dreary backwater of perfunctory meetings that are largely social events and unknown to the general public. With all the controversy surrounding growth and planning over the past ten years, and with all the challenges we face as small cities trying to maintain some control over our quality of life and unique character, you would think this organization would have shown some leadership. Yet, in all that time it has never made a major public policy statement or taken a controversial position on anything!

What a waste.

Local officials in Marin still have this antiquated idea that they need to avoid getting involved or even commenting on state and federal policy matters unless the wolf is at the door and they have no other choice. Because of this, they remain in a constant reactive mode rather than taking a more aggressive, locally proactive approach.

This is a huge mistake and in context of all the things I’ve discussed, the risks of continuing to do this are rising dramatically.

I’m sorry to say, there are no magic bullets. In the end, it is up to each of us to become personally involved in the change we seek, even if it’s only to support those organizations and initiatives that are shouldering the burden of taking on the system and its flaws.

In the end, it’s not up to “them.” It’s up to us.

Read Part I – Is representative government slipping away?

Read Part II – Will the suburbs be hunted to extinction?

Read Part III – Dispatches from the front – Mill Valley

Read Part IV – Dispatches from the front – Hamilton Field

Read Part V - Dispatches from the front - Corte Madera

Read Part VI - Dispatches from the Front - Marin County Government

Read Part VII - What will you do when Marin is no longer Marin?

Read Part VIII - Hide the ball

Read Part IX - Regionalism

[1] A national survey just found that 36% of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth.

[2] The data would be public and accessible to everyone. Members with paid subscriptions would have the use of advanced analytic and modeling tools.

[3] A term popularized by comedian Bill Maher.

[4] As of October 29, 2016