Technocracy & Doing It Like China

10 11 2011

In the 1980s, the last of the country’s New Deal era big-city political machines collapsed. As Nixon and subsequently Reagan starved cities of the federal money they were used to, the ability of political bosses to bestow largess, along with the maturation of a post-Civil Rights era generation splintered them fatally. After a brief window a new era of urban governance took hold, which preferred alliance with big money and technocracy. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist ethos captured the nation’s imagination.

Former Mayor Daley was in the vanguard of this transformation of city government. The Machine Lite he assembled had a particular emphasis on technocracy; the emphasis on “neighborhood democracy” and inclusive processes that characterized Harold Washington’s administration were discarded as needlessly bureaucratic, parochial, and “divisive,” unappealing traits for a city tired of the contentiousness of the Council Wars era. Technocrats were the answer: consolidate decision making under the Mayor, and let the Mayor appoint experts to make decisions based on their unique areas of expertise.

The trend in urban planning has been to emphasize centralized and comprehensive planning to avoid the type of regulatory uncertainty that supposedly inhibits efficient use of property and infrastructure. Efficiency is the holy grail; a recent article in Planning magazine criticized the “orgy of public process” that fatally interferes with efficiency; from Next American City:

Recent criticism of participation comes at a time when comparisons between American urban development and other models are particularly stark. This is especially true when looking at the speed and scale of new construction. Highlighting the contrast between American and Chinese cities, Thomas Friedman noted in a 2010 New York Times article that, “the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing’s South Station, a giant space-age building”.4 In his article, he notes: “With enough cheap currency, labor and capital – and authoritarianism – you can build anything in nine months.” Friedman’s argument is that the status quo approach to development in America isn’t working, a sentiment shared by Duany and Campanella, as well as a large number of other commentators. As Campanella stated in a talk at Harvard: “Just as China could use more of the American gavel of justice and democratic process, we could certainly use a bit more of that very effective Chinese sledgehammer.”

Contemporary concerns that public participation slows development bear similarity to arguments voiced in the 1970s, during the Cold War. Then, the rival economic superpower was not China, but the Soviet Union. As Joseph Stiglitz points out: “In the years immediately following World War II, there was a belief…in a tradeoff between democracy and growth. The Soviet Union, it was argued, had grown faster than the countries of the West, but in order to do so had jettisoned basic democratic rights.”5 Stiglitz continues by arguing that such a tradeoff, between participation and growth, does not exist and that, in contrast, participation is a key element of sustainable economic development. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that American competitiveness has been more sustainable than the Soviet Union’s over the long-term, in part due to the country’s robust democratic norms. Keeping this history in mind, is it any more prudent in the current recession to think that rolling back participation will be a boon for American cities over the long term?

This odd interest in replicating the Chinese model reminded me of a story that came out in the first month of the Emanuel administration, and which we covered:

On Monday, the Tribune reported on Mayor Emanuel’s first weekend in office, spent working with the University of Chicago on a package of zoning and permitting issues. The University is in a constant state of reshaping Hyde Park according to its growth and development plans, and the City wants to ensure that those plans jive with the the City’s and resident’s hopes and plans for the area.


It’s telling that what motivated Emanuel to take such action to streamline the process was a comment by Zimmer that his university was able to build something in China in 6 months, but that simpler permits in Chicago had taken almost two years.

Yes, things are easier to permit in China, because China is a totalitarian one-party state. For those projects the state likes, permitting shouldn’t be a hassle. If something doesn’t jive with the Communist Party’s vision, though, I wonder if those wait times would increase. They are able to “streamline” things precisely because there is none of the hassle of democracy. Top-down decision making is not merely an option, it is all there is.

This is a distressing trend, frankly. Public process is not a box to be checked, it is integral to sustainable and smart decision making. As the American City article points out, involving people in the process may slow things down, but in the long term it ensures that planning decisions are made that incorporate the community’s varied interests that may be invisible to a technocrat or group of technocrats, particularly when they come from another place and are parachuted in from place to place.

From American City:

One early systematic study showing the benefits of participation on outcomes was conducted by Richard Ellis and coauthors in 1981. Based on data collected from 1965 onwards, they examined 105 wastewater projects and found that participation and project outcomes were positively correlated. A 2000 study by Beierle, of 239 environmental projects, showed that stakeholder participation improved decisions and outcomes. Similarly, in a study of 121 water projects across 49 countries, Jonathan Isham and colleagues at the World Bank demonstrated that participation was associated with improved project outcomes. Similar results have been found in other contexts, as diverse as environmental policy making in the United States and water provision in India. Importantly, these studies look at project success in broader terms than simple speed of implementation or construction. They also look at issues such as user satisfaction and the long-term economic and social sustainability of projects.

The concept of “efficiency” is problematic only insofar as it is typically defined from the point of view of the developer. Speed of construction and shortening the time between concept and implementation saves the developer money in myriad ways, but that can’t be the only measure, particular given the unique character of property and urban space. A development’s capacity for generating tax revenue is not its only impact on the surrounding area, particularly in the long term. More intangible things such as community character, quality of life, and infrastructure stress, among others, are inherently a part of the development of property, particularly in dense urban settings.

Hyde Park/Kenwood are perfect examples. Efficiency for the University of Chicago may be a good thing, but it is not automatically good for the communities that surround it. These are reasonable debates to be had, but what should raise red flags of concern is that we are measuring our planning and development practices against those of an authoritarian one-party state with an almost maniacal growth-at-all-costs inclination.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: