Friday, July 8, 2011

Transportation Fridays: Politics, Money and Planning

by Betsy Harvey, MCRP '12

Today I want to discuss something that may seem off topic, but that greatly impacts the planning profession. Earlier this week I listened to a presentation given by Harvard University law professor Lawrence Lessig at Dartmouth College. He talked about what he calls “good soul corruption,” corruption that is institutionalized in government at all levels. This is not the illegal bribery that we see in cases like Rod Blagojevich’s attempt to sell a senate seat, but rather money that is legally given to politicians through established routes such as the financing of election campaigns. Donors assume that by giving elected officials money their causes will be the supported, and it has been shown that this is frequently the case. Public officials, especially elected officials, are often beholden to the interests that fund them.
The public knows that. About 11% of Americans have confidence in Congress according to a recent Gallup poll, believing that money controls congress’s votes.
This is troubling, for as planners we rely on the public’s trust and participation. As Lessig says, “Money may lead us to mistrust what was said. . . . This low trust erodes people’s participation in the system.” Without public trust in their institutions, planning, including transportation planning, will not be as effective as it can be. Without trust in government, people will not want to be involved in the planning process. We know that involving the public is important in ensuring the success of our plans and advancing the public good. But lacking the trust of the people we serve, it will be difficult to involve them in the process of planning their own neighborhoods, threatening the viability and legitimacy of planning.
We planners are idealists; we have visions of the future that are beautiful and hopeful, and we look forward to stepping into the role of community-builders as our parents’ generation steps down. But as we do so, we will also become immersed in the murky and sometimes distrustful world of politics that will – and probably already has – confront our cherished dreams and most deeply held beliefs. It is vital, therefore, that we understand where money is coming from and how it influences planning and the communities we serve.

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