Ethics in Planning and City Government

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard
For many years, IMCL emphasized ethics in planning, and ethics in city government and we had a difficult time getting the idea across. We were, of course, talking about how planning policies must be written and administered to ethically improve quality of life for all, especially those previously disregarded (children, elders, the poor) instead of prioritizing the wealthy, or the car drivers. The idea was so unfamiliar that at one conference, some participants (from San Jose city government) thought we were talking about being polite in council meetings and in interacting with staff. They had never realized that planning policies could benefit some while harming others, or the planet!

Now is definitely the time to raise these issues to the forefront. There is a widespread ethical laxity, if not downright corruption in city governments rampant around the world.

At its worst, it is evident in the government-backed developers’ land grab tactics that result in violent riots and multiple deaths, as in China’s Yunnan province,  or in Vietnam, or India. On a more subtle level, even city governments in cities renowned for their livability may jeopardize this heritage by prioritizing short-term economic benefits to the few, over benefits to all citizens’ health and well-being over generations. In Portland, Oregon, a pseudo community participation process involving a handpicked Advisory Committee representative of economic development recently approved the new West Quadrant Plan that permits 460’ and unlimited heights in areas of special interest to committee members. The resulting high rise development can damage the public realm by creating dark, windy canyons while rapidly raising land values that force out existing affordable housing and threaten the historic heritage.

Many citizens were shocked when the story broke in a local newspaper. As one reader commented: “Once again you, our elected leaders, have made a mockery of the public process, packing 24 of the 33 seats on the Advisory Committee for development of the West Quadrant with individuals with a financial stake in development-related decisions.
In corrupt governments, this would be called “crony capitalism”—giving those with an economic interest in a political decision the power to influence and make those decisions.
Is this an example of ethical leadership? Of government with integrity? Of prudent stewardship of the public’s interest and the trust they have placed in you? Is this the legacy you would be proud to leave our city?” 

I hope the Pope's encyclical and the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change will help introduce a new sense of ethics for members of these faiths. I believe society is on the brink of redefining the role and purpose of life, when we acknowledge that we must heal our planet, not accelerate its demise by greed, corruption, and unfettered economic growth. I think we have to enter a new age, not the Post Industrial, or Information Age, but the Age of Caring, in which we acknowledge the absolute essential priority of giving back (to the earth and to the poor) in order to ensure the survival of all.

That massive wealth without scruples leads to the worst forms of demagoguery, is nakedly obvious in the current US political campaigns. The global absence of ethics has everything to do with the dominance of the Capitalist system (in China, Russia, and the Middle East just as much as in the West). As Pope Francis says, "economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected." 

I must admit that I have only recently discovered David Harvey's extraordinarily clear explanation of the connection between the capitalistic growth imperative and the high-rise development that we see in cities around the world, which I have been railing against in my talks and articles. His work is extremely important for all of us concerned with making cities livable, equitable and sustainable: "All of the major cities around the world are engaged in building the kind of city Capital wants. Capital has no interest in building cities for people. It only has an interest in building cities for profit." 

Harvey shines a laser on the connection between capitalism in its present senile stage, and the efflorescence of unneeded high-rise condos and unlivable cities, and the rise of the 1% and growth of poverty. Capital increases its profits through construction because that is the fastest way to create profits. Harvey is a Cambridge scholar and Professor at Harvard, so it is hard to dismiss him. He makes his point very strongly because he sees that now it is almost too late; capitalism must be reined in and re-balanced.

Please listen to his talk below: