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Study: Demographic shifts require fresh approach to city planning

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


Photo of Stacy Harwood
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Stacy Harwood, a professor of urban and regional planning at the U. of I. who studied land-use conflicts in three Southern California communities with swelling immigrant populations, said that when cultural differences between new and existing residents surface, municipal leaders and planning officials often are ill-prepared to respond appropriately. Harwood says that rapidly changing demographics in these newly multicultural communities require planners to supplant “business as usual” solutions with fresh approaches to problem-solving.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For some residents of La Habra, Calif., a clothesline was what it was: a convenient, inexpensive way to dry laundry.

To others, a garage sale was nothing more than another obvious means to an end: a legal method of recycling unwanted consumer goods into fast cash.

But, as Stacy Harwood observed while collecting research data for a study of land-use decision-making in multicultural communities, not all of LaHabra’s residents – particularly the more entrenched ones who had lived there longer – viewed clotheslines and garage sales through the same lens. What they saw instead were eyesores and nuisances.

“We take for granted – assume – there that the municipal codes and ordinances within a community are the norm, but in reality, they are culturally constructed,” said Harwood, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “When you have a diverse population, it begins to challenge community standards.

“In fact,” Harwood said, “there are multiple ways to live and use space, but when the dominant norm begins to transform, long-time residents often associate these different activities as having only a negative outcome for their quality of life.” And once residents begin to complain about their neighbors’ activities, community leaders and planning officials are often ill-prepared to respond appropriately, Harwood said. Frequently, solutions are motivated – at least in theory – by safety concerns or legal precedents, while ignoring the big pink elephant in the living room: race and ethnicity issues.

The question, Harwood said, ultimately comes down to one of “how do you regulate and create safe environments without losing cultural diversity? It’s a fine line – a delicate balance – between healthy and unique, and creating ways for people to feed their families and survive.”

The planning field actually “emerged in response to these same kinds of things in the late 1800s when cities were growing fast” and municipal officials began to recognize that they had a responsibility for contributing to the safety, health and welfare of their citizens, many of whom also were immigrants.

Nowhere is this clash of cultures today becoming more evident than in areas of the country experiencing rapid demographic shifts. Southern California is a prime example, said Harwood, who studied land-use decision making in La Habra and two other Orange County communities: Anaheim and Garden Grove.

Located between Los Angeles County to the north and San Diego County to the south, Orange County is “one of the wealthiest economies in the world, yet also home to significant poverty and despair,” Harwood noted in her study, published recently in the journal Planning, Practice & Research.

“The county, like its neighbors to the north as well as the entire state of California, has a growing population of poverty, exacerbated by the high cost of living in combination with dead-end, low-wage jobs in the service sector,” Harwood wrote.

Among the “dramatic” demographic changes cited in the journal article: In 1990, only one city out of 33 in Orange County had a majority of its population made up of ethnic minorities; 10 years later, 10 cities were what Harwood describes as “majority-minority.” By 2004, 30 percent of the county’s population was foreign-born, and more than 40 percent spoke a language other than English at home.

Along with the influx of new residents – mostly from Mexico and other Pacific Rim countries – has come growing tensions within communities over land use. Hot-button issues have ranged from street vending and curbside hiring to residential occupancy standards.

In her community case studies, Harwood examined controversies over the approval process for granting a liquor license to a Hispanic grocery store in Anaheim, the process for issuing a conditional-use permit for a Buddhist temple in a residential neighborhood in Garden Grove, and the process for approving restrictions on garage sales and clothes lines (and related standards that appeared to target low-income and immigrant families) in La Habra.

“These cases show how people involved in intense debates draw on deeply embedded fears, concerns, and resentments about different social and cultural groups,” Harwood said. “Tensions arise as regulations perceived by their supporters as mitigating nuisances and maintaining property values meet claims of anti-immigrant sentiment, unfair treatment and discriminatory behavior.”

In the cases she reviewed, planners, city staff, council members and mayors purposely overlooked the communities’ changing ethnic and cultural realities when making policy decisions, in an attempt to remain impartial.

“In the context of a multicultural community, the notion of the planning process as ethnically or culturally neutral emerges as implausible,” Harwood said. “Nevertheless, most of the planners interviewed not only avoided politics and the media but spoke only cautiously about issues related to ethnicity, culture or immigration.”

Remaining silent, Harwood said, often does more harm than good in many situations, including those she studied.

“These cases demonstrate how planners often fail to represent those of their constituents who are politically unrepresented,” she said. “The cases expose how planners operate in the paradoxical mode of claiming not to advocate any particular decision; yet incorporating recommendations in their staff reports that contribute to the manipulation of the planning process. Thus in Anaheim and La Habra, planners justified such contradictions as “business as usual.”

In her study, Harwood argues that the rapidly changing demographics of many U.S. cities necessitates a fresh approach to planning.

She advocates replacing the “business as usual” model – in which planners present “just the facts” and leave interpretations to decision makers – with one that empowers planners to “bring into the open what people do not want to hear, to serve the possibility of community moving forward.”

While change needs to be systemic, Harwood recognizes that the place to begin is within the educational arena.

“It’s important for the profession – and for our students – to be comfortable dealing with diverse populations,” she said, adding that for the most part, students and practicing planning professionals “don’t recognize how much they circulate with people like themselves.” For those still learning the ropes, Harwood promotes taking advantage of study-abroad opportunities as one means of “opening their eyes to other cultures.”

Beyond that, she said, there’s a broader need for the planning field to adapt more flexible practices.

“The way we do planning is limited,” she said. “The local government concepts about neutrality are so ingrained. It’s impossible to change without looking at ways in which to insert nontraditional input – from nonprofits and the media – into the mix of ways we can create solutions that bend the rules and are more creative. The media and nonprofits can play a role, unofficially, under the radar in many situations. The more we talk about it, we can come up with creative solutions that support concerns and allow people – who are really doing nothing more than trying to feed their families – to coexist in the same space.”