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Written by Kim Ogren, BT Contributor   
July 2019

A look at what goes into decision making

Lbigstock-Smart-City-In-A-Futuristic-Sty-252139666ike you, I look forward to my copy of Biscayne Times every month because I know the reporters present deeply relevant and descriptive accounts of conditions and changes in our built and natural environments along the Biscayne Corridor.

Those conditions and changes result from the decisions being made for us, day in and day out, by the staff and elected leaders in our municipalities, county, regional, and state governments.

The impacts their decisions will have on our lives can’t be overstated. As we can very easily see for ourselves, development of any kind has a tendency to stay around for a while. And it doesn’t lend itself to do-overs.

Every month, and nearly every day, I do my best to keep up to date on the dizzying array of decisions being made, supposedly in the public’s best interest, around our natural and built environments, all mostly in the form of projects involving some bright, shiny, better-than-before alteration. Meanwhile, our infrastructure fails to do the things we thought it was planned to do.

Each month I also think about what I want to write about, with an eye toward enhancing our collective understanding of how and why decisions are made the way they are, to help super-busy everyday people do something to improve the environment. I invite you to let me know your questions and concerns in your neighborhood or community -- I believe I can follow up on just about any of your curiosities, look into the how come this? or what will happen if...? and uncover some teachable moment.

This month I want to offer broad lessons I’ve learned as an urban planner so that together we can try to make sense out of what is going on all around us, and to harness whatever interest or energy we have in making things better in what otherwise looks like a race to sink us all.

Here are a few key lessons from school, career, and life:

The first thing one learns to do in land design is look at the context of the site you’re going to work with to understand its relationship with the world around it and how it fits in within the bigger picture.

Turns out, this “design thinking” is a critical first step that helps us understand how all decisions are made. All those ad hoc and incremental decisions made day and day out. Looking at the context of any one action can enhance your knack for understanding what the hell is really going on in the system and to find the effective levers of change.

The second lesson comes under the mantra “planning is political, political, political.” The late UF professor Ernest Bartley would write that phrase on the chalkboard the first day of his planning law class. He was wry, wise, and ancient; he helped author the state constitution for Alaska in the early 1950s and was one of the authors of Florida’s early and nationally recognized planning laws governing community growth and development.

Bartley wasn’t trying to be cynical with those words. He wanted us to realize that all development decisions involve politics. Here’s why: The professionals we students were to become would use our training and education when we were hired by communities to help shape their development decisions. We would learn to bring vision, to take the long view, and try to anticipate, avoid, and derive answers to some seriously complex problems 20, 40, even 50 years in advance. The bosses we would have would not.

It wasn’t until I worked in local government that I got it. Elected officials are accountable to instant gratification, serving just two years at a time. They’re perpetually campaigning for re-election; or they know, due to term limits, that they won’t be around for longer than a few years. Fifty years versus two -- that’s the source of some of the most systemic friction in designing for decision making.

We’re not working from the same manual that defines our success. And yet we’re supposed to be working together.

A third lesson: Our brains work against us. We adapt our beliefs and standards to ever worsening conditions. Just like a child’s developing brain is compelled to make its surroundings seem okay no matter what in order to have its basic needs met. It’s biological. We convince ourselves that what we have is okay. This is referred to as “sliding baseline.” Oceanographers were the first to recognize and use this term, which represents our bias to consider the current conditions as the optimal standard to measure success against, even as we drift further and further away from a truly healthy, thriving environment.

It’s a terrible place from which to start a political compromise, and it’s also unnecessary. With a bit of organizing, we all can demand better.

 

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