Forced Collaboration: The Private Implementation of Public Policy

2017 has dawned and consolidated in an unusually subtle fashion, and I now find myself four months removed from my most recent entry. As is my wont, I’m now publishing another fairly old post to resuscitate the blog. Fortunately, the previous and current broadcasts complement each other nicely, as both deal with the role of private actors in implementing the designs of government (or, more abstractly, in tending to the public good). Rather than examining this topic through the lens of procurement, however, this time around I intend to discuss rules, regulations, plans, and enforcement of private behaviours as a means of promoting the common good. This topic relates most closely to the departments of Protective Services and Planning; below, I will focus on the latter, as that was where I was stationed at the time of writing. Hopefully, some useful information about what this department does will be conveyed in addition to my broader thematic argument.

On a day-to-day level, the Planning and Development department is tasked (broadly speaking) with implementing the Land Use Bylaw and assorted statutory plans (i.e. Municipal Development Plan, Inter-Municipal Development Plan, Area Structure Plans) in order to ensure the orderly growth of the town. This planning framework regulates economic/physical development such that it does not compromise the image or functionality of the community, overwhelm existing infrastructure, undermine property values, or engender incompatible land uses (i.e. industrial alongside residential), while at the same time remaining sufficiently open and flexible to encourage investment.  A tall order, for sure, but an important one. After all, the character, livability, and prosperity of a place is hugely dependent on its layout, design, and appearance, and on the availability and proper distribution of a range of amenities. A walk through the streets of Vancouver or Jasper (or, more recently, downtown Edmonton) is a testament to the usefulness of planning; these places are beautiful, pedestrian-friendly, aesthetically/functionally coherent, etc., and are permeated with intriguing spaces (parks, businesses, plazas, etc.) to explore.

With this high-level view of municipal planning in mind, we can turn to a discussion of some of the on-the-ground dynamics in Edson’s Planning department. Much of the work revolves around receiving and evaluating development and/or subdivision permit applications, though there are of course various other functions fulfilled by the department. Without delving too deeply into the intricacies and paperwork of the permitting process, we can say generally that the department examines the developer’s proposed land use and building schematics to ensure that they align with the spirit and prescriptions of all applicable plans and bylaws. The Development Officer’s evaluation deals with very general matters, such as whether the proposed development is a permitted (always allowed) or discretionary (sometimes allowed) use in its zoning, as well very specific/detailed issues, such as the percentage of the property that can be covered by structures/buildings.

After determining the prima facie suitability of the development, the Development Officer will draft the conditions that the developer will need to fulfill upon commencing the project; permits are granted on a conditional basis, and require that the developer take certain steps to align with municipal plans and servicing requirements. Here at last we arrive at the putative topic of this entry, for in taking steps to satisfy these permit conditions, the developer is performing a “public interest” function, at the behest of the government. To be sure, many permit conditions deal more with preventing harm to neighbouring properties, or with ensuring that the property is serviceable, than with a more generalized public good. A developer who must establish proper drainage from his/her property can hardly be called a public servant. However, requirements can extend far beyond these basics. Once you get into the business of enforcing tree planting or building design requirements, for example, or (in the case of subdivisions) demanding the construction of public infrastructure, you are in entirely new terrain, in which developers are required to expend time and resources, or constrain their use of property, in pursuit of a high-level community vision.  A key point here is that many of these requirements are in fact positive duties (requirements to do certain things) as opposed to negative ones (requirements to refrain from things). At a conference in Vancouver, I even examined a case in which a developer ended up building a sizable public plaza for the City.

Another more mundane (yet illustrative) example of how private entities can be forcibly enlisted to serve a “public” role is the requirement that property owners shovel their sidewalks in the winter (note, however, that this is a Bylaw/Enforcement rather than Planning issue). Indeed, infrastructure maintenance is generally thought to be an important prerogative of the state, or at least an essential public good. Yet in the case of pedestrian infrastructure, this function is outsourced to individual homeowners.

Thus, the implementation of public policy is truly a public-private collaboration. After all, a planner cannot simply draw up a vision for the community and expect it to materialize of its own accord; property owners play an enormous role in developing and shaping the character of public space. It is the infusion of private capital (and in-kind labour) which gives rise to the majority of the urban built environment. Of course, none of this seems (or is) objectionable. Indeed, no space is truly “private” given that it affects the aesthetic and “feel” of its surroundings; an apparent ethical obligation therefore exists for property owners to be mindful of these interactions when developing their lands. One could even take a romantic view of this situation and posit that institutionalizing/mandating this sensitivity may help to cultivate an ethic of public service among the population, or at least instill the shared sense of responsibility for (and ownership over) the community which is so essential to social functioning. At any rate, few people would want to live in an unplanned city. As well, the broader principle is not philosophically novel; most provincial and national-level regulations impose positive obligations, or at least real costs, on companies and individuals, and the general concept of regulation is not (usually) spurned.

However, the existence of any form of regulation always opens up the intriguing debate around its appropriate extent; how much liberty should be surrendered in pursuit of a given public interest? Beyond that, just how much time or money can you force private individuals to expend for the purposes of, say, urban beautification or infrastructure maintenance? Of course, forced investment in the community always occurs at tax time, but the targeted, direct requirement on developers to do or not do certain things seems qualitatively different.  

What do you think, reader? How much do you care about community aesthetics, functional coherence, etc.? In general, would you favour looser design restrictions (i.e. Edson) to tighter ones (i.e. Jasper)? Is the intrusion into individual liberty and the qualification of property rights (as well as the disincentive to investment) represented by (for example) a landscaping requirement “worth it”? At what point do permit conditions cease being prudent, benevolent guarantors of the quality of public space and the financial and emotional value of the community, and start to become purposeless barriers to development? Which municipality do you consider to be the best-planned, and why? How can a community plan be made compelling and exciting for residents/developers such that buy-in is attained, and the population begins to view the fulfillment of permit conditions not as an inconvenience, but a meaningful public service effort?