Public should control development
Residents know best what they need—what their lives are missing, what stands between them and their goals, what they would change (if they could) to improve their quality of life.
That’s why Cleveland Heights Council Member Davida Russell is asking Noble and Taylor residents directly how to spend those neighborhoods’ designated American Rescue Plan Act funds during her “You Talk, I Listen” sessions. It’s why Cleveland has done the same through online polls.
It’s why Collinwood, Tremont, Chicago, Atlanta, Porto Alegre, Glasgow, Seoul, and other cities around the world have used participatory budgeting to determine—through deliberative democratic processes—how the People want to spend their own money. It’s why California, Oregon, British Columbia, and even entire countries, such as Belgium, Denmark, and Ireland, have used randomly selected citizens’ assemblies to empower ordinary people—through deliberative democratic processes that represent the entire population rather than just its most powerful members—to decide for themselves what policies will govern them.
The key problem with the development at Cedar-Lee-Meadowbrook is that the public did not choose it.
The only choice residents make in local development is electing local representatives. At the ballot box, in a single democratic act, a lively minority (30 percent of all eligible voters in the Cleveland Heights’ historic mayoral election) endows a group of residents who are privileged enough to run for office with the power to make any decision on everyone’s behalf.
Between elections, the only influence residents have over representatives is their voice, and CH City Hall designates times and places where residents can demonstrate their voices’ power: Every week, if you can squeeze it in, you have three minutes to state your opinion in physical proximity to city council. If—between work, errands, dinner, bath time, story time, bedtime, and third shift—you can make it to one of the engagement sessions planned after city council has already decided on a development plan, then you can learn how concerned the developer is with traffic patterns and brick colors, and you can write your thoughts about those subjects on a sticky note and share them on an “idea board.”
Even during these circumscribed moments of public engagement, when city council invites the public onstage, it is listening to other voices. If you own a business—especially if you’ve organized with other businesses, as Special Improvement District members have—then city council gives you its attention. If you run a nonprofit—especially one with demonstrated expertise in city planning and real estate—then city council seeks your advice. If you’re a developer—especially if you’ve gained the approval of residents with close ties to economic and political power—then city council trusts that your narrow interest in making money aligns with the public’s general interest in living well.
In this way, a tiny choir of voices drowns out the rest.
You know best what you need. Is your life missing a fenced-in private pool that you can’t access? Will a few extra shops on Lee Road lower the barriers between you and your goals? Will 206 apartment units that you can’t afford improve your quality of life? We could be excited about this project if it were designed to meet our needs, but instead it was designed to extract profit from consumers and—as an externality—send a bit of revenue to city hall and the school district.
I will vote for a park in May [Issue 9] because the public should control public development. Next time, let’s do what other communities have done, and, through a deliberative democratic process that represents all of us equally, let’s make a decision together.
Gavin Andersen is an ordinary CH resident who has an education in international trade and development policy, survives by working for money, and believes all people should have equal access to what they need to live flourishing lives, and be equally empowered to contribute to the collective control of their common fate.