Planet Earth

Pesky Democratic Process

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollAug 26, 2007 9:53 PM

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The LA Times has a front-page article, apparently free of irony, that laments the glacial rate of progress on constructing a world-class subway system for the city, and imagines wistfully how much easier it would be if only we lived in a one-party communist state. In particular, they look at the progress that Shanghai has made in building its own subway, and pout about all of those nefarious restrictions that Americans have to put up with because we give actual citizens a say in the process.

"If the government wants to do something, even if the conditions are not ready for it, it will be done," said Zheng Shiling, an influential Chinese architect who teaches at Tongji University in Shanghai. At the risk of only slight oversimplification, the system works like this: Planners draw subway lines on a map. Party officials approve them. Construction begins. If anything is in the way, it is moved. If they need to, Chinese planners "just move 10,000 people out of the way," said Lee Schipper, a transport planner who has worked with several Chinese cities in his role as director of research for EMBARQ, a Washington-based transportation think tank. "They don't have hearings." Schipper recalled consulting with one Chinese metropolis whose ancient city wall stood in the way of a transportation project. "One of the members of the People's Committee said, 'Oh, I know how we'll solve the problem. We'll move the historic wall.' " It was, he said, as if a planner in Washington proposed moving the Potomac River to make way for construction.

One searches the article in vain for the part where they say "Of course we live in a democracy, and some people think that there are certain benefits to that kind of system, even if the government does have to ask permission before tearing down historic sites," but the moment never comes. Instead, we are treated to stirring stories of the plucky citizens of Shanghai, who don't raise a peep when construction displaces them from their homes -- no, indeed, they are happy to be displaced, as it gives them a chance at a new life! (It might be that voices of complaint are not heard because they are actually silenced, but that smudges up the narrative.) As a dweller in downtown LA, where a better subway system would be a life-altering good and the lamentations of fragile newcomers who are shocked at the presence of construction noise in a booming high-density urban core form a constant background chorus, I deeply sympathize with frustration at the demands the democratic process force onto city planning. But I'll tolerate the delays if it means that, if the Mayor wants to tear down our apartments, he at least has to hold a hearing first.

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