“I’m tired of Sunday School”, a client told me over lunch last week. It’s time to challenge the church and nail something nasty to the door. The church he was referring to is environmentalism, North America’s newfound religion.
Mark Holland is a very successful urban planner and his company, HB Lanarc has expanded phenomenally over the past few years, despite the recession. He has been involved in green development projects from Vancouver to Albuquerque. But Mark is getting fed up with some of the sustainability dogma that he hears, fed up because some of it just won’t work.
We had a very interesting talk about public opinion and attitudes. Mark told me that smart developers these days do not decide what to build without at least a year of consultation with civic officials and the public. That’s real dialogue with real influence over the final design and elements of the project.
He then rattled off examples where density and environmentalism come to loggerheads. For example, if you are anticipating large population growth in a small area but you want to preserve green space, he explained, it will mean high-rises and they take time to plan and build. Some communities, however, resist high density housing, only to see encroachment of their green space.
Mark and I discussed the disconnect between what people believe to be important and what actually is important. In his world, that can mean the difference between success and failure of a project.
To me, that’s also a fundamental element in communication planning. Too often people broadcast their thoughts and beliefs without any idea about how those thoughts are being received. Then they are surprised when there is opposition to their position.
We also spoke about how extreme positions on issues open up the ground in the middle. That’s why politicians sometimes gain large majorities when they moderate their ideology and become more middle of the road. So, there may be growing public support for sustainability but that support is looking for solutions that work. We’re growing tired of two sides yelling at each other.
Mark agreed with my approach, which is to define your goal before making any comments and then understand the position of the audiences that affect your ability to attain that goal. Aligning your position with the audience greatly increases your chances of being successful.
It also means you might have to abandon that “religious” dogma for a solution that works.