Wall Street Journal: “How Group Decisions End Up Wrong-Footed”

A 4/25/09 Wall Street Journal article has insights into getting good decisions from groups. It resonates with the goals of the Best Practices Committee.

How Group Decisions End Up Wrong-Footed

For committees and other boards to work well, they must be made up of people with differing perspectives and experience who are unafraid to speak their minds, says Richard Larrick, a psychologist at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. They must also select and process information effectively and seek to learn systematically from their mistakes.

All too often, however, committees don’t work well at all — resulting in a relentlessly short-term outlook, an inability to stick to strategic plans, a slap-dash pursuit of the latest fad and a tendency to blame mistakes on somebody else…

Committees considering an important decision should break into a “pro” and “con” group, each developing the best arguments supporting its side…

With respect to local urban planning, developments that have been plagued with problems need to be analyzed so the Planning Board and Conservation Commission can make more informed decisions going forward. Good candidates for study include Meadowbrook Apartments, homes on Winslow, Nutting and Elm Streets, and the stormwater management systems at Northampton High School, Carlon Drive, and Bridge Street School. Violations of existing wetlands protection agreements are rampant, according to Land Use and Conservation Planner Bruce Young. Before signing off on more aggressive developments and complex convenants, it’s time for city boards to step back and understand what’s causing these unsatisfactory situations.

Greater awareness of past experience might also help balance the temptation to embrace the latest fads, such as infill and Smart Growth. These concepts have their merits, but there have been some troubled applications. Here we can tap hard-won knowledge from other cities to avoid repeating their mistakes.

See also:

Valley Advocate: “A Fork in the Road” (4/9/09)
“Stifling dissent doesn’t build community. Trust in our city government seems to be steadily eroding,” [candidate for mayor Michael Bardsley] said. “I remember a time when people in Northampton were skeptical of the feds and what was going on in Washington, but they felt confident in their local government. I’m not sure that’s how it is now.”

The solution, he says is that “the city needs a different set of leadership skills.” He cites a growing sense of disenfranchisement both from the public and from inside city hall itself: “I’m concerned that our local government and our decision-making process has been cutting corners. There seems to be an agreement of a majority of the Council to not exercise the role of the Council in checks and balances. I think the role of the Council—and this is key to democracy—is to ask the hard questions, push things, challenge things, and there’s a lot of people who think that doesn’t happen any more.”

Knoxville Infill Housing Design Guidelines: Lessons from Experience
As the Zoning Revisions Committee gears up to implement the vision of the Sustainable Northampton Plan, there are useful lessons to be drawn from other cities that have traveled the infill path.

Today, let’s look inside the Heart of Knoxville Infill Housing Design Guidelines (PDF, 2.4MB). We highlight several passages that have a particular bearing on the condo development Kohl Construction has proposed off of North Street…

“For the past few decades, the construction of new
houses on these vacant lots – infill housing – has often been
incompatible with the historic features in neighborhoods of the late
1800’s to 1950’s. Inappropriate infill has been a problem in the “Heart
of Knoxville” neighborhoods… The purposes of these guidelines are to
re-establish the architectural character of those historically valuable
properties with new housing that is architecturally compatible; to
foster neighborhood stability; to recreate more pedestrian-oriented
streets; and to meet a wide range of housing needs.”

Portland, Oregon Voters Sour on Densification Over Time
Portland, Oregon has implemented many aspects of Smart Growth, starting
in the 1970s. Recent votes there suggest that some of these principles,
notably densification, are becoming increasingly unpopular. These votes
deserve attention, as they indicate how people feel about Smart Growth
after they’ve had actual experience with it. It would be a shame for
Northampton to travel needlessly the same path from enthusiasm to

“Innovative Non-Zoning Approaches to Encourage Smart Growth and Protect Public Health” – Video with Wayne Feiden and Bruce Young
At 1:13:30 during the Q&A session,
Cohen asked Feiden and Young about the Meadowbrook Apartments. The
experience of this development raises concerns about the hazards of
building homes near wetlands. As former City Councilor Mike Kirby wrote in June:

The developers built 255 units of affordable
apartments there. They crammed them in everywhere they could, pushing
them up into the bluffs, and close to the creek and wetlands. No
backyards to speak of. One third of the buildings were built within 50
feet of the wetlands, 63% of the buildings are within the customary 100
feet of wetlands.

None of the buildings have cellars under their
apartments. If they have cellars, there are people living in them. The
cellar floors in the basement apartments in Buildings #4 and #2 are
lower than the surrounding swamp. Some slabs have cracks in them.
People have been flooded out. No moisture-proof barriers between the
surrounding earth and the foundations. Moisture and mold percolate up
into people’s apartments via the chases that hold utilities. If you
wonder why low-income children are afflicted with a whole host of
respiratory diseases, you have to look no further than the children of
the floor level and basement apartments of Meadowbrook…

Feiden and Young were apparently unfamiliar with the problems at
Meadowbrook, and the Q&A session moved on to other subjects.

the city authorizes more housing within 100 feet of wetlands, we urge
the Planning Board or other appropriate body to investigate the
Meadowbrook situation
to determine if the proximity to wetlands,
design issues, construction issues, maintenance issues, or other
factors are at fault. Meadowbrook is not the only development in town
with moisture problems. At a 12/11/08 Conservation Commission hearing, Alex Ghiselin, another former City Councilor, told the commissioners:

It’s not clear to me now that we have an effective system [for inspecting and maintaining stormwater systems] or that it’s
funded in any significant way, or that we’ve looked at the legal
problems involved in long-term enforcement and inspection–who will be
responsible over time. I have to tell you as somebody who represented a ward that has a
considerable amount of wetlands, and building in those wetlands, that
that was the knottiest, the most difficult problems that we dealt
with… Once the houses are built there’s really no good solution. I
think of on Winslow, on Nutting, on Elm Street, I think of a continual
problem that has bedeviled people who have owned those houses. The
developers are long gone. These are houses built 25-30 years ago. I
think of my friends John and Sue Norton on Winslow, who spent in excess
of $8,000 last year to move water around their house. Almost everybody
on the northeast side of Winslow has that problem. It’s built along a
series of wetlands and streams… I also think it’s also significant
that the City Councilor with by far the most experience in this city,
Jim Dostal, who worked for the DPW all those years, has personal
experience with buildings built near and in wetlands, and the problems
that they’ve produced for the city over time, was adamantly opposed to
moving to within 10 feet, and is still adamantly opposed, and I hope
that the City Council will revisit this. In the meantime, you should
really move very carefully into this new area.”

Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century
Once the desire for comprehensive urban planning is established, the
logic of uniformity and regimentation is well-nigh inexorable. Cost
effectiveness contributes to this tendency… [E]very concession to
diversity is likely to entail a corresponding increase in
administrative time and budgetary cost…

To the degree that subjects can be treated as standardized units, the
power of resolution in the planning exercise is enhanced. Questions
posed within these strict confines can have definitive, quantitative

What is perhaps most striking about high-modernist
schemes, despite their quite genuine egalitarian and often socialist
impulses, is how little confidence they repose in the skills,
intelligence, and experience of ordinary people…

Complex, diverse, animated environments contribute, as Jacobs saw, to
producing a resilient, flexible, adept population that has more
experience in confronting novel challenges and taking initiative.
Narrow, planned environments, by contrast, foster a less skilled, less
innovative, less resourceful population.

Reason.org: “The Human Face of Smart Growth Opposition” (9/13/02)
The last major urban planning fad –
the nationwide urban renewal efforts of the post-WWII era – was sold
with the promise of dramatically reinvigorating cities and improving
urban life, but the actual result was the wholesale destruction of
vibrant urban neighborhoods and the large-scale stifling of inner city
economic opportunity. It is not unreasonable to be wary of the latest
planning fad, especially when so much is at stake for our families and

Cox: “METROPOLITAN DENVER AT RISK: How Densification Will Intensify
Traffic Congestion, Air Pollution and the Housing Affordability Crisis”

What is in vogue is not always correct…

and architects in the 1950s thought that 20-story public housing
projects were the answer — the same projects that are being imploded
around the country today…