Agenda 21: Best practices for public engagement more relevant than ever

by Joan Chaplick and Ellie Fiore, AICP, MIG, Inc.

In today’s planning landscape, planners across the Unites States are finding themselves faced with agitated community members accusing local governments of imposing an Agenda 21 platform. Planners should not be dismissive of what may seem to be ill-founded claims. Now more than ever we need to rely on best practices for public engagement. As planners and community engagement consultants, MIG, Inc. has discovered several common themes and behaviors when addressing Agenda 21 controversy in public planning workshops.

A Case Study - California/ Plan Bay Area

California’s regional Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCS) have become a lightning rod for Agenda 21 opponents, particularly in the Bay Area. The state’s 2008 Senate Bill 375 requires metropolitan planning organizations to supplement their regional transportation plans conducted every four years with greenhouse gas emissions goals, and to demonstrate how targets will be met “through integrated land use, housing and transportation planning.”1

The Bay Area is the third California region to complete its SCS under the moniker “Plan Bay Area.” The nine-county region includes three major urban areas –San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland –as well as dozens of small cities, suburbs, rural communities and over a million acres of permanently preserved open space,2 making it an ideal testing ground for Agenda 21 activists.

The first round of Plan Bay Area public workshops were designed to introduce the project to the public, and gather input on priorities for land development, housing growth, transportation investment and potential policy initiatives through large group presentations and facilitated small group discussions. What occurred at these events included picket lines, attendees shouting at facilitators, and small group exercises derailed by angry conspiracy theorists. Those seeking to disrupt the process yelled at speakers and physically disrupted presentations by walking in front of presenters and in aisles with cell phone cameras.

In response to these tactics, the Plan Bay Area team of agency staff and consultants adjusted the meeting design for the second round of public workshops. These meetings originally included an opening session with remarks from elected officials and a short video. Participants were then asked to rotate between three stations on transportation and land use issues. Faced with continued disruption during opening remarks, staff added a large group session where participants could speak and voice their criticisms of the process concurrent with the planned break-out group activities.

The third and final round of Plan Bay Area public workshops in 2013 were designed as a combination of open houses and formal public hearings on the draft plan and the Environmental Impact Report. The format allowed individuals to engage one-on-one with staff, along with providing their comments in writing. Public comments were taken during the hearing, allowing critics and supporters alike to have their comments heard and recorded. Time limits and the formal hearing structure minimized the opportunity for organized disruption. All three rounds of public meetings were supported by uniformed security staff.

This type of activism and opposition specific to Agenda 21 has not been limited to California or to major metropolitan regions. MIG planners working on comprehensive plans in several rural communities faced claims that they were imposing Agenda 21 by implementing an off-the-shelf, top-down UN-driven land use plan on their communities. What is unique and frustrating to planners about these efforts is that they are intended not to support a particular position, but to disrupt meetings. The activists’ assumption is that if they derail the meeting, they will derail the plan.

How Did We Get Here?

At first glance, Agenda 21 and related conspiracy theories do not seem relevant to regional planning. Upon closer analysis, the link becomes more understandable: Agenda 21 addresses “settlement patterns,”3 poverty and the environment; and regional planning addresses growth and density, social justice and greenhouse gas emissions.

Conservative media personalities explicitly made the connection and included a call to action at the local level. Glenn Beck has called Agenda 21 and sustainable development an attempt to impose “centralized control over all human life.”4 Alex Jones, an American radio personality, called it an “action plan for depopulation and total control.”5 Beck has also written a book, Agenda 21, a fictionalized account of a future one generation away that describes citizens confined to concrete living spaces with a strict rationing of food, water and energy.

Both Beck and Jones have called on their fans and followers to be vigilant against local efforts to impose Agenda 21. Beck’s website hosts an Agenda 21 Registry which recommends a three-step process for tracking the prevalence of Agenda 21- related efforts. First, participants should review a list of 109 keywords and phrases “to watch out for.”6 The list includes terms such as: affordable housing, equity, facilitator, greenways, quality of life, stakeholder, lifelong learning, traffic calming and wetlands. Next, Beck directs the user to visit their town’s website or city hall and review minutes and agendas from city council meetings. The third step is to report their findings to Beck’s organization.

One noteworthy trend that may be a driving force behind Agenda 21 politics is a growing distrust of government, as articulated by conservative groups, including Agenda 21 allies such as the Tea Party. Research from the Pew Research Center7 shows historically high levels of distrust in large institutions, including the federal government. This same data, however, shows that trust and faith in government increases as you move towards state and local control.8

Agenda 21 Opposition Claims and Strategies

Some opponents consider regional planning as taking power away from local government towards a more distant, and presumably top-down, entity. This perceived loss of control is at the heart of many Agenda 21 fears, including: declining property rights, redistribution of wealth, changing neighborhood demographics and restrictions on personal freedoms including driving.

Within the planning profession, there has been a convergence around sustainable development and smart growth. As these ideas have become more commonplace, they have been incorporated into policy and funding mechanisms. This includes new programs at the federal, state and local levels, including the Partnership for Sustainable Communities which brings housing, transportation and land use interests together at the federal level through a HUD, DOT and EPA partnership.

Public dialogue around climate change has also provided fuel to the fire around Agenda 21. Individuals who do not believe in global warming tend to be a vocal minority and accuse the government of fabricating reasons to advance their smart growth agenda on false grounds. Specific efforts to gather data on energy use, vehicle miles travelled and other behaviors trigger distrust and conspiracy theories that the government is exerting more control over the general public.

For example, PG&E and the California Public Utilities Commission weathered significant controversy when PG&E started installing SmartMeters™ to allow the utility and the consumer to better monitor power usage. The meters send a wireless radio signal to the utility, which uses the information to bill its customers. The meters provide feedback to customers so they can reduce energy use and costs by adjusting their behavior. The controversy in California centered on what else the meters may be capable of, such as tracking personal and family activities.9

Reflections and Best Practices for Planners

Agenda 21 opponents have found their footing and are likely to be a presence in planning processes for the foreseeable future. At times, their claims seem irrational and ill-founded, but this does not mean that planners can be dismissive or unresponsive. A video produced by Plan Bay Area opponents exaggerates this concept, but challenges planners to consider the values brought to this process and the language used to communicate about policy planning. (

Critics have taken aim at smart growth, sustainability and social justice and – at the extreme – assert that these strategies represent a radical agenda for manipulating human behavior. While these claims should clearly be taken with a grain of salt, it does raise questions for planners about whether we are presenting ideas with the underlying assumption that these concepts are “good” and valued by participants. Some planning processes may assume shared values and rely on jargon without providing definitions of terms or explanations of planning methodology.

Through our experience with Agenda 21 activists, we have discovered that avoiding certain “trigger words” can help move discussions forward without extensive debate. Messaging focus groups for regional planning projects indicate a general concern about phrases such as “smart-growth,” “density” and “compact development.” Adjectives such as “green” or “sustainable” are laden with different meanings and may trigger opposition. In recent processes, we have found that “future land use plans” cause concern, while using terms like “potential” or “anticipated” seems less committal and therefore is more acceptable.

Another key lesson is the need to educate the public about how government funding and taxation work. Few processes describe how taxes are used and how transit, roads, highways and regional infrastructure are funded. Many people assume that the suburban, single-family residential development is a reflection of market forces and consumer preferences, when in reality this development pattern was heavily subsidized in the mid-20th Century. Today, the costs of suburban-style development, including the need for more extensive infrastructure and public services, are beginning to be better understood, but are not always part of public policy discussions.10

A neutral and fact-based approach can help focus discussions on how regional planning helps determine the efficient use of land for large-scale infrastructure investments, which results in more informed government spending – a goal widely shared across political and demographic groups. For example, a review of infrastructure costs in a rural community showed they spent double what their neighbors spent to provide public school buses. A review of routes and schedules indicated that development patterns favored the extensive use of cul-de-sacs, and these circuitous routes more than doubled school bus travel time and related costs.

Providing a visible role for local leadership in planning processes can help reassure residents that, while the community is part of regional discussion and solutions, ultimate control is retained at the local level. In our experience, trusted local leaders are often more effective messengers than agency staff or consultants. Citizen advisory committee members can help explain to the public that plans were generated with local input and are not “off-the-shelf” or imposed from above.

Where Do We Go From Here?

When Plan Bay Area was adopted in July 2013, it was after dozens of contentious and disruptive public events and a marathon public meeting concluding after midnight. Hundreds of residents were present for the adoption, including dozens of organized opponents (some wearing “Tyranny Response Team” t-shirts) who accused the agencies of imposing totalitarian control. Opponents of Plan Bay Area have since filed a lawsuit, the first SCS lawsuit on constitutional grounds, claiming the regional plan violates the 5th and 14th amendments. Planners will have to wait and see what the courts, including the court of public opinion, have to say about the value and validity of regional planning.

Best Practices

While it may feel that planners are operating in a new environment in which the assumptions of the planning profession are being challenged, Agenda 21 activists are a vocal minority. However, these experiences remind us why we need to rely on the following best practices for public engagement now more than ever.

  • Use clear, neutral, accessible language and don’t assume shared knowledge or values
  • Communicate roles, responsibilities and expectations for behavior
  • Be clear about what is “fixed” and what is open for influence
  • Explain the time line, range of opportunities for participation, and how input will be used in decision-making
  • Respond to all public comments in a balanced and respectful manner
  • Anticipate and prepare for likely comments and questions
  • Remain calm, be kind, and rely on facts

Joan Chaplick is a Principal and Director of Management and Policy Services at MIG, Inc. in Berkeley, CA. Ellie Fiore, AICP, is a Project Manager at MIG. Visit

Published in the December 2013/January 2014 Issue

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