A letter to Aunt Hope

Some of you may know that I am happily married to Holly Munson, assistant editor of Constitution Daily and freelance writer. And while some of you may know that she is a great writer, you may not know that she comes from a great family. Holly’s folks have always been very friendly and kind to me, including her large network of aunts, uncles and cousins. These people are nice enough to take an interest in what I’m studying and will occasionally send me links to interesting material or ask me my opinion on a planning issue. Recently, Holly’s Aunt Hope sent her this email:

Hi Holly,

A friend sent this info to me, and I was wondering if Dave sees evidence of this in his city planning work…


Love to you both,

Aunt Hope

Holly forwarded this to me and I indeed took a look at it. I really enjoyed reading it, and outlined in detail what was accurate and what wasn’t about the website. Aunt Hope was kind enough to let me reproduce the letter on my blog. Here it is:

Aunt Hope,

Thanks for sending Holly this Post Sustainability Institute thing. I’ve enjoyed reading it. Some of the things in here are spot on; most of them are totally off base. Long story short, the UN is an essentially powerless body and can’t force us to do any of this (and isn’t trying to), but if you don’t mind, I’d like to go through it point by point and discuss it.

Economic collapse creates a chain of events, but on a micro level (county, city) there is a marked reduction in revenue for maintenance of services. Loss of services to outlying areas means, for example, roads not being maintained to rural and suburban areas. Roads not being maintained to those areas, schools not being supported in those areas, law enforcement/fire/social services not being supported in those areas means a gradual movement into the denser city centers.

This has happened in some degree. The main ways cities generate revenue are through property taxes and intergovernmental grants, i.e. from higher levels of government, both state and federal. As the value of people’s property has declined and as state and federal governments have become more stingy, many cities are having trouble paying for their services. Some cities have even filed for bankruptcy. Other cities (the only examples I’m familiar with are in Michigan) have set up programs where they will cut off services to outlying areas, de-annex areas from the city, or demolish abandoned properties and sell them to neighbors for low prices so that they don’t have to provide services to as many homes. So far, however, this has been fairly rare.

Smart Growth/New Urbanism in Redevelopment Areas is the supposed answer: smaller units, attached condos, little or no parking, few private cars.  More eyes on the street.

It’s certainly an answer, and one that many planners, myself included, generally support. This guy doesn’t really define what they are, though. New Urbanism is a movement, principally led by the private sector, to create towns and neighborhoods based on traditional development principles. New Urbanist developments often attempt to look a lot like the small, 350-year-old town I grew up in in Massachusetts. Smart Growth is somewhat of a public policy counterpart, which has more of a focus on developing zoning codes and other regulations that are friendly to the sort of traditional building found in New Urbanist developments, which are often hard to develop because of current suburban zoning codes.

Redevelopment projects are the implementation arm of the UN plan, and include rezoning of huge sections of your cities to Smart Growth zones.

The UN has no power to force countries to comply with its resolutions, even if it had made one about New Urbanism/Smart Growth, which it hasn’t.

This physical manifestation of UN Agenda 21 is social engineering paid for with your property tax dollars. These areas then have their property taxes diverted away from your services and into the pockets of a few developers and bond brokers for 30-45 years.

Cities don’t just give money to developers. In fact, all cities require developers to at least pay application fees to develop in a city. Many also make them pay impact fees, which go towards the costs of maintaining roads or expanding schools that will be impacted by the new development. Some cities may assist large developers by assembling land or maybe waiving some fees, but only if the city’s Economic Development division thinks that doing so will bring in enough revenue and/or jobs to offset the waiver.

Water well monitoring and loss of water rights reduce the opportunity for living outside of cities.

I’ll be honest and say I don’t know a lot about this. Water rights aren’t a huge deal in the East because it rains enough that we rarely have water shortages.

Wildlands programs that prohibit roads and trails into rural areas while supposedly protecting them with conservation easements increase the loss of our food source independence.  The sale of development rights to Agricultural Land Trusts that restrict farmers and ranchers from using their lands and therefore make it impossible to farm for more than one more generation endanger our ability to feed ourselves.

America has never had a problem with “food source independence,” and I really doubt that it ever will. Agricultural land trusts don’t restrict farmers and ranchers from using their lands, they require it. Selling development rights means that you can’t sell your farm to a developer and that it will always be a farm.

Add to this the pressure from ICLEI Climate Protection Campaigns to reduce our energy usage to pre-1985 levels, and increased regulations on industry and you have the perfect storm for loss of jobs and greater dependence on other countries for goods.

First of all, the United States doesn’t participate in ICLEI, the Kyoto protocol or any of these other energy reduction programs. Even if it did, it isn’t believed that it would lead to a net loss of jobs; people who currently work in refineries would find jobs in solar panel plants. And as far as dependence on foreign countries for goods, reducing our energy consumption would make us more self-reliant, since we are the world’s largest importer of oil.

As the population becomes more and more urbanized and less able to provide food or necessary products, more people are dependent on the government for housing, food, and other basic necessities.

People have lived in cities for millennia and not relied on the government to provide these things. Cities are tied to their rural hinterlands and are still able to get food from them, and even within cities you get vegetable gardens and other small-scale forms of agriculture. Urban agriculture is actually a growing movement. And the best way to provide housing for people is not to have the government provide it, but to remove suburban-style density restrictions and let people build more densely so that there are enough housing units to drive the prices down so that the government doesn’t have to subsidize them.

As a major leveler, the loss of money, land, food, and energy independence brings the US into ‘social equity’ with the poorer countries.

That’s not what “social equity” means. From Wikipedia:
Social [equity] is a social state of affairs in which all people within a specific society or isolated group have the same status in a certain respect. At the very least, social [equity] includes equal rights under the law, such as security, voting rights, freedom of speech and assembly, the extent of property rights, and equal access to social goods and services. However, it also includes concepts of economic equity, i.e. access to education, health care and other social securities. It also includes equal opportunities and obligations, and so involves the whole of society.

Community Oriented Policing will encourage, if not require, people to watch their neighbors and report suspicious activity.  More activity will be identified as ‘crime’–such as obesity, smoking, drinking when you have a drinking problem, name calling, leaving lights on, neglect (in someone’s perception) of children, elderly, and pets, driving when you could ride a bike, breaking a curfew, and failure to do mandatory volunteering.

The UN would be powerless to do this, as well as planners, who have no police power. The only organization with the police power to do such a thing would be the government itself, and it is doubtful that, in a democracy, a state like this could arise. The “Chinese and Russian models” are both dictatorships, and unless such a government is established in America, a police state like that he describes is unlikely. As a planner, the only one I even care about is driving when you could ride a bike, and I can’t give someone a ticket for that, I’ll just make the cartway narrower and add a bike lane so that they have the choice to bike and the cars are encouraged to move at a safer speed. Also, no one in planning uses the word “communitarianism.” We’re appointed officials or hired consultants, not the government. We are powerless advisers to elected officials. If someone is worried about “communitarianism,” they should call their city councilperson, not blame the planner.

Communitarianism is the ‘balancing’ or subsuming of individual rights below the needs of the ‘community.’  The community is defined now as the global village.  So anything identified as serving the global village takes precedence over the rights of the individual.

Even if this were accurate, again, there just isn’t an enforcement mechanism. It can’t happen. Basically, this isn’t something you need to worry about. I hope that helps answer your question, although I could probably afford to be more brief. I really want to thank you for bringing it to my attention, though. Would you mind if I mention it in my blog?


I again thank Aunt Hope for bringing this to my attention and again want to reiterate that this is nothing to worry about. New Urbanism and Smart Growth aren’t about controlling your life; they are about providing opportunities for a better one.


About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

11 Responses to A letter to Aunt Hope

  1. Hi Dave,
    Unfortunately you haven’t done enough research on the issue of UN Agenda 21/Sustainable Development, ICLEI, and Smart Growth to credibly refute our information. You definitely didn’t go to the linked site http://www.DemocratsAgainstUNAgenda21.com in order to get a more complete understanding.

    UN Agenda 21/Sustainable Development was signed onto by G. H. W. Bush in 1992. It is the action plan to implement a process to inventory and control all resources, both natural and human, in the world. Inventory and control. The plan is a global plan but is implemented locally.
    What is unsustainable according to the UN? Single family homes, appliances, personal vehicles, air-conditioning, meat eating, dams, reservoirs, tillage. And that’s just a start on what’s ‘unsustainable.’

    Public/private partnerships between government and corporations and non-profit groups are having a tremendous impact on the laws we live by. Government by unelected boards and commissions is the new normal. Regional boards, metropolitan planning organizations and councils of government (MPOs and COGs) have the power to determine which local government gets state and federal funds. In this way requirements for the development of smart growth are dictated to local government. The MPOs and COGs are ‘voluntary’ for local government in the same way that membership at the water well would be in a desert. If you don’t join you don’t get money.

    I don’t have room here to focus on all of your errors, but here are a few corrections.

    For instance, you say that the United States is not a member of ICLEI–International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives, but in fact over 600 cities and counties in the US representing millions of people are members. ICLEI was created in 1990 solely to implement UN Agenda 21/Sustainable Development worldwide.

    You say that the US did not ratify Kyoto. That is true, but through ICLEI 1,055 United States Mayors committed to Kyoto anyway. Kyoto condemns ‘sprawl’ (you probably live there) and demands a commitment to smart growth.

    Communitarianism permeates your training now. When you hear that it’s for the ‘common good’ and that you need to think globally, you are listening to a communitarian. Communitarian law is changing our legal system. A good example is the 2005 Supreme Court decision in Kelo v New London Ct, in which the Supreme Court redefined ‘public use’ to mean private use because it serves the common good.

    Dave, before you advise your Aunt Hope again I suggest that you do a little more homework and try to do it without a bias. Did you know that the American Planning Association was given a multi-million dollar grant in 1993 by the President’s Council on Sustainable Development to come up with a way to get UN Agenda 21/Sustainable Development into every university, every college and every planning department in the nation? They came up with Growing Smart Legislative Guildebook with Model Statutes for Planning and the Management of Change. You studied it in school, Dave. Planners use those model statutes in the cities and counties they work in, along with the model statutes that ICLEI gives them. Growing Smart is smart growth.

    Study up, Dave. Make your Aunt Hope proud.

    • Dave Munson says:

      I really thought that the first website that Aunt Hope pointed me toward was a one-off sort of thing, but apparently this is actually a movement, so much so that the Atlantic Cities has dubbed these folks “Agenda-21’ers” and actually lists recommendations for how to have a civil conversation with them. Also, the American Planning Association has actually published a document entitled Agenda 21: Myths and Facts. Among those facts:

      Myth: The American Planning Association is one of several Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), tasked with the implementation of Agenda 21.

      Fact: The American Planning Association (APA) has no affiliation with or authority regarding any policy goals and recommendations of the U.N. APA receives no money or other support from the U.N. APA gives no funds to the U.N. APA is an independent, non-profit, non­partisan organization.

      None of APA’s programs, products or services, including the independently written Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook: Mode/ Statutes for Planning and the Management of Change, 2002 Edition, are linked to Agenda 21. The “Growing Smart” Guidebook is a menu of planning options and ideas for states and localities to consider based on successes around the country. It offers practical tools for communities to address issues such as protecting farmland, promoting affordable housing, and encouraging economic development. Planning enables civic leaders, business interests, and citizens to play a meaningful role in creating communities that enrich people’s lives and make responsible solutions to local challenges possible.

      The point for me is that the Federal government isn’t implementing anything, and few local governments are, and if you don’t like what either government is doing (including who they are appointing), you can always elect new officials. My other take away is that I really enjoy living in the heart of Philadelphia, which virtually no one would define as sprawl.

      • I really want to understand the psychology of a person who would deny the truth. Honestly, Dave, why do you seem to have an investment in refusing to understand the information you have been given? I have to think that you are just ignorant and haven’t been at a ‘visioning meeting’ put on by your government yet. Haven’t you attended a charette, or a workshop, or a stakeholders meeting for a redevelopment project or a general plan update or a regional plan? These meetings are run by facilitators trained in the Delphi Technique, a RAND corporation mind control technique and are designed to give you the illusion that your opinion is being solicited by the government when in fact you are just there to give the impression that there has been ‘community buy-in.’
        I gave you the direct line of information: UN Agenda 21 signed by Bush, 1992. Clinton creates President’s Council Sustainable Development for the express purpose of implementing UN A21 in the US, 1993. PCSD gives multi-million $ grant to American Planning Association 1993. APA develops and publishes Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook with Model Statutes for Planning and the Management of Change, 2002. In every university and planning dept by 2002. In every community thereafter.
        Really, Dave, quoting some smear of an article designed to sidetrack you and smear me is a waste of time if you look at the facts.

        • Dave Munson says:

          I can say that as someone who has facilitated vision meetings, charettes, and stakeholder meetings, both while working for a municipal government and while as a consultant updating a general plan, that I have no idea what the Delphi Technique is, and that, where feasible, we adjusted plans based on the suggestions and comments of concerned citizens. Again, I would say that the greatest threat to a community is the lack of participation by its citizenry, allowing the few and the loud to have the most influence, not some sort of planner’s technocracy based on a UN resolution that I had never heard of in my six years of education and three years of professional work. Also, in those years, I have never actually seen a copy of this guidebook; though the general ideas of smart growth are widespread in planning, it isn’t like we get our marching orders from the APA, let alone the UN.

          I hope you are enjoying this as much as I am and look forward to your next comment. In fact, I wonder if, instead of finding fault, you wouldn’t mind posting some sort of constructive proposal of what you would have planners do rather than follow smart growth policies.

  2. ‘Instead of finding fault’—Gee, Dave, I guess I’m being negative. Oh my goodness. Here’s an article from Philly.com about the rigged regional transportation planning association in your area. These groups are designed to railroad citizens and everyone on the citizens’ advisory panel to come up with exactly what was already planned in the first place. What happened when the citizens on the board wouldn’t go along to get along? The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission disbanded the board. I guess, Dave, you must be either a liar or just stupid. Sorry to be rude but your investment in extreme obtuseness is tedious. Go take another look at your planning department. Where did smart growth come from Dave? Did each city and county in the US just make it up on their own? How amazing! And positive!

    Regional planning body revamping citizen input
    January 28, 2012|By Paul Nussbaum, Inquirer Staff Writer

    A new citizens’ advisory group is in the works for the region’s transportation planning and funding agency.

    After internal squabbles prompted the disbanding of its former advisory panel last year, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission on Thursday voted to issue its new plan for public comment.

    The DVRPC board is to vote on the “public participation plan” at its April 26 meeting.

    Instead of accepting all interested citizens, the Public Participation Task Force is to have some members appointed by member counties and cities, and others selected by the agency’s staff.
    The DVRPC is a federally mandated organization that coordinates regional transportation planning and funding in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Mercer Counties.

    Applications to join the advisory panel will be available on the DVRPC’s website (www.dvrpc.org) starting Wednesday.

    The previous panel, the Regional Citizens Committee, had become sharply divided over which projects to support and even how to function.

    Recent and longtime members clashed with each other and with DVRPC staff about the panel’s goals and its independence.

    Jon Frey, an information-technology consultant from Southampton who has been an advocate for restoring commuter rail service to Newtown, was a leader of the newcomers. They argued strenuously for the Newtown rail line and against a parking garage at SEPTA’s Jenkintown station.

    Longtime members of the panel, including its chair and vice chair, accused the newcomers of disrupting meetings and hijacking the committee to push their own agenda.

    The DVRPC staff urged the commission to create a new advisory panel that would be more diverse and would follow DVRPC direction on topics to be considered.

    Several of the former members of the Regional Citizens Committee complained to the commission Thursday that the new panel would simply be a rubber stamp for DVRPC actions.

    Larry Menkes of Warminster, who was on the committee for four years, said, “As we started making recommendations that weren’t rubber stamps, we were increasingly vilified.

    “The [committee] was fine – they just didn’t like what we had to say.”

    He said the panel was advocating more action on climate change, alternative energy, and increased funding for mass transit.

    The commission’s board members on Thursday approved, without dissent, the issuance of the new public participation plan.

    The plan is to be released Monday for a 45-day comment period. It is to be available on the DVRPC website.

    • And even more on that ‘citizens panel’—these unelected boards and commissions then report to unelected boards and commissions and dictate the land use and transportation plans for the entire ‘region’ –itself a non-existent, non-legal entity. The entire process is rigged. Never before have so many opinions been solicited from so many and crafted to produce the same result in every town in the US.

  3. Donna Hodges says:

    I am beside myself thinking that Agenda 21 could be implemented all across the US. I found out this past weekend that the small town of Elgin, TX (south central TX) has signed off on this plan. My daughter lives there and is so upset about this plan. How could the people of America let this happen? We have to educate them and make them listen to this so we can fight it!

    • Dave Munson says:

      Honestly, I think this is just silly. It’s like fighting the UN saying we should brush our teeth each morning. It’s non-binding and just good practice. But hey, if you think it’s world-threatening, you can go check out the other commenter’s site. By the way, Lloyd alter at Treehugger has been covering the “conspiracy” in depth. I’ve read a bunch of his stuff, but never posted any of it, because, again, I think this is silly. But if you’re taking it seriously, check it out.

  4. RJ says:

    Dave and Rosa,

    This is an important discussion and I’m glad to find some real conversation about this topic. I am a libertarian urban planner and have long thought as a practicing planner that while our goals are generally good and desirable our tactics are ineffective and wrong. I’ve watched many of your presentations Rosa and I’m so thankful for the attention you’re bringing to this topic. To me whether you agree with Agenda 21 and what it does or doesn’t do isn’t as important as making people aware that there is a better way.

    I strongly believe that strong private property rights produces better results in many of the areas planners espouse as important – i.e. creating community, creating economic opportunity and maybe even “sustainability”. The problem to me is that we lack research and/or information showing this to be true – at least as far as I’m aware.

    Anecdotally I think of all the great cities in the U.S. I love and that attracted me to the profession of planning. They all largely developed before Euclid vs. Ambler and zoning. I think if we could convince the planning profession that private property rights are paramount to achieving the goals of planning we might do a lot to right the ship. I think planners are generally good people that are a bit utopian and idealistic. I think a convincing argument as to the merits of private property rights could influence many within the profession despite what APA is espousing or being influenced to espouse from the UN or other entities.

    That’s one approach. The other is citizens becoming aware that something is wrong – i.e. Agenda 21 and it’s deception or as I would argue convincing people that private property rights are the better way to live for them individually and for society at large. We lack the slick arguments, symbolism and material to do this as far as I know. That’s what I would like to see – a movement within the liberty movement that recognizes how important private property rights are and what zoning and property related regulations have done to erode economic activity, community and liberty.

    Just my two cents. I started a Facebook page called City Planners for Liberty and a WordPress page called stopzoningnow.com. Gotta start somewhere I guess. RJ

    • Dave Munson says:

      Let me say that, first of all, I really appreciate your civil tone, which is something that I think is sorely lacking in this discussion. I also think that part of the problem is the different sides are discussing two different ideas that the other doesn’t consider as important–one valuing private property over sustainability and the other the opposite. I think that it is worth discussing the best ways to get certain results, which is my interpretation of one of your comments above, and maybe less about philosophical ideals. I actually agree that land use zoning is inefficient (Moshe Safdie, one of my favorite architects, recently gave a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania where he said “land use zoning is impotent”), and that people should generally be allowed to do what they want on their property as long as it doesn’t impact others negatively, and thus other mechanisms such as performance zoning or form-based zoning lead to better outcomes. I think that for many planners on the smart growth/sustainability side it is more about our public spaces than our private spaces in the first place–how do we make roads safe for cyclists and pedestrians and make transit a viable option for more people.

      It looks like your WordPress is pretty brand-spanking new, but I will try and take a look at it in a few weeks and maybe we can continue a discussion based on your posts. Thanks again for your comment.

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