Chapel Hill: Opinion

Terri Buckner: Questions we need to be asking

There’s a local meme that says something like “if outsiders want to move into this community we have to let them; it’s not fair to limit access to such a great place.”

But where that feeling, honorable though it may be, falls apart is that as more people move in, the natural and cultural landscapes of the community change and many of those aspects that made it a great place are lost. On the other hand, new residents bring exciting new outlooks and talents to the community. The challenge in managing growth is to find balance between the old and the new.

So as we preparing for increasing urbanization, it’s incumbent upon us to decide how we will deal with those anticipated and unanticipated changes. We can continue with the current divisive path that pits one group against the other; we can give up and passively accept whatever comes along; or we can pursue an open dialogue for determining that which we want to protect and that which we let go of. My vote is for the latter.

In a single-loop system, such as a thermostat, feedback is received and processed with the goal of maintaining equilibrium. You set the temperature based on your comfort zone and the HVAC system maintains that temperature until you change it.

Translating single-loop thinking into community terms means that development plans are reviewed and approved with the expectation of maintaining equivalent levels of community services, such as transit ridership or student-teacher ratios; or that the current water and sewer infrastructure can meet the increased demand. Visual features, like building heights or public art, may create some change but functionally, the community remains the same, except for unintended consequences, like gentrification, which by definition are rarely anticipated or controlled. Single-loop thinking is the status quo.

Double-loop system

In a double-loop system, feedback is more sophisticated.

Instead of maintaining a predetermined temperature, the system might ask if you want to modify your comfort zone based on current humidity levels; or it might notify you that weather conditions warrant shutting down the HVAC and opening the windows to save energy.

In community terms, error detection is followed by a review of current norms or policies. For example, before approving new senior housing, we need to ensure that we have sufficient EMT support. Or we need to investigate the impact building a big box (minimum-wage salaries) will have on already underfunded social services. In both of these examples, the development review occurs at the municipal level and the unintended consequences are paid for by county services. So collaborating with upstream and downstream service providers is another example of double-loop thinking.

My New Year’s wish for this community and our local governments is that we actively and collaboratively pursue double-loop thinking as new growth plans are brought forward. And I don’t mean just for reviewing land-use aspects of growth.

Impacts on the cultural landscape are just as important, if not more so, as building heights and placement. How is the community changed when small, locally owned businesses close because they can no longer afford local rents? What do we lose when the median income continues to increase along with poverty rates? Do we need or want a middle class in this community? How does gentrification change the cultural dynamics within our schools and public places? These aren’t easy questions, and they aren’t questions that can be answered with any degree of certainty. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask them and many others.