Public Comment

The Fictions of ABAG

By Steve Martinot
Thursday February 11, 2010 - 09:48:00 AM

Once upon a time, back in the days when people were clamoring for justice and participation, some courageous souls formed an organization in the Bay Area consisting of delegates from the cities and counties of the region, for the purposes of curbing regional pollution and environmental despoliation, preserving urban open space, and guarding the traditional character of different neighborhoods. Thus was born the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). It sought to coordinate common interests across city lines, and be the expression of local policy against the designs of centralized planning commissions, the top-down development of transportation and industry, and the urban sprawl that transportation technology incurred. It began as a way in which local constituencies could act politically up against the state. That was then; this is now. 

What turned ABAG upside-down was transportation planning. It wanted to be the central planning body for Bay Area transportation, but it got upstaged by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), an agency given planning authority and functional control over that economic category by the state. ABAG was then “given responsibility” for land-use planning by the MTC (according to Revan Tranter in his 2001 brief history of ABAG). I put “responsibility” in quotes becauses it marks a critical shift. Democratic representation means to be responsible to an electorate, a conduit of power and interest from the bottom up. When a higher state agency gives a governmental association “responsibility for” something, that arrow is reversed, and power and interest flow from the top down. 

This is what Tranter doesn’t understand. In his critique (Planet, Feb. 4, 2010) of my earlier article (Planet, Jan. 28, 2010) on representation and development (in which I mention ABAG), he correctly describes ABAG’s purpose as allocating housing development needs to different regions of the Bay Area (his quibble with the actual figures being unimportant). But at the same time, he thinks ABAG is representative (in a democratic sense) becauses it is composed of delegates appointed by cities and counties. Though they leave the design of housing development to local government; they nevertheless function to allocate. What he doesn’t see is that “allocation” is a top-down procedure, whereas democracy must work from the bottom up. In the face of this contradiction, all he can tell us is how well ABAG does its job, while it is that job that is the problem. Indeed, with respect to the “top-down” paradigm, allocating and “giving responsibility for” (to which we can add “bringing democracy to the unenlightened”) are slogans of forms of autocracy. 

But despite Tranter’s assurances, both ABAG’s representative character and its allocations are fictional. ABAG makes its decisions concerning the “responsibility” for increased housing that it “allocates” to each city by means of a “Projection Model,” that is, a computerized forecasting process. You plug in data and a few historico-economic assumptions—the kind that get knocked unceremoniously into the river by financial crises—and the “Projection Model” tells you what your increase in population and their infrastructure needs will be. It doesn’t matter that there may not be any reality to the assumptions—for instance, Berkeley’s population has been fairly constant over the last two decades. They get worked into the software anyway. In other words, the “projection model” is a form of speculation—which is another term for fictionalizing reality. Unless, of course, the situation is more insidious; that is, that ABAG is party to a plan to manifest a sizable relocation of people from the “sprawl” back into the cities, to cut down on the commute time of the managerial class—a task it hints at on its webpage—which means they know the future because they are party to creating it. 

But the idea that ABAG represents the people, because it is composed of delegates “chosen by their peers,” is also fictional. The delegates of cities are not chosen by the people, but by city councils. The delegate from Berkeley happens to be Laurie Capitelli, councilperson for the 5th district. He was not chosen by the whole city of Berkeley, but by the city council. To my knowledge, he has not given reports to the people of this city, whom he ostensibly “represents,” about his activity in ABAG, nor about what ABAG is doing. Nor has he called any meetings of the citizens of this city to ask them what they think he should be doing for them in ABAG, let alone educate them about their “power,” through their “representative” (himself), in that body. This implies that the relation between ABAG and the city council is (metaphorically, perhaps) a “back-room” affair. And it has to be if it is part of a power chain that flows from the top down, a structure of government imposed between local city and county entities and the state’s executive administration. It is not representative, except insofar as it represents the interests of the state over the people. The flip-side of that is that the people end up representing ABAG in their (necessary) acceptance of its decisions for them. Thus, ABAG is not only anti-democratic in its allocations, but today stands in opposition to the ideals of justice and participation from which it germinated. 

It is in this anti-democratic spirit, I think, that certain city councilpersons acted to obstruct the petition for a referendum on the Downtown Area Plan. In so doing, their claim to being “representative” melted away. And this in turn was the context for my main point in the Jan. 28 article, that urban development deconstructs in the sense that imposing high-rise densifying construction on a neighborhood will decimate the traditional culture—its commercial character, its comfort and entertainment resources, etc.—that the new buildings will need as a social infrastructure, because the increase in land values will price them out of existence, leaving the area undesirable. In other words, however one plans locally, to accede to an external allocation for newly constructed, population-densifying buildings will be a self-destructing project. 

Finally, in order for urban development to not be self-contradictory, certain infrastructures have to be in place first. These include a more extensive intra-city public transportation system, a system of citizen participation in formulating as well as voting on the terms of that development, and finally, rent control to maintain the stability of the neighbors (the actual people, so often forgotten), both residential and commercial. 


Steve Martinot is a Berkeley resident.