How to Cover Urban Planning: A Guide for Local Journalists

By Nolan Gray, republished from Strong Towns

So, you’ve been assigned to write a story about urban planning. Maybe there’s a rezoning underway that would allow for more apartments in a downtown neighborhood. Or perhaps there’s a proposal to expand an already-six-lanes-wide suburban stroad. Or let’s say the city is moving to add a protected bike lane to a busy downtown street.

At this point, you’ll typically encounter three variables: First, there will be a group of people who are extremely pissed off about the proposed change and very vocal about their concerns. Second, you’ll find that, for all the surface-level local focus, the outcome of this planning initiative could have important impacts on citywide affordability and mobility. Third and finally, you will discover that a vast and complicated web of regulations, agencies, and ulterior motives are at play, which you are now expected to learn and distill down to 600 words.

All of this is to say, you have a lot on your plate! Which might explain why journalists at all levels so frequently get the reporting wrong on urban planning issues. For those of us who follow these issues with a passion, a lot of local coverage of urban planning can be a painful experience, littered, as it tends to be, with victim blaming, myopia, and uncritical restatements of special interest talking points.

To address this, I have a compiled a list of 11 friendly suggestions for local journalists covering these issues. I hope this set of guidelines will improve your reporting and leave your readers better informed. And if you’re reading this and you’re not a journalist, consider sharing it with a local reporter.

1. Don’t overemphasize the angry naysayers for things like rezonings, street diets, etc. Don’t give them the lead or headline unless you (or your editors) value clicks over quality reporting. Remember to mention supporters of the initiative and not just the developer or contractor who serves to benefit. Depending on the issue, seek out your local housing affordability or mobility activist groups and ask for their opinion.

2. The people who show up at the meetings are one unique slice of the community, not “the community.” Not everyone has the time or resources to show up for a three hour weekday evening meeting to share their mild approval of a proposed road diet. But that doesn’t mean that their voices should be ignored. As with the last suggestion, make an effort to reach out and hear the other side of the story.

3. Put the issue in the appropriate broader context. Speaking of “the other side of the story,” don’t get swept up by parochial concerns. If you only listen to the angry locals at the community meeting, the rezoning you are covering might sound like the end of the world. But if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, you may find that proposal ties into broader citywide issues. Small planning decisions have big impacts on citywide affordability and mobility. When it comes to things like housing affordability, that “bigger picture” might even be national. Clue your readers into the full story.

4. If you are covering a rezoning, explicitly name and describe the current and proposed zoning. It’s actually a bit remarkable how many articles I read about rezoning that don’t once mention the zoning districts at play or the details of how they’ll regulate development. Sometimes an article lists a proposed change without actually explaining the current laws. You wouldn’t report on an election and not say the names of the candidates or whose seat they’re running for; why leave out such basic details in urban planning coverage?

5. Always link to the relevant public reports, studies, hearing recordings, etc. Most of the reports and studies you are citing will be publicly available online as PDFs, and many cities now have their public hearings recorded and posted online. This simple addition adds depth for the more engaged readers, without boring casual readers.

6. Confused? Ask the city planner assigned to the case. Their job is literally to explain this stuff to elected officials and the public, and they will almost always have a comprehensive knowledge of the situation. Plus, if they are professional, they won’t editorialize, unlike most of the other people, you will be interviewing.

7. Things that strike you as crazy might actually have solid evidence-based support among experts and professionals. For example, let’s say your city is considering pricing on-street parking or removing a lane of traffic. Everyone in the room might be up in arms about how this will make parking and driving harder, but both of these initiatives have rock-solid researched evidence to support them and to explain their benefits to your community. That doesn’t mean these sorts of decisions should be an open-and-shut case, but leaving out such details impoverishes your reader’s perspective.

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Typical pedestrian-blaming in a headline (Source: CT Post)

8. Blaming the person hit by the car is bad form. Sadly, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths are an all-too-common story that you may be forced to cover at some point. Don’t overemphasize some tiny “error” on the part of the pedestrian/bicyclists (for example, “she wasn’t wearing a helmet,” “he had had a few drinks,” “she didn’t walk a mile down to the crosswalk,” etc.) especially if the driver was known to be speeding and/or distracted. Don’t implicitly (and inappropriately) assign blame simply by the way you structure sentences (for example, say “the bicyclist and the semi-truck collided,” not “the bicyclist collided with the semi-truck”). Police reports may, at times, engage in this kind of lazy victim blaming, but know that you don’t need to overemphasize it, as stories of this nature frequently do.

9. It’s “traffic crashes,” not “traffic accidents.” “Accident” assumes that there was nothing that could be done about the incident. This is rarely the case, and I’m not just talking about careless drivers here. In many cases, grossly negligent street design makes traffic crashes practically inevitable.

10. Not everyone drives. Keep their perspectives in mind. If you are a driver, it can be easy to assume that everyone drives. But if you are reporting in a mid-size city or larger, or a college town, chances are good that anywhere from one in 10 to one in four of your readers commute via by transit, walking, or bicycle. Furthermore, every city has plenty of residents who don’t drive because they are too young, too old, disabled, can’t afford a car, etc. Some of your readers may be reading your article about a proposed dedicated bus lane as they sit on a bus stuck in traffic. Don’t leave out that perspective.

11. Try to conclude with how an interested reader can get involved. When you first report on a local planning issue, the fight is almost certainly far from over. Share the dates, times and locations for upcoming hearings. Perhaps even let your readers know who in government they might contact about this issue. Local journalism matters, in part, because it strengthens local democracy—the level at which America’s ideals come closest to reality. Make it easy for your readers to join the discussion about the future of their community.

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