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Agenda 21 and looming battles over urban development


Anti-Agenda 21 and anti-sustainability, it has its roots in the Tea Party and other libertarian groups who oppose any kind of smart growth, urban planning, density, mass transit and environmental regulation.

What do bike lanes, historic preservation, light-rail development, protection of open space and energy conservation have in common?

Silly me, I thought that they were things that local governments -- not to mention ordinary people and private corporations -- were putting in place to make the urban environment more pleasant and efficient.

Grouped under the heading "sustainability," they, along with many other measures, aim to maintain air and water quality and safeguard other resources so that our world doesn't wind up looking like something from “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. In case you haven't read the book or seen the movie, it's about a father and son traveling across a post-apocalyptic landscape, where neither animals nor vegetation grows and where starving humans eat each other for lunch.

Who wouldn't want to avoid that?

Turns out, some people don't see sustainability as a good thing. To them it is an evil conspiracy whose tenets are embodied in a 20-year-old United Nations resolution ominously called Agenda 21. I only learned about it last weekend at the state GOP convention in St. Cloud when a man in a dark blue sports jacket thrust a paper about it into my hands as I was entering the powder room and rudely suggested I read it on the potty.

OK, I had nothing else to read; so I did. The four-page pamphlet proclaimed that Agenda 21 is a "communist plot...leading inevitably to the end of private property and forced abortions as a way of controlling population growth." The state of Tennessee, I learned, had already passed a law against it, asserting that "this United Nations Agenda 21 plan of radical so-called sustainable development views the American way of life of private property ownership, single-family homes, private-car ownership and individual travel choices and privately-owned farms all as destructive to the environment." If the U.N. had its way, our entire country would be turned over to wildlife.

Lurking behind all this, said the flyer, is a suspicious-sounding group called ICLEI or the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives which is in cahoots with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the American Planning Council, the National League of Cities and others to bring sustainable development to every government in every town, county and state.

First shot

The pamphlet may be the first shot across the bow in Minnesota on behalf of a movement sweeping the country. Anti-Agenda 21 and anti- sustainability, it has its roots in the Tea Party and other libertarian groups who oppose any kind of smart growth, urban planning, density, mass transit and environmental regulation. All that stuff, they claim, will add up to a New World Order, which will have Americans squished into high-rise stacks and made to travel to work on trains and buses.

Newt Gingrich decried Agenda 21 in his campaign, and Ron Paul, darling of Minnesota Republicans, wants the United States to have nothing to do with the U.N., much less abide by any of its agendas. Glenn Beck in one of his last shows on Fox News proclaimed that once these international forces "put their fangs into our communities and suck all the blood out of it, we will not be able to survive."

In fact, survival -- of the globe -- is what Agenda 21 (the 21 stands for the 21st century)  is all about. It sets forth principles encouraging countries, regions and local governments to use fewer resources and conserve open land (we do need some place to grow food) by steering development to already dense areas.

Americans could conceivably take umbrage because our rather lavish standard of living (at least compared to that of other countries) was in the crosshairs of its authors. Maurice Strong, former executive director of the U.N.'s Environment Programme, laid that on the line:"Current lifestyles and consumption patterns of the affluent middle class -- involving high meat intake, use of fossil fuels, appliances, air-conditioning, and suburban housing -- are not sustainable," he said.

While I like meat and air-conditioning as much as the next guy, I can understand why the rest of the globe might be a little nervous about our using up everything on earth.

Otherwise, most of Agenda 21's suggestions for cities -- promoting environmental awareness through participation of local communities in identifying public service needs, provision of infrastructure, enhancement of public amenities and rehabilitation of older buildings and improving employment opportunities for low-income residents -- don't seem particularly threatening.

Anyway, these goals were apparently sensible and appealing enough to convince 178 countries to sign on to the resolution at the U.N.'s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro back in 1992; President George H.W. Bush inked it for the U.S. Agenda 21 has no force of law, however. If Albania or Australia or Kuwait fails to abide by the resolution, they don't have to worry about blue-helmeted U.N. forces invading.

The U.S. hasn't done much formally to follow through. President Clinton issued an executive order directing the government to "harmonize" U.S. environmental policies with Agenda 21, and President Obama has continued the effort by setting sustainability goals for federal agencies. And, on their own, either out of good sense or self-interest, Walmart, Lowe's, Hewlett Packard, the Girl Scouts and zillions of corporations and local governments have voluntarily developed sustainability policies. Both St. Paul and Minneapolis have programs as well as 15 other communities in the seven-county metro.

Minneapolis goals

To give you an idea of what they're aiming for, here are some of Minneapolis' goals: lowering green house gases, reducing air pollution, providing alternate forms of transportation, increasing bikeways, maintaining the tree canopy, having zero beach closings, boosting green jobs and redeveloping polluted industrial sites.(I didn't see anything about forced abortions or taking away people's right to travel.)

These efforts are not necessarily growing out of Agenda 21 or any other outside entity, says Jim Erkel, attorney and director of the Land Use and Transportation Program at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "They're coming from cities' legal powers to protect the health, welfare and security of their citizens."

Now, I am the last person to say that everything city planners advocate is wonderful. Over the years, they've made some horrible mistakes. But in their objections to sustainability, anti-Agenda 21-ers seem to assume that everybody in America wants to live in a big suburban house surrounded by a plot of land with two cars in the garage. As anybody knows, anybody who has had to pay the water, sewer and heating bills and mow a lawn, suburban living is very expensive and labor-intensive.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the John Birch Society and other archconservative groups have been sending minions around the country to give seminars and stir up fears that somehow sustainability will deprive people of their property rights and lead to a global socialist government (as though it's easy to get the world together under one flag; Europe can't even get together with one currency). Under their scenario, all these city planning efforts will ultimately lead to the loss of gun rights and a takeover by the U.N. Next stop: prison camps for Americans, where I guess we will be punished for eating red meat and driving SUVs.

Tea Party action

To make sure this doesn't happen, Tea Party activists have been raising hell at local planning meetings in opposition to proposals for higher density development, mass transit and environmental regulations. They appear at meetings and shout down speakers so violently that police have to be called. In Maine, protesters complaining of a U.N. plot forced a Tea Party- backed governor to cancel a project to ease congestion along a major highway. Similarly, protesters in Florida halted plans for high-speed rail. In California, the anti-Agenda 21-ers gathered enough signatures for a ballot initiative repealing the state's environmental regulations. An unsuccessful rider on a bill in the Arizona Legislature forbade communities from sustainability planning, and the Republican party has adopted a resolution condemning it.

"These groups have tapped into long-standing fears about the loss of private property," says Don Knapp, a spokesman for the supposedly malevolent ICLEI. "The way [opponents] have framed Agenda 21 is wildly incorrect. It's not being forced on anyone anywhere."

Adopting a sustainability policy is completely up to local governments. ICLEI is a membership organization which localities join to get advice and help in formulating their plans. Cities and towns often choose vastly different goals, says Knapp. New York, for example, has a plan to reduce green house gases, Grand Rapids to increase affordable housing and Philadelphia to boost economic development with green technology.

Can this upheaval over Agenda 21 happen here in Minnesota?

Gayle Prest, Minneapolis sustainability manager, reports that so far things have been pretty quiet. "I did get an email asking if we belong to ICLEI," she said. (Budget cuts forced the city to drop its membership.)

But the anti-sustainability folks are out there. All over the Internet there are groups, some of them local, preaching the iniquities of planning, mass transit, apartment living and conservation. I tried to reach groups, like Keep MN Free, to ask what's on their agenda, but nobody answered my phone calls or emails. 

All I can say is, hang onto your bicycle seats. These folks may soon be on the march.

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Comments (17)

If Glen Beck Favors Wiping Out Agenda 21 Progress

We should, quite obviously, triple our efforts to bring Agenda 21's vision of a sustainable world into being (since Beck has always been wrong about EVERYTHING and has clearly and knowingly enriched himself while steering his sheeple into fraudulent investments in gold).

In the case of Agenda 21, he has correctly identified a set of problems, but is doing his best to make sure his audience (and he, himself?) NEVER, EVER, realizes that the people doing the damage to their communities, their lives, and our nation are the 1%ers, "too big to fail" banks, toxic corporate "people" (who, if they were individuals doing the same damage to their families, friends, and neighbors, rather than corporations, would long since have been locked up as criminally psychopathic).

Indeed, if we don't discover how to build, and begin to build better, more functional, more comfortable, more efficient, more convenient communities; communities which enable us to maintain our health by living lives closer to those which our bodies are genetically programmed to live, the time will come when our planet will no longer be able to support ANY of us.

Of course it's likely that, even in such sustainable communities, we'll need to build a few houses with large walls around them so that those who desperately need to live in total isolation from nature and other humans, pretending that they have no connection to nature and, being "self made," have no need for other humans can live in the way they will find most satisfying, but perhaps the gates on the fences around those isolation houses should have their locks on the outside.

Tea Party agenda is un-American.

This gives further validation that Tea Party members and their agenda cannot be taken seriously. Urban areas are centers for capital accumulation. Without their continued sustainable growth, cities will be furthered hollowed-out as a means for economic growth. Sustainable growth in this sense does mean higher density to contain sprawl (human-scale perferably for maximum utility in walking, biking and utilizing common space), transportation alternatives so there are less cars congesting cities and emitting carbon, maximizing open green space for human, wildlife and plant health to help replensh ecosystem requirements naturally. These are simply safety measures to ensure that cities and their residents contiune to remain healthy and prosperous. With healthy cities, capitalism will have further means to grow! Is the Tea Party arguing, then, to end capitalism? That's un-American!

Now, let's see, who could be behind this?

I bet that tracing the funding for this anti-smart growth movement would lead to a coalition of oil companies, auto companies, and builders of ticky-tack houses, funding AstroTurf groups of uninformed people who think that riding among the housing tracts and strip malls in one's SUV or minivan is a God-ordained way of life.

If you've ever traveled in Europe or East Asia, you can see how they're building for the future while American pressure groups are trying to cling to an unsustainable present.

There may be a New World Order, but it probably has more to do with debt slavery, militarism, and dumbing down the public than it does with bicycle paths or mass transit.

Suburbia is Radical, Cities are Traditional

I would like to argue that traditional urban development occurred naturally without any zoning, regulation, transit subsidies, mortgage interest-rate deduction, affordable housing, or government intervention in prior decades such as the 1910s. This was a time of small federal government, no income taxes, no United Nations, no Agenda 21, and small or nonexistant planning departments. We didn't need the government telling us how to build quality places.

In the 1910s transit ridership was high, there were no 30-year mortgages, and property developers did not need form-based codes, minimum parking requirements, or growth boundaries to make great places - they did it naturally out of instinct, and they built them to last. With proper upkeep, many buildings built 100 years ago will easily last another 100 years. This is what is actually traditional, conservative, and efficient.

It is suburbia that is non-traditional. Suburbia is an experiment that we undertook in post-WWII US that had never been attempted anywhere else before in the history of mankind - and it is just that - an experiment! Suburbia is radical, excessive, and it is an inefficient use of limited natural resources. What is so smart or even sensible about developing exurban homes through 30-year adjustable rate mortgages (read: an oversupply of risky credit) on prime farmland? Prime farmland should stay just what it is - prime farmland.

Bicycling is popular now not because its forced down people's throats, but because the market says that people want to use bicycles for transportation, and not just recreation (as they are so often marketed). The free market is simply adapting to higher energy costs and more efficient (read: conservative-based) transportation.

I am actually a HUGE fan of Ron Paul's libertarian philosophy (primarily Austrian Economics). It advocates for conservative, stable, and sustainable frameworks (tight credit supply, gold standard, etc), which is precisely what good urbanism is. Suburbia, on the other hand is by its definition radical and fragile. It has no resiliency to shocks in the system, and we will see many of them in the future as the American lifestyle exponentially consumes more and more non-renewable natural resources.


I kind of like my cheap bus and bike ride to work. I also have a jeep, so I'm hardly a left leaning flower child. These folks should get a grip. We'd save a ton of money if we didn't have to keep adding to freeways that we can't afford to maintain with declining gas tax revenue.

Such contempt

I expect from the progs - who believe they are our betters.

"What do

bike lanes, historic preservation, light-rail development, protection of open space and energy conservation have in common?"

They all cost money we don't have.

So do new unneeded defense

So do new unneeded defense systems, yet the right wing INSISTS on funding them. Even when the Pentagon says they don't want them. And NOW, after insisting for years that Government spending will not help create jobs, they are saying these defense projects need to be continued to save jobs.

No dichotomy there. None at all.

We could have it...

... if we didn't have the lowest tax rates on the wealthy since the 1920s. Seems as though it's a choice, really.

Such paranoia

"I expect from the progs - who believe they are our betters."

Now there's a reasoned argument, and that's what I've come to expect from the TP'ers, who believe everyone else is part of a global socialist conspiracy.

Arguing against smart growth on the basis of wild conspiracy theories and slash & burn politics ... well, it speaks for itself.

Where did these people get so many tinfoil hats, and why are they wearing them?

I call it the "Great Stupid"

It's an era we entered in the late 70s and are still struggling with. The quality of intellect and information as become so degraded that rational public policy has almost become impossible. Here's the thing about the Tea Party: Tea Partyer's may or may not be- white, racists, educated, wealthy, young, or old. but they are always ignorant. You turn the power plant over to Homer Simpson at your peril.

By the way, the suburbs were the product national transportation and economic policy, they didn't emerge "naturally".

Agenda 21 is a "communist

Agenda 21 is a "communist plot...leading inevitably to the end of private property and forced abortions as a way of controlling population growth."

I suppose these illiterate, mentally-challenged, paranoid schizophrenics also believe that our government is secretly negotiating a planned armageddon with extraterrestrials, too. This is just another illustration of why the Tea Party and Republicans can never be viewed as legitimate political parties: they're inhabited by the Dumb, and Dumberer.

Idiocracy, the movie

Somehow it's just not that funny when I watch it any more . . . . . .


That’s the best you can do, Mr. Krasnoff? “Such contempt I expect from the progs - who believe they are our betters”?

As a former planning commissioner, I’ll second Ms. Harris that not everything planners do has been wonderful. Let me also point out that, in that same role, I’ve also discovered that not everything land developers do is wonderful. Odd, isn’t it, that instead of simply blurting out the latest prejudice, someone might actually have to pay attention to what’s going on in order to make sensible decisions? Or sensible arguments?

The fact that the anti-sustainability groups and arguments are filled with paranoid nonsense doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous to the welfare of the society. I’ve attended John Birch Society meetings – nothing sensible is likely to come from that group. Having spent most of my life in the suburbs, I have to say that I enjoy suburban life. That doesn’t make suburban life something that’s “good” for the society, or that the society can afford to maintain for the long term. Suburban life requires – REQUIRES – very cheap energy. It also requires inexhaustible resources, including an inexhaustible supply of land.

Really cheap energy will be – and to some degree already is – increasingly difficult to find. Oil prices are not going to magically revert. There will be no return to the gasoline prices of my youth, when regular was usually 19.9 cents per gallon. Coal pollutes the air we breathe. Drilling for natural gas pollutes the water we drink. Mining for metals – as they’re about to rediscover in the Arrowhead – produces long-lasting poisons in both water and land. And so on.

There’s no substitute for potable water and breathable air. There’s no viable alternative to the one and only environment we have. More personally, there’s no reason why anyone should be proud to send a young man or woman off to die in a war somewhere to protect our oil supply so that someone else can continue to drive their SUV – or even their Prius – 30 miles a day to work and 30 miles back home again. Suburbs – and I reiterate that I’ve lived in them most of my life – are a social and economic aberration. They’re not sustainable economically or environmentally.

Does that mean everyone should live in a 500-square-foot efficiency apartment in a city of half a million, or several million? I don’t personally think so. Plenty of smaller cities have economies of their own that can – or at least potentially could – support their population. Even in those cases, however, “suburban-style” development has subdivisions being built beyond the fringe of that small city, rather than developing or redeveloping land in the city that already has the necessary infrastructure, and would make far more efficient use of transportation and taxpayer dollars.

I’ve been to Houston, where planning is viewed with disdain. I wouldn’t want to live there. Good places to live don’t happen by accident.

As for “What do bike lanes, historic preservation, light-rail development, protection of open space and energy conservation have in common? They all cost money we don’t have.” Highways cost money we don’t have, too. Building streets in new suburban developments costs money we don’t have, especially when more than half the cost of a street is maintenance over its useful life. Missile defense shields cost money we don’t have. Billion-dollar fighter planes cost money we don’t have. Oil company subsidies cost money we don’t have. And so on, ad nauseum. There ain’t no free lunch, not only for welfare programs for the poor, but also for welfare programs for the well-off.

Denser development makes more efficient use of taxpayer dollars. That’s why it’s a better deal in the long run. That’s why cities have been the centers of civilization for as long as there has been civilization.

Bravo, Mr Schoch.

Extremely nicely put. I'll add that as in almost all things from the ideological Right, psychological projection rules the day. What is claimed as the free market is the result of canonical market failure: monopoly, subsidy and "information asymmetry." What is claimed as social engineering is the orthodox response to market failure. But again, facts don't count. It's bumper sticker ideology as attempted diversion from the inner discomfort about a worldview that is obliterated by the world as it exists.

More denial and obstruction

The paranoidal Agenda 21 conspiracy theory concocted by right-wing organizations and supported by fossil-fuel interests is yet another pathological means of denying the reality of human-induced global warming and obstructing urgently needed public and private efforts to mitigate the warming and adapt to its increasing destructive climate changes. As the International Energy Agency has warned in its latest annual report, our climate system has already been locked into decades of global warming, and the over 7 billion people who inhabit our fragile planet only have about five years to sharply reduce CO2 in the atmosphere and oceans before some of the changes become irreversible. Our Department of Defense and CIA clearly understand that is a serious threat to U.S. national security, and they're including mitigation, adaptation and other efforts in their plans and operations. Perhaps the greatest threat to our security are crackpot conspiracy theorists.

Tea Party?

The artist/music/Anarcho-primitivism scene Mpls uptown is where I heard about Agenda 21, and similar opinions in travels. I am rather confused by this article? as across this country A-21 is not well known. Not even where it is being employed. Those who head up the green Eco-political movements deny any knowledge, to this day.
I think you are a few steps ahead of yourselves, "S.F. No. 2117 - Legislative Commission on United Nations Agenda 21 Establishment" is the first policy I have seen where UN involvement is implied. Dan Feidt from Occupy Mn movement is a wealth of information for my own views.
IMO The topic here should be "why the tea party members are terrorists".
Our futures are at stake, moreso by demonizing fellow Americans into some pigeon hole of domestic terrorism-or is that part of agenda 21?
Admittedly Semi-informed,