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Agenda 21 and looming battles over urban development

You likely haven’t heard of Agenda 21, but you probably will in the future.


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?

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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.

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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.

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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.