I am writing this piece in response to a recent experience that I believe has planning relevance. I also believe it adds another problem with ‘expert’ information that we seldom acknowledge.
Planners are frequently involved in projects that require highly technical or scientific knowledge and judgment (for example the impact of air and water pollution on people and the environment). I often find that planners occupy a key role between the experts and the local residents and must ask the expert the ‘right question’ to answer the residents’ concerns.
In the last 20 years, there has been an encouraging groundswell of support for combining expert knowledge with local knowledge. Academics like Frank Fischer, articulated the value of local knowledge in his compelling book, Citizens, Experts, and the Environment (2000). Namely, environmental justice organizations work to highlight local knowledge contributions to decision-making. I think most planners get it – local people know important things that will improve decisions and we need to make sure their voices are included.
However, I want to write about another way in which experts can impair the information exchange and diminish citizen engagement. Recently, the Community Benefits Coalition in Southwestern Detroit asked me to investigate the appropriate/safe buffer distances between a highway and a residential area. As a good scholar, I went to the literature and I have found a number of studies that measure the impact of vehicle pollution on human health. In general for high volume roads like highways, mortality or morbidity increased for people living within 150 meters (500 feet) of the road. Therefore, buffer areas should be at least 150 meters. However, in addition to this, my community group was interested in learning what the buffer distances were to be on the Ontario side of the border (which will accommodate the same type and volume of vehicles as they traverse the proposed Gordie Howe International Bridge). After reading some very boring Ministry of Ontario Transportation Design Specifications, I remembered my cousin. While I don’t see my cousin too frequently, he is a civil engineer who has worked on highway projects in Eastern Ontario for the last 15 years. What could be better - someone inside the organization who could provide examples of different buffer widths and buffer types that had been constructed. I would discretely ask an expert for some examples to provide guidance to the community and I would promise him anonymity.
After some email pleasantries, my cousin, the ‘expert’, writes a few sentences that conclude, ‘there are too many variables for me to offer an opinion’. As a person with a passion for science, I understand the limitations of research and the impossibility of providing ‘absolute’ answers. However, as a person seeking information to help guide a low-income community in assembling their requests, I need some guidance! The residents, in their list of mitigation request can’t respond by saying – there are just too many variables so we don’t know. So in a follow-up email, I wrote my cousin back and just ask for a few examples in Ontario that we could use to justify the community’s request. No response.
We have learned through experience that experts may not have the ‘answer’. But experts have knowledge and experience that is helpful. I am not suggesting that experts should be cavalier in their responses, rather I encourage ‘experts’ to attach the appropriate caveats to opinions they offer and examples they identify. But NO answer is NOT acceptable.
Over the holidays, conversation around the punch bowl may become heated as I ask what are the responsibilities of an ‘expert’? Unofficially enlisting my cousin may not be a representative example of this problem type, but I have seen too many experts punt too many times. No answer becomes another impediment for struggling communities. When, as planners, do we press down on the ‘expert’s’ reticence to answer in the name of advancing social and environmental justice?