By Dom Nozzi
In March 1998, I wrote about thinking back to Gainesville, Florida’s political past. It was a black, tragic day for Gainesville’s future. A landslide 59 percent voted to oppose a paved bicycle and pedestrian greenway trail along the Hogtown Creek in Gainesville.
This happened despite the fact that it was an incredibly confusing ballot (usually fatal for a ballot referendum), and probably prevents the city from building ANY recreation facilities in west Gainesville. This unintended (?) outcome was apparently due to voters who thought that the prohibition on ALL recreation facilities near the creek was a lie by the City to try to scare voters into not voting for the amendment. It turned out that the sloppily written ballot measure did, in fact, prohibit any recreation facilities from being built in the creek watershed. Surely not a desirable outcome for most who voted against a bicycle and pedestrian path.
I gloomily expected that the ballot measure would pass. And I was astounded when I learned that while the City Law Department wisely recommended that the commissioners challenge the ballot in court, the City Commission went against the recommendation because they felt no one would vote for it!
Why was I pessimistic? Because it is so damn easy for people to ease their guilty conscience about the environment by voting against paving — especially since it is no skin off their nose to oppose a path they never expected to use. In addition, it just seemed intuitively obvious to naïve armchair environmentalists that paving near a creek was harmful to the environment. It takes real knowledge and research to realize opposing such a path is wrong-headed. Finally, for environmentalists, this was a fight they could finally win. They can never win on a REALLY destructive project like a road widening (not that most environmentalists would actually oppose a road widening, since so many are happy motorists).
But, damn it, at least they can win on a bike path.
Perhaps that blunderous vote will end up being a lesson to us that direct democracy does not work in a large, complex society. That we must realize that only a representative democracy can work. After all, what is next? Will we ask citizens to vote to amend the city charter to prevent the city from ever using, say, titanium, to build a bridge? Absurd, but the analogy fits.
How sad that Gainesville voters voted in the 1990s to create a more grim future for their city. The permanent prohibition on building a path near the creek has condemned the creek to continued neglect and therefore a perpetuation of its degradation due to neglect.
Who needs enemies when we have ourselves?
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
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