The more I learn about urban planning, the more I realize that the small town that I come from is as close to a utopia as it gets. For so long the insulated community and slow pace of life repelled me, and during Christmas breaks two weeks in Point Reyes was nearly more than I could bear. But at the simplest level, the people of Point Reyes have claimed their rights to dictate what happens to the land, buildings, and environment that surround them. They have said no to the corporatization of their town, and have resisted the encroachment of the state government and its privatized service providers. Only from Beirut, while studying urban planning and policy and hearing stories of utopia’s never realized, have I been able to realize how incredible my hometown is.
Point Reyes is a quaint town 50 miles north of San Francisco, nestled between rolling hills and a sharp majestic ridge at the base of Tomales Bay. Populated by the odd bedfellows of ranchers, artisans, migrant hippies and Mexican immigrants, Point Reyes is regionally known for its liberal, independent bent. With no town government structure, Point Reyes’ official voice comes in the form of a district supervisor.
So who plans Point Reyes? Who responds to the needs of the community?
Well, the citizens, of course. Since my childhood, Point Reyes has been full of active, vocal, community-oriented citizens that outright reject the notion of corporations infiltrating their town and are willing to attend county meetings to make sure their voices are heard. Point Reyes, along with other county communities, is currently fighting the instillation of “Smart Meters” by Pacific Gas & Electric. These meters constantly emit short bursts of electromagnetic transmission, and have not been fully studied for potential health risks.
Shortly before coming to Beirut, I went home and saw “No Smart Meter” signs wrapped around every old-fashioned meter in my neighborhood. I saw signs downtown, articles in the local newspaper, and a website devoted to preventing the installation of these meters. Having come from Washington DC where the installation of such meters would likely go unnoticed, my first thought was, “Don’t these people have something more pressing to worry about?”
My Mother- originally from Indianapolis and tends not to be interested in politics, community activism or anything else that requires contact with other humans- had been attending the meetings where the leaders of the “No Smart Meter” movement have explained their concerns to the community. She said she wasn’t concerned when she first heard about it, but word of mouth and the meetings had convinced her she didn’t want a Smart Meter in our home, and she was able to coherently explain to me why. I was immediately suspicious, and knew I had to find out more about these people who had against all odds inspired my Mother to wrap a “No Smart Meter” sign around the box in our front yard. What exactly was afoot in Point Reyes?
Out of curiosity, I recently joined an online community forum started by a group called West Marin Commons. I wanted to know how vibrant this apparent community of activists that I have seemingly dismissed really was. It turns out that this West Marin Commons is creating a new community dialogue- one where the community comes first, and the people’s voices are able to create the imagined future of the town. Over the past few years, this community spirit has manifested itself in many ways: from the creation of public spaces such as a walking trail and a community garden to hosting community harvest dinners and organizing shared transportation and the money-free exchange of goods.
The community spirit that had inspired my Mother to take a personal stand against Smart Meters and the work of West Marin Commons, which brings together young and old to plant and plan, simply amazes me. I have noticed an uncharacteristic pessimism in my response to urban planning theory- perhaps produced by my last three years working for an unwieldy and unresponsive government organization. Suddenly, discovering that my hometown is making the romantic planning processes that I initially dismissed actually work has me trying to re-evaluate.
What about Point Reyes makes participatory planning and community driven initiatives work? For one, there is little anonymity in Point Reyes. Somehow, most people know one another. There is a strong sense of what the community doesn’t want. Along with that lack of anonymity comes the opportunity to build a real community. Second, Point Reyes doesn’t really have the “luxury” to sit back and let the mechanisms of governance work. While I have come to believe that the impositions of government top down planning often do more harm than good, it is interesting to think that a place like Point Reyes has never been planned by a planning commission, per say. Certainly the county has tried to come in and add a stop sign here, or re-pave a road there, but it seems as though there is a lot of latitude for the production of space at the local, grass roots level.
Even at such a small scale, it is fascinating that groups such as West Marin Commons have decided to not only to work on public spaces and community projects, but also to create local dialogue about the foundational issues of production by encouraging local exchange and barter systems and keeping monetary wealth in the community by buying local. The fact that the neoliberal epidemic of privatization has not reshaped Point Reyes makes me wonder either how we avoided it or why it never came for us.
Is the answer to this question one of scale? Is it affected by the fact that most of the wealthy businesses in Point Reyes do not own the land that they produce on because it is part of an agricultural land trust? Or is it Point Reyes’ natural aversion to anything mainstream? I have always felt a bit uncomfortable with Point Reyes’ “anti-establishment” vibe, but it is starting to grow on me. Knowing that my town defies the odds by planning for itself actually impresses me.
These days it seems the meager political representation Point Reyes has is unwilling or unable to stop the installation of Smart Meters against the will of the people. However, the people have not given up. A recent post on the community forum warned residents of a Smart Meter truck sighting. Over the course of a few hours, new posts popped up, updating the status and location of the truck, calling on kindred spirits to go and confront the installer. The sense of community that has been created in Point Reyes gives latitude to divergent opinions while respecting common values and elevates the rights of its citizens to choose what is imposed upon them by the outside world. I’m rooting against the evil meter matrons from afar, hoping they have to encounter my Mother’s wrath and hear her community-developed articulation of why the Smart Meter isn’t for her or our town.