Public Opinion on Oregon Land Use - What the Numbers Tell us

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Adam Davis, May 2012

Numbers reveal important and empowering facts. Opinion research shows that healthy majorities in communities across the state of Oregon want to prevent urban sprawl and conserve forest and farm land. Why do residents value living in Oregon?

Thanks to quantitative research we know that the top four reasons relate to land use:  the state’s natural beauty, environmental quality, sense of community, and the proximity and variety of outdoor recreation. These values underlie support for urban growth boundaries, the development of transportation alternatives, walkable communities, and economic development that respects air and water quality and the state’s forest and farm land.

Why then does it seem so difficult to grow Oregon economically in an environmentally sensitive way? Why are proposals so often attacked as too pro-business or too pro-environment, resulting in stalemate? Numbers can help answer these questions, too. Opinion research has found that five factors undermine the development of responsible public policy:

(i) negativity towards government and politics and other major institutions including big business and the media;
(ii) low awareness and knowledge of the ABC’s of government, economics, geography, and history;
(iii) anxiety about the economy and other problems;
(iv) changing attitudes and behaviors related to the media; and
(v) changing demographics.

These factors are all multi-dimensional and, combined with other factors like the initiative process and the closed primary, have led to the worst public opinion climate in Oregon that I’ve seen in my 35 years in the research business. We live in an era of less civic engagement, of less informed participation in the electoral process, and sadly, of policy-making and planning that is controlled by the ends of the opinion spectrum rather than the middle, where most of the general population resides. The bell on the bell-shaped curve has dropped off the graph of civic engagement.

So the numbers tell us what Oregonians value, and they point out obstacles to growing Oregon in keeping with those values. But can they help us do anything about the obstacles? It will take time. The current storm in public opinion is likely to worsen in the short term, resulting in more devastation to public involvement and policy-making. But the numbers tell us that amid the storm damage is a feeling that things are broken and that we have to act differently.  The numbers suggest this feeling grows stronger every day, and may represent an opportunity to reengage the majority of Oregonians, transforming the state’s public institutions and economy. For this to happen we need the leadership of all sectors and all political persuasions to work together, and we need good communications.

If we heed the numbers, we will learn in our communications to link policy initiatives to what people value and to the issues they are concerned about. Take the environment.

Three issues of concern top the list:  clean water, energy dependence, and climate change/global warming. Whether it is a proposal to create more jobs or a land use or transportation system change, linking it to residents’ values and concerns will catch attention across the state and assist in garnering support.

Tuning in to the numbers can help restore a positive political process in Oregon.

Adam Davis is a Principal and Founder of DHM Research.