Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What is “Planning”?

The American Planning Association (APA) recently released the results of a poll on how Americans view planning.  The summary can be read here with the full report here.  What the pollsters found was that Americans strongly support planning, with a typical favorable rating of near 67 percent depending on the question and the demographic.

Kaid Benfield of the National Resources Defense Council weighed in with his typically cogent commentary, trying to understand “But, in a world where almost two-thirds of Republicans and two-fifths of all voters told pollsters ‘the government should stay out of Medicare,’ what do survey results mean, exactly?”   He points out various key findings, but also highlights some inconsistencies, such as a high desire for sidewalks but less desire for destinations toward which the sidewalks would lead.  In the end, he ends up almost as puzzled as when he began.

My theory is that the average American doesn’t have a clear picture of how planning works in our country.  And that confusion leads to perplexing poll results. 

The biggest problem, about which I’ve written before, is a mistaken belief that planners have far more power than they do.  Examples are the average citizens who argue “the city should have put a restaurant into that building” and the Agenda 21ers who express a belief that the OneBayArea plan will force everyone to live in multi-family buildings.  The type of planning authority may have existed in the Soviet Union, but certainly doesn’t in the U.S.  Nor should it.  After all, the Soviet Union eventually collapsed and centralized planning had a role in its failure.

In hopes of shedding a feeble light on the state of our planning, I’ll offer my thoughts on the different types of “planning roles” that would seem to apply to all countries working under a democratic/capitalist model.

By my count, there are five different planning roles.  (Others may count differently.  I’d like to hear your thoughts.)  In my tally below, I give examples in the land-use arena.  However, I expect that the five planning roles apply equally well to arenas as disparate as energy, banking regulations, and consumer goods.

Long-range planning: In land use, this is typically performed by government and comprises the establishment of long-term visions for the community.  Typical products are general plans, specific plans, and other conceptual plans.  Zoning codes, which planners anticipate will guide the community in the desired direction, is also a form of long-range planning.  Another example is the implementation standards for CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act).

Development planning: This is the configuration of a proposed project that will comply with the standards established by the long-range planners and which will also allow the developer to be rewarded for the development risk.  In land use, this task is typically undertaken by a private developer.

Compliance planning:  This is the form of planning of which many people think first.  It’s the government task that confirms that a proposed development is consistent with the appropriate codes and regulations.  In many cases, the area of planning also includes appearances before planning commissions and/or city councils.

Advocacy planning:  This category includes non-profit groups such as the Project for Public Spaces and academia.  Advocates may speak eloquently on behalf of a land use vision and sometimes have funds to help advance their goals, but don’t have the direct authority to approve projects.

Citizen planning: This is where the common citizen steps to the microphone to address the city council on a proposed land use, or writes a letter to the local newspaper to express an opinion, or volunteers to serve on a citizens committee for a new specific plan.

Over the course of a career, many people will function in several of the roles.  In my own career as a consultant and private citizen for three decades and counting, I’ve filled all five roles at different times.  (This blog is a small voice of advocacy planning.)

But rarely do the five integrate as well as we might hope.  A team of long-range planners might develop a specific plan calling for a particular kind of development and a developer might prepare a detailed plan to implement the concept, only to find that the compliance planners, or the city council, see things differently than the since-departed long-range planners.  Or perhaps advocacy planners argue for a new approach to land development which resonates with the public, but the long-range planners in the community have a different agenda.  It’s a frequent frustration, but it’s part of the process.

Perhaps when two-thirds of the APA respondents indicated a desire for more planning, they were really asking for better coordination between the five types of planning.  From years in and around planning, I’d agree with them.  But always with the caveat that too much planning coordination starts looking a lot like the centralized planning of the Soviet Union.  Our system may be clunky and often frustrating, but at least it doesn’t fail that catastrophically.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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