Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Land-Use Philosopher

Many years ago, I worked with a land-use planner for whom I had great respect.  She joined the firm for which I was working as we were beginning the entitlement effort for a large golf/residential project.  We successfully guided that project through initial approval and subsequent amendments for nearly a decade, while also collaborating on numerous other projects.

She and I didn’t always agree, but I always respected her opinions and her passions about the best land uses.  (Yes, she was an urbanist before many even knew the word.)

We haven’t stayed close since I returned to California, but we exchange occasional emails.  Including one in which I told her that I was beginning this blog.

I hope to break bread with my planner friend early this summer.  As a P.S. to an email discussing that possibility, she added the note, “I read your blog now and again.  I'm impressed!  You have become quite the planner.”

I’m pleased with her occasional readership and her praise.  But I’m also discomfited.  I’m not sure I’m worthy of being considered a planner.  For one, land-use planners have gone through training in the field, including post-college accreditation.  I’m considering a certificate program, but haven’t yet undertaken it.

But more importantly, planners get their hands dirty on a daily basis, struggling with the writing of codes, the attempts to make projects fit within the codes, and the judgments on whether a fit has been achieved.

I do none of those things.  Most days, I rise above the fray and muse about how things should be.  It’s a worthy role, but fundamentally different than planning.  I’m reminded of a long-ago conversation with a city planner.  She and I were discussing the best solution to a particular land-use conundrum.  We reached a meeting of the minds and she concluded, “Now we know what the right solution is.  Our next job is to figure out how to make the rules accommodate the solution.”

Exactly.  I ponder the question of the right solution.  And leave it to others to make the rules fit.

(Sidenote: Outside of the question of whether I’m a planner, I have a quibble with the word “planner”.  Lots of people plan things, from carpenters laying out a house to Wall Street bankers strategizing a hostile takeover.  How did the people who work in land-use secure the word planner for their particular niche?  It’s like theoretical physicists claiming sole title to “thinker” and forcing the rest of us to use a different word when we cogitate.  I disavow the use of the single word “planner” and will always use terms like “land-use planner”, “transportation planner”, or “urban planner”.)

Instead of a land-use planner, I prefer to think of myself as a land-use philosopher.  Pondering the important ideas, but a step removed from the daily turmoil.

With spring training underway, perhaps I can use a baseball analogy.  Some must decide what the strike zone should be.  Others must decide whether a particular pitch is a strike.  Land-use philosophers are the former and land-use planners are the latter.

A recent evolution in my blogging career also highlighted the distinction.  I’ve been asked to be part of a new blog about land-use issues in the Bay Area.  VibrantBayArea will include numerous voices across the spectrum from land-use planning to land-use philosophy.  I’m pleased to occupy my spot on the spectrum and expect to learn from the others writing there.  Please check it out.

This doesn’t mean that I’m abandoning my own blog or my regular co-publishing in Patch.  Instead, many of my words will appear in all three places.  VibrantBayArea is an opportunity to broaden my reach.

Nor is the world limited to those who establish the strike zone and those who call balls and strikes.  There is also a need for someone to throw pitches.  And I recently secured an opportunity in that role also.  I’ll be working with the owner/architect of a proposed boutique hotel in downtown Petaluma.  Petaluma Patch and West Petaluma Living have covered the proposed hospitality facility.

My role will be assisting in the approval phase, i.e. throwing pitches for others to judge.

I won’t describe every step of the approval process in this blog.  But when there are insights about land use that are worthy of sharing and that can be divulged without giving up trade secrets, I’ll share.

These are interesting times in land use, as urbanism knocks more loudly on the door.  I’m pleased to have multiple platforms and opportunities from which to affect the status quo.  Most of the time, I’ll still be a land-use philosopher.  But I’ll dabble on the edge of land-use planning also.

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


  1. I've been looking forward to this hotel for years. The initial ideas proposed made it sound like a fitting concept for this corner which I frequent regularly while walking my dog, doing business downtown, and most recently walking with my wife to Dempsey's for St. Patty's Day. Now that you are engaged in this project, Dave, I expect to see things get moving — and in the right direction! This is very good news to my ears.

    1. Barry, thanks for the positive attitude. It's a site with tremendous opportunities and awkward constraints. The next few months should be interesting.