Monday, May 20, 2013

Long-Range Planning Shouldn’t Be Overlooked

Cities and counties provide two levels of planning service.  They review land-use applications and they set the rules by which applications are to be judged.  To repeat an analogy I’ve used before, long-range planners define the strike zone and application-review planners are the umpires who judge the individual pitches.  (Of course, it’s developers who throw most of the pitches.)

I note the distinction because the long-range planning function is often overlooked by the general public.  If we think of recent North Bay planning controversies, most are about pending applications, not long-range planning issues.
I’m not saying that long-range planning never attracts attention.  I’ve heard stories about the tension before the 2003 adoption of the Central Petaluma Specific Plan.  And the OneBayArea plan has certainly attracted controversy.

But long-range planning hearings are usually attended only by planning junkies and a few folks with specific issues.  It’s land-use entitlement hearings that fire up entire neighborhoods and force city halls to accommodate overflow crowds.

And that’s a shame because much of the framework of our communities is set by long-range planning.  Land-use applications, even those that a large segment of a community find objectionable, are usually submitted in response to implicit encouragement in a long-range plan.

A Petaluma example illustrates my point.  The most cantankerous recent land-use process has been the review of the Draft EIR for the Red Barn project, a proposed single-family project at the western end of D Street.  Davidon Homes is the applicant.

Many opponents are infuriated that a developer would propose single-family homes on the site.  But only a few folks objected when the Petaluma General Plan was adopted in 2007 with a general plan designation of single-family for the site.  It seems a little ridiculous to accuse the developer of subverting the will of the community when the proposed land use was specifically envisioned in the General Plan.

(Those familiar with the Red Barn proposal will note the irony of referring to the 2007-2025 General Plan.  The Davidon proposal was deemed complete by the City in 2004 under the General Plan that was adopted in 1987.  But the project went quiet during the recession and has now resumed after the adoption of the new General Plan.  The question of which General Plan should be applied to the project has become a source of local controversy.

However, City legal staff has noted that it makes little difference as the two General Plans applied virtually the same standards to the Red Barn site.  The only difference is in the historic preservation standards.

And even though the Davidon project has been deemed complete, people could have still objected to the general plan designation on the Red Barn site during the General Plan process.  Few did so.)

There are numerous reasons why long-range planning usually doesn’t evoke the same level of awareness as entitlement planning.  For one, long range planning often sets forth scenarios that never come to fruition.  To become invested in the vision of a long-range plan is often to be disappointed.

And then there’s the problem of visualizing the future.  How many people can truly believe that a grand vision of the future will actually happen?  Fifteen years ago, how many Petalumans would have believed in Theatre Square?  Or today, how many believe that the parcels adjoining the SMART station will one day be filled with multi-story mixed-use?

It’s the same reason that flood control planning often occurs with little public notice.  On a sunny afternoon in May, it’s hard to conceive of a wintertime flood.  Which is why more of us end up filling sand bags than attending flood control hearings.

But the biggest reason that long-range planning is often undervalued is that it looks twenty or more years in the future.  Again using Red Barn as an example, the General Plan that set the standards by which the project was configured was adopted 26 years ago.  In a world where homeowners move every seven years and renters even more frequently, many of us have a hard time caring about our communities 26 years in the future.

Even mortality has a role.  Of the people currently living in a community, what percentage will still be living there 26 years from now?  Including relocation and mortality, perhaps 30 percent?  Most communities will have largely new populations in 26 years.

But none of those are valid reasons to overlook long-range planning.  Even if neither we nor our descendents will be living in our communities in 26 years, we owe it to the folks who will be living there to take long-range planning seriously.  To grasp the land-use issues that will define the 21st century and to be a part of creating a good direction.

I know that long-time readers won’t be surprised by these comments.  But I’ve recently read a few dismissive comments about planning horizons of twenty years or more.  It seemed a good time to offer a reminder about the value of maintaining a long perspective.

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


  1. While I agree with and really appreciate your attention to long-range planning, its role and its impacts, I challenge us to extend our thinking beyond the 20 or 26 year range. For instance, I envision that one day some of the buried westside creeks in Petaluma could be day-lighted. (And perhaps the overhead wires buried?) This will not happen in 26 years, and to think of it in that time frame makes it seems, well, laughable. However, if the value of doing this were consider seriously for the long term, imagine a network of tree-lined walking pathways separate from traffic and following the creeks from the river up to Helen Putnam Park and the other open spaces from which they flow. As it is now they are almost totally inaccessible to the excited explorings of young children, and walking from downtown to hiking trails requires about a mile of pavement pounding.

    What if we envisioned a hundred years or more? Might that not allow for some copacetic way gradually to return some of the parcels along a buried creek to the commons? Maybe or maybe not, but imagining this in the community might generate some doable possibilities that would otherwise remain beneath consciousness. I think the seventh generation thinking bequeathed from the Iroquois constitution indeed offers wisdom still apt: "Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation."

    1. Barry, as always, your passion is appreciated. Uncovering piped streams is certainly possible. Seoul recently completed a major downtown river restoration. And parts of Strawberry Canyon in Berkeley have been restored. But rather than a 100-year plan, I suggest that a shorter time frame with more limited goals. Perhaps replacing short culverts under roadways with bridges or uncovering short segments of creek that cross public land. And if public sentiment is created for continuing the effort, look to ramp up from there.

      Undergrounding utilities is in a similar category, except that the goal of gradually moving away from overhead lines is already in place. The problem is that the cost of undergrounding existing lines is enormous. (I don't have the data at hand, but it was a multi-million dollar effort for Theatre Square and Water Street.) And the amount of money being directed from our utility bills toward undergrounding is laughably small. The Theatre Square and Water Street work used something like 20 years worth of reserves. Individual neighborhoods can choose to create improvement districts to convert their own neighborhoods, but costs of $10,000 to $20,000 per home are likely.

      Both are fine goals, but the money will be tough, especially when we're already struggling to maintain our existing infrastructure.

    2. So re-reading the comments, I realized...

      A few months ago I was listening to the Petaluma City Council try to use some sort of debt obligation to tie up some portion of the garbage franchise fee revenues so that future City Councils couldn't retarget those funds. As I listened to that, I realized that what the sitting council was saying was "we can anticipate the needs of the city and are smarter than future city councils, for the life of this obligation".

      It's a good thing to make plans, but two decades ago when I was first pushing the Internet, could I have foreseen the ways in which it changed society? Can I look ahead now and think that I understand how we will react to climate change over the next decade? Two decades? Three? Ten?

      Not to keep us tied up in paralysis of indecision, but there's a lot we don't know. Resilience means being able to react and respond, not having a bombproof plan that will be followed under all circumstances. Thinking about the negative long-term impacts of our plans is great. Thinking about plans that will remain static over a half or even full century of execution time? I can't imagine any set of conditions that I could reliably predict for two decades.

    3. Dan, I agree. But making long-range plans often isn't about casting a plan in concrete, it's about leaving an option in play so a later generation has the option of executing the vision that we foresaw. Designing the individual units in the Station Area would be nuts. Putting a master plan in place so the city of five or ten years from now has the opportunity to build a Station Area is great.

    4. Yes: It can be about narrowing options, or enabling more options. Might be an interesting exercise to run through proposals trying to quantify what they exclude vs what they enable.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. Dan, I expect that most master plans do both. But they do it with conscious forethought as opposed to letting the exigencies of the moment narrow the options which is what would happen without master planning.

      I'm a fan of the free market. But absent master planning, the short-term exigencies of the free market determine the long-term configuration of the community. And that's often not good.

    7. I think I largely agree. I'm mostly looking for tools I can use myself in evaluating proposals: If we're building cathedrals, how do we know that that sort of rigidity will serve our community well? If we're trucking in modular buildings to expand schools, is the flexibility worth the feeling of impermanence and lack of commitment to the students?

      Thinking about it in those terms, I have the gut feel that we're building an awful lot of cathedrals as housing developments, and doing an awful lot of trailers for municipal buildings, and I'm not sure where the balance lies. Thanks for helping me explore it.

    8. Dan, you're asking good questions. Yet I'm not sure the terminology even exists to discuss the questions. Form-based codes were developed so we could focus on the shape of buildings and resulting public space, leaving flexibility for uses to evolve over time. What you're asking is whether a form-based code type idea can be expanded from buildings to entire neighborhoods or communities. I like the concept, but don't know how to put my arms around it.

  2. As a break from The Smart Growth Manual, I picked up Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn. I'm only in the first few pages, he's adapting Frank Davis's "Shell, Services, Scenery and Set", the elements of the building in order from most resistant to change to the most malleable, and I can't help but think that there are applications to planning.

    In buildings, every architect wants to be a starchitect, but except for a few institutional buildings the most successful buildings are the ones that can be flexible, where the shell is worth adding on to and modifying, but the other elements are easily reworked to the needs of the moment.

    It seems like in planning we try to build the analogue of strong institutional buildings, neighborhoods that fit a plan and are resistant to change, when we should be trying to build commercial buildings, neighborhoods that can grow and adapt to the uses that match the needs of the time. Rather than edifices meant to lock lifestyles into the dreams of the moment when they were approved.

    1. Dan, what you're effectively arguing is that the form-based approach that is applied to buildings under the SmartCode and similar form-based codes should be extended to neighborhoods. I agree completely. Ironically, a reader emailed me earlier today lauding the City of Austin, Texas for allowing homes in residential neighborhoods to be converted to restaurants. In his words, "Sound crazy? It is...crazy successful!"