Monday, April 21, 2014

Good Urban Planning is a Team Effort

Perhaps because I spend much of my time studying and writing about urban planning, I become prickly when folks write something that misrepresents the nature of good land planning.

A recent example illustrates my point.

I had a long professional involvement in the Mission Bay neighborhood of San Francisco.  It was a fascinating urbanist challenge to take land with a history of tidal marsh to landfill to railyard and turn it into a productive part of the city.  (Before anyone objects, I agree that it would have been environmentally preferable had the land had remained a tidal marsh, but that ship sailed over a century ago and there’s little we can do about it today.)

The engineering of building a multi-story city on top of more than a hundred feet of unconsolidated material is challenging, as is the extension of utilities into a neighborhood surrounded by land uses that extend back a century or more.

Given my familiarity with the area, the recent conflagration at a condominium construction site snagged my attention.  I had no involvement in the particular project, but knew the site and the context.

I read many of the articles about the fire, including the recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, reporting the findings that the fire has been accidental.

The sentence that raised my hackles was at the end.  “City officials have pledged that the fire would not deter the revitalization of the neighborhood.”

On the surface, the sentiment seems reasonable and soothing.  No one need be worried that the fire would sidetrack the Mission Bay redevelopment.  And as the sentence isn’t a direct quote, but a summation by the article’s writer, perhaps the sentence doesn’t exactly capture what the “city officials” intended.

But there is nonetheless a proposition within the sentence that shouldn’t be there.  That proposition is that the City has the unilateral ability to keep the revitalization moving ahead, that if they decide that revitalization shouldn’t be deterred, then it won’t be.

That proposition and others of its ilk, have the potential to plant wrong and harmful messages.  Good land use planning requires the city, the developers, and the public to work as a team.

All the parties must be pulling on the same end of the rope.  The city’s role is to establish reasonable and appropriate goals for development.  The developers’ role is to react to those goals, to offer alternatives that may differ from the city’s vision but remain as consistent as possible while also capable of securing construction financing.  The public’s role is to keep everyone on track, to provide clear descriptions of what new development will meet the public need, not the need based on self-myths, but the need based on how we truly live.

When we forget those roles and begin to point fingers, we hear contentions such “The city is ignoring our wishes”, “Developers are all crooks”, or “The public is being unreasonable.”  And when those accusations begin to fly, our ability to build well for the future is diminished.

So, better than “City officials have pledged that the fire would not deter the revitalization of the neighborhood” would have been “City officials have pledged to work with developer of the burnt structure and the neighborhood residents to learn how to do their part to keep the neighborhood revitalization moving ahead.”

Am I overreacting?  Heck, yes.  I can undoubtedly scan the same issue of the Chronicle and find dozens of propositions that are equally or more severely flawed.  But this is one that is close to my heart on several levels, so it’s the one that rankled.  Or maybe it was just my day to be grumpy.

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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