What can planners do to help your community’s economy?

We all know that most of our local economies are in some form or another of mess.  Draw the border around your town, your county, your region, your state, doesn’t matter – our news stories and discussions are full of closing stores and vacant boxes, houses and 401k’s whose value has plummeted, massive holes in government budgets and previously unthinkable choices about promised future payments and services.

If you’re a planner, just try going to a party at your neighbors’ house.  What do you get asked, sooner or later?

“What are you guys doing to fix this mess?”

We know that our agency or firm couldn’t fix it all in a million years, and we know, at least intellectually, that we aren’t solely responsible.

But the question is a nagging one:  “What are you guys doing to fix this mess?”

Planners have no magic wand, and we can’t make businesses appear out of thin air.  But if we take our responsibilities for our communities seriously – if we embrace our training and deeply believe that good planning matters– then we have an important contribution to make: a contribution to solving the long-term, structural problems that have played a big role in landing our communities in this mess.  To do that, we need to approach our plans and our planning with wisdom.  We need to think ahead, anticipate the consequences of different choices, accept and work with the limits of our knowledge and try to see our blind spots so that we are not sideswiped by a future that we did not see coming.

Tall order, right?  We can do this.  In some ways, it is getting back to the ideals of the planning process that get lost in the scuffles of politics and self-preservation.  In other ways, it’s about learning from other disciplines – not just the business world, which we’ve heard about ad nauseum, but from psychology and sociology and history.  The disciplines that study how people think and work together.  To make wise decisions for the futures of our communities, we need to lay the right groundwork by doing wise planning.

What does wise planning mean?

  • Goals that are real, concrete and measurable. That’s Planning 101. We know we need that.  What we don’t need is the mealy mouth stuff we often end up with as our plan’s goals.  We need goals that our communities can understand, rally around and work toward.  If a goal does not make people want to act, then that goal is useless.

Regional initiatives like Agenda 360 in Greater Cincinnati, and similar regional action plans that have developed in Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and elsewhere, draw their power and their potency from their goals.   They set a high bar for the whole region to meet, and they set it in measurable terms so that it is real to the people who read it and the people across the region who are in a position to do something about it.  One of Agenda 360’s main goals is the creation of 200,000 net new jobs in the region by the year 2020.  Now everybody knows what the goal is, and a little research makes clear where we are on the road to getting there.  Could the region miss it?  Sure… but now we know what we are going after and have something to measure against.

How much more effective, how much more of a catalytic force for change is putting that stake in the ground, rather than what professionally-written plans usually include?  How catalytic would “Encourage the creation of new jobs” have been?

I think the word “Encourage” should never, ever appear in a plan’s goals or objectives.  Never.   If I encourage my son to study his math assignments, my primary goal is not to “encourage” him.  It’s to push and prod him to do what he has to do to pass the test.  “Pass the test” is the goal, not “encouraging” him.

And what is “encouraging,” anyways?  Sharing information, establishing expectations, outlining the consequences of not meeting the goal, monitoring his progress…. That’s the actual work that “encourage” means.  So say that.  In plans, “Encourage” is nothing more than a cop out.  It means….nothing.  Zip.  Which is why elected officials sometimes like that word for things that they don’t want to actively support.  If you cannot get leadership to go beyond “encourage” as the verb in a goal statement in a plan, go back and define what exactly all the parties involved can  support, or cut it out.  You’ll probably do more good by leaving it out than by giving it lip service.

  • Don’t assume that the future will be a direct extrapolation of the past. It won’t be.  How many 20-year population projections have you seen?  How many plan decisions do we base on those numbers?  How often do they turn out to be right, or at least close to right?  Not often.  And yet we create plans that designate broad new swaths of development because that’s what the population projection indicates.  Never mind the fact that socioeconomic changes may drive that growth elsewhere.  And never mind the fact that if you don’t house all those new paper people, they will just go somewhere else.  They’re not going to create a tent city in your vacant lots.

The future almost never works out the way we thought it would, or I would have a hovercar in my garage by now and a jet pack in my closet. Our projections of the future need to accommodate multiple scenarios, and deal with those scenarios, not just average them out to make it easy to do the math.

Even more important, we need to not treat those projections as a fait accompli.  What matters is not the numbers, but the influences and factors that will drive how the community evolves, and how we monitor, influence or adapt to those changes.

  • Don’t assume that projected population growth automatically requires new housing, or that new residents automatically mean new commercial development.  You probably have a number of vacant or underused houses, and probably no end of vacant retail spaces.  Why plan for more?

Most communities (with a few special-circumstances exceptions) should stop assuming that we need anything new at all.  Either the economics don’t work or we don’t really need it.

When I did a comprehensive plan for the village in which I live a few years ago, all of the surveys and public feedback said that people wanted an Applebee’s-type restaurant in town.  The numbers don’t work for this village alone – it’s not big enough to generate enough customers to support that business model.  But because this is a metro area, this village isn’t the only source of customers.  There’s are four restaurants in that price point within a five-minute drive of most residents, and if someone opens another, one of the five would probably go out of business, leaving us with another vacant space.  ‘

In a sense, it’s a little like dealing with my kids – they don’t “need” another Nerf gun, although they tell me they do when they see the ads.  It’s my job to guide them to the realization that the six they have are more than enough.

  • Be conscious and explicit about fiscal impacts. You may not like tax laws or tax calculations, but your community needs them to survive.  You know that. It’s a necessary part of the system, and we have more than enough evidence now to demonstrate that if our development patterns cost more than they generate in taxes, we have a problem.   If you can’t pay someone to calculate the fiscal impacts, pull out your college textbook and figure it out. Your best attempt will be better than wild guesses or permitting officials to keep their head in the sand.  And if you do pay someone to do it, don’t take them at their word- make sure you understand exactly what they did and why.  If the root problem is with the tax structure, say that loud and clear.  You may not be able to change that alone, but you can issue the clarion call so that it can’t be ignored.
  • Model your public participation after the best teachers.  Don’t just lecture or allow others to lecture.  Don’t do the minimum necessary to get by.  Give the process structure so that people stay on track and so that you hear from everyone, and engage them in the search for solutions, rather than presenting them a grand vision and waiting for them to applaud or throw tomatoes. The public has to be part of the solution, too, and they need to both more deeply understand the issues that we are grappling with, and lend their expertise to the search for solutions.  If you give them a real chance, they’ll do it.  And if we don’t give them a real chance, we will stay in the morass.
  • Recognize and admit that putting colors on a map and writing a description of what it’ll be like in the future isn’t doing enough.  Even laying out zoning revisions isn’t good enough.  If we are serious about making our communities better, we need to plan for the whole social and political ecosystem, not just what the planning department, or even the government, can do for you.  Who else — what other organizations or agencies– are part of the solution?  What can they do?  Who should they (or you, oh City) be working with?  How do we really move the needle, and how do we know if the needle has moved?

Your colored map isn’t going to tell you that.  Making a difference in the future of the community requires much more.

  • Think critically – about everything. We haven’t been rigorous enough in our thinking.  We have had a tendency to buy the new gadget, whether it’s Urban Renewal or New Urbanism, without taking it apart, examining the assumptions, and understanding that every idea has limits, exceptions, and unexamined consequences.  That’s a natural limitation of human thought processes- cognitive psychologists document how much we cut corners in our thinking.

But if we don’t understand the limits of an idea, we cannot use the tool correctly. If you do not know that a claw hammer cannot drive a rivet into a piece of sheet metal, you will do a whole lot of banging and make a real mess of the job before you figure that out.  One can argue that the repercussions of the urban renewal initiatives of the 1960s should have taught us that by now.

  • Stop allowing bad planning. It’s damaging the profession, and it’s damaging the places that matter to us.  Professional planners have had a tendency to avoid raising tough questions, to shy away from pushing for the right but difficult choices, to sidestep grappling honestly and critically with our decisions and alternatives.

That’s mostly, I think, driven by a very understandable desire for job security.  We have all be told somewhere along the line that some issues aren’t in your job description, that you don’t want to upset the politicians, the developers, the citizens, the client.   Don’t rock the boat, the voice whispers, and your job and your future are secure.

If there’s anything the last few years have taught us, it’s that job security, for both public and private sector planners, is a myth.  Public sector planners get laid off or put on furloughs, or they get stuck in soul-deadening bureaucratic jobs processing paperwork and accept that deal with the devil for the promise of future financial security.  And we all know that, in one way or another, that promised security is turning out to have been a mirage.

Private sector planners don’t do much better: they deliver what the client wants, regardless of whether that’s what the community needs or not, in the hopes of winning more work and maintaining that ridiculously high utilization rate and not having to spend their nights and weekends writing more proposals on their “own time.”   And then they get laid off when the big firm that swallowed the planning firm decides that planning isn’t part of their new strategic direction.

If we can’t count on those promises, that security, then what is the price of our silence? Why not take reasonable, well- supported stands on issues that matter, when it matters?

What have we really got to lose?

__

One more thing: I say all of this because I am a planner and I have done all of these things.  I have allowed communities to get away with meaningless goals, drawn maps that could not make anything happen, overlooked fiscal impacts and treated population projections like statements of fact.  I did that because I was the consultant, it wasn’t in the scope, it wasn’t in the budget, they weren’t “ready.”  I didn’t want to rock the boat.

At the end of the day, what you’re really left with is how you feel about the job you did.  In some cases, I am proud of the work and how it helped move a community forward.  In other cases, I am not sure whether the plan I wrote did any good at all.   As I evolve and move forward personally, I am determined to repeat those mistakes as few times as I can.

There’s a piece of calligraphic art in my office that sums up how I think we need to approach planning in this generation – not in terms of building styles or transportation modes, but in terms of how we think about the job and in terms of how we think about communities and their futures.  There’s two quotes on it, the first being from Henry Thoreau:

 Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you have always imagined.

The second is from Will Rogers:

 Even if you’re going in the right direction, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.

Let’s not get run over anymore, ok?

5 thoughts on “What can planners do to help your community’s economy?”

  1. I agree with many of the points you make in your article but the one I like the most is “What does wise planning mean?”

    “Goals that are real, concrete and measurable. That’s Planning 101. We know we need that. What we don’t need is the mealy mouth stuff we often end up with as our plan’s goals. We need goals that our communities can understand, rally around and work toward. If a goal does not make people want to act, then that goal is useless.”

    Thank you for focusing on instituting change from lessons learned and remaining positive as we bring about what I like to refer as a cultural shift in planning and developing communities for the present and the future, …. not the past.

    Planner/Developer – Scott Simkus
    Boulder County Housing Authority

  2. Thanks Della for the thought out piece. While I am not a planner, I used to be and now as a grant administrator I really liked your contention that we need goals that are real, concrete or measrable. So many times I run into planners that can best be described as “dreamers”. They have an idea concept of what they want, yet they demonstrate no real understanding of the efforts needed to implement their vision nor can they articulate the tangible benefits or outcomes of their preferred alternative. When I was getting my Master’s degree, I was told that the most important classes i would take were “Performance Management” and “Data Analysis”. At the time i didn’t fully know why, now I do. And thank heavens I stayed awake in those classes.

  3. What a terrific and timely article!

    This accurately describes both my personal and professional struggles we prepare for our next Comprehensive Plan update. This happens in the context of perceived progress – improved water/sewer system, improved trash collection. However, these are about “things”. The real issue is meaningful planning and leadership.

    There is a lack of real public engagement and the most critically, lack of leadership to really plan for the future. The standard responses are because the budget is tight, there will be no new initiatives, because no one attends council meetings and public hearings, we must be doing ok, or the best – if the mayor and council are happy, we are doing ok!

    So this article is a challenge to move forward so we actually plan, rather than just issue permits, identity community issues and educate our community.

    Thanks for your contribution to our profession!

  4. I liked the soul searching honesty, but the critical self examination may not work for everyone.

    I’ve spent 30+ years being a ‘Planner’, and have found that I don’t have all the answers – or that some of my solutions are not the best for the community. This comes from years of ‘settling on getting paid’, probably because I didn’t have another job choice or that I wasn’t brave enough to start my own consulting service.

    I’ll admit that – for a long time I thought there was no future in Planning. But I also learned that there were many lessons in processing paper and going through the motions of just handing the details. This became increasingly important as I was principal paper pusher for ever more Boards.

    Through these experiences, I came to the realization that everyone has a plan for their own life or business – but it may not fit neatly into the overall community’s idea of a plan. However – these individual plans contribute to the overall fabric of the community if you allow yourself to see through the eyes of others – like a nostalgic reflection. As we reflect on the historical perspective, we are drawn those ideal features that have been lost. But we have also lost tract of the shortcomings; and we need to look at how we’ve overcome these to balance the equation.

    If we do a careful examination of our communities, we may find that we have made some progress. In looking through the old plans, it’s important to note these small achievements to encourage the broader community that it’s within our power to move forward – and that our joint efforts can set us on fire with enthusiasm – like the team efforts we remember from school days.

    Also, in response to the complaint about the word ‘encourage’. I have often used the word ‘encourage’ when I felt that the government shouldn’t be the one ‘doing’ the item recommended. I would argue that we should ‘encourage’ when it means – ‘get out of the way to let someone else take the lead’.

    Too often I think that we often yield to the moral imperative is that it’s government’s job to ‘fix the problems’. The article clarifies that it is a group effort – and that we need a lot of people rowing the boat and not just go for the ride as passengers. I think this was called ‘active citizenship’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *