What is urban planning? A pragmatic answer

Michael asks,

“I’d love to understand more about how the average citizen such as myself can be part of the planning in my community. Planning affects just about everyone, and I feel that if I had more of a clue about what it is, and how those of us who are most impacted by the process can most effectively participate, I’d be able to be a better citizen.”

Thanks for asking, Michael!
I will answer ‘What is planning?’ by answering how you can get involved, in two very different ways.

Option #1: the feedback method of planning and citizen involvement

#1. Planning is about governing the development of your community. Every American has a right to influence changes in their community. The more local and direct the impact, the stronger the right—so say the courts. People directly impacted by projects are called stakeholders.

If someone is building very near you (distance varies by city—say, 200 feet), they must notify you in writing. The notification includes a period for feedback about the project proposal, and where you can give feedback.

Also, builders must post a sign at the site describing the project, for a set amount of time before work begins (often 30 days). So even if you are not an immediate neighbor, if you pass by the site, you can get the info to provide feedback.

Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), most projects above single-family-house size need to draft an Environmental Impact Statement. A statement must include proposed alternatives that can mitigate negative impacts from the project. If you think there is an obvious improvement that should be considered, CEQA requires that you be able to give input.

Problems with the ‘feedback’ method of planning and citizen participation

Unfortunately, much of this process is negative. It is designed to restrict development, even for people who have bought property and have the right to develop it. New input to Environmental Reviews are almost always about reducing the impact and size of the proposed project.

The net effect is lower-density development—sprawl—with more gas burned. It also means that it is much easier to develop on “greenfields,” which are undeveloped areas were there are no neighbors to object to a project. That vacant lot in the city where there should be a house or a school or a clinic? It may be undeveloped because grumpy neighbors make it too risky to try and develop it.

Option #2: proactive involvement

Fortunately, there is a much more positive way to participate in planning. As a citizen, you can get involved in a surprising range of planning processes. Involvement can range from participating in a few meetings all the way up to being a citizen member of a major project review such as the Berkeley Climate Action Plan, the San Francisco Presidio, or city-wide bike plans. Here, you can be much more proactive by saying where you feel development should be concentrated rather than just ‘kicking the can down the road’ to the next community (or ‘down the timeline,’ where our children will have to deal with major climate change).

Conditions that cause persistent tensions in planning

Several existing conditions affect the way that planning functions in the United States. These conditions affect how planners think, how they frame problems and implement policies.

1. In a Liberal-Democratic society, everyone has the right to move wherever they want. So the current residents of Marin County cannot legally ban people from moving there. However, people can be excluded by high prices.
In fact one of the major concerns for planners today is urban re-segregation. By some measures most African Americans live in neighborhoods that are more segregated than before 1954. This happens partly through voluntary enclaving, and partly through class-stratification. We can’t–and won’t–do anything about the choice to live with “like-minded” neighbors, but then how do we separate choice from structural inequality?

2. U.S. planning is almost always about reducing risk and increasing predictability. Usually that is a good thing, but it can tend towards bland solutions to problems. For example, you can’t just allow one whacky, innovative skyscraper. If it is allowed, then you have to allow a whole district of whacky buildings.
The Miracle Mile of Dubai is governed by similar planning principles. From five miles away it looks like an array of attention-getting perfume bottles or lipstick tubes. Each building is whacky, but together they start looking the same.

3. U.S. planning relies on unpaid citizen input. Which means that the more free time you have, the more voice and influence you can have. Thus, workers and single parents usually have the least opportunity to provide input to planning, simply because they are the most time-poor.

4. Planning staff are generally motivated by a desire for social justice. This does not necessarily compensate for the disadvantages in #1 and #3, but it does mean that planners are usually most receptive to more vulnerable stakeholders.

5. Landowners, on the other hand, are motivated by maximizing the value of their property and minimizing the risk that its value will drop. Owners love zoning codes, because zoning usually serves this purpose. Surprisingly, many planners do not like zoning codes, especially when they promote gentrification and exclusion.

6. Planning is a blunt instrument, because policies are treated like laws towards people–and laws toward people need to be consistent and equally applied. At one level this is fair; but the reason why there is not a corner store in your residential neighborhood is that if one is allowed, why not allow all residents have little convenience-shops? Recent planning is getting around the problem of single-use districts, but single-use zoning has dominated US urban growth since about 1940.

Planning from the planners viewpoint

Planners are trying to pursue three goals simultaneously: economic development, environmental sustainability, and social equity. We call these priorities the “Three E’s.” As you can imagine, these goals are always in tension and often in direct conflict with each other. So we rarely satisfy ourselves, let alone the urban public.

However the standing tension between these three goals serves as a good internal reality-check. From about 1930 to 1970, planners worked to ‘modernize’ cities; which meant working to satisfy only one goal: economic development (often described as ‘efficiency’). Today we regard such a unitary goal as a myopic vision of cities. You can’t “solve” cities like a mathematical equation. They are generated and transformed by their many inhabitants, and planning has to allow for the fact that hundreds of thousands of diverse, intelligent beings are continuously engaged in transforming the shape and meaning of each city.

So: planning is concerned with present development, and with wise use of resources for the future. But more than just being efficient and conservative, we also work to fulfill a shared desire for the sort of cities we actually want to live in.
We want Americans to walk more, both for our collective health and for our geopolitical security. We want to be smarter about resource-consumption, and maybe even figure out how to ‘give back’ natural viability, not just slow down the rate of damage to ecosystems. We want cities to be awesome places to live, and we want to promote social justice however we can.

I hope that is a succinct answer to your question!


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