Planning Chiefs: Urban Planning Still Hindered by Politics, Past Mistakes

IMG_0566.jpgOver 200 people showed up to hear planning directors speak. Photo: Michael Rhodes

City planners have been on the hook for some of the last century’s greatest metropolitan mishaps: urban freeways and "slum clearance," arbitrary minimum parking requirements, and land use laws that have left little room for the mingling of uses. Understandably, today’s planners are a bit humbled. But when planning directors from some of North America’s most progressive cities spoke at City Hall this week about the political challenges that face urban planners, several of them said the field needs to move beyond worrying about past mistakes.

"Because of the failure of the planning profession in
the past, we’ve gotten quiet, we’ve gotten a little too meek," said Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s planning director. "We serve
at the will of politicians, and are often unwilling to speak truth to
power loudly and persuasively and in public. I think that’s really been
an absolving of our leadership responsibilities in the profession."

SPUR and the San Francisco Planning Department hosted the discussion
with planning heads from SF, New York, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver,
Minneapolis and San Diego, who were all in town for the Urban Land Institute’s annual expo.

While the directors didn’t lack for bold visions, some lamented the planning field’s fixation on avoiding undesirable consequences. "I’d have to say, especially in California, unfortunately, the field has evolved into focusing on preventing bad things from happening instead of making good things happen," said Bill Anderson, San Diego’s planning head.

Minneapolis planning chief Barbara Sporlein echoed that concern. "So much of planning is making up for past mistakes," she said. "It just feels like every time something happens, [we say,] ‘That can’t happen again.’"

In Vancouver, planning directors do not serve at the will of the mayor, and are appointed through a selection committee process and approved by the city council. As a result, said Toderian, the discussion about planning is much more vigorous and productive.

"In the absence of that willingness to have those kinds of tough, tense conversations, sometimes the best answers, the best options, are never put on the table," he said. "If Planning’s not putting those options and issues on the table, then it’s our fault that politicians aren’t making better decisions."

IMG_0573.jpgFrom left to right: SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf (standing), and planning directors from San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Vancouver, San Diego, Minneapolis, and Portland. Photo: Michael Rhodes

San Francisco’s planning director, John Rahaim, said he thinks
planning staff should be more up front with the public about their
objectives. "We have to build some civility. I think the way to do that
is, frankly, brutal honesty," said Rahaim. "We have to be absolutely up
front and honest about what we’re doing and what we’re not doing."

Rahaim also described a vision to greatly expand the number of open spaces in the city.

"San Francisco really must pay attention to our streets and open spaces
in a comprehensive way," said Rahaim. "I would love to see a real,
focused effort on creating a whole series of great neighborhood public
open spaces that really create hearts to our neighborhoods. I think San
Franciscans would embrace them and use them tremendously. They do in
the neighborhoods that do have them."

New York’s planning director, Amanda Burden, also argued
strongly for expanding open spaces. "Great public open spaces – and
that means public open spaces that are used intensively and are magnets
for people – are the great mixing chambers of cities," said Burden.
"It’s where all classes, all ethnicities, all economic strata, come
together and really create energy that makes the cities we want to be
in."

"When you have a small amount of public resources, put
them in great public open spaces, because they will trigger private
investment."

Many of the directors cited Portland as their model for increasing bicycling (which, as Streetsblog’s CNU summit coverage mentioned, is itself still dealing with the effects of Robert Moses-era planning.) Portland planning head Susan Anderson said the origin of her city’s success extends beyond infrastructure. "In
Portland now, seven to eight percent of the people are biking all the
time to work, everywhere," she said. "That happened partly because of
infrastructure, all of the good planning stuff, but what really made it
jump in the last two years is because it became cool. It became cool
because we did all of these different things about press, about working
with kids and biking to school."

  • So SPUR and the San Francisco Planning Department hosted the discussion saying “the field needs to move beyond worrying about past mistakes.” But just take a look at the Central Subway which is NOTHING more then a political handout to Chinatown with very little transportation merit for the huge cost. The blind leading the blind.

  • Uh Wha

    This blog is rapidly becoming the bay guardian of online tripe. Parking requirements have as much to do with banks agreeing to provide financing, and buyers looking for resale value as they do with good common sense. If you don’t use a garage (I don’t) you use it for storage. If you have a car (most people have one because they need it) you wouldn’t buy a place without parking. Planners know that. Smart ones, anyway.

  • Michael Rhodes

    @Uh Wha: To clarify, by “arbitrary minimum parking requirements,” I’m referring to the specific number of spaces required by planning codes, not parking requirements in general. As UCLA’s Don Shoup has written about at length, planners and traffic engineers have often turned to shaky, not-entirely-scientific sources when setting minimum parking requirements for different types of land use:

    http://shoup.bol.ucla.edu/Trouble.pdf

  • @ Uh Wha
    A couple of resources to challenge your assertion that parking requirements are common sense/necessary for selling units:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/12/realestate/12nati.html?_r=1&scp=9&sq=donald%20shoup&st=cse

    Patrick Kennedy, the developer that has been one of the more significant influences on Berkeley’s downtown (Gaia building, among many), prides himself on limiting parking when building near transit:
    http://panoramic.com/about

    Emerald Fund developer Oz Erickson talking about limited parking in a new rental on Harrison St.
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/09/18/EDGO19O9MG.DTL

    Some good links here about all the less-than 1:1 parking to unit ratios in community plans
    http://www.livablecity.org/campaigns/parking.html

    This is a good article looking at whether banks in cities like Salt Lake will come around:
    http://www.sltrib.com/news/ci_13529914

  • My family has two cars and if I could find a place I could afford to buy in SF it wouldn’t matter to me if it didn’t have parking. Parking is overrated and everyone needs to get over it. There are so many things that are more important than being able to park in front of your destination. Isn’t it sad that every public planning discussion in SF boils down to parking? We could have some amazing new spaces and housing for the working class and many other things but it all gets ruined by this ridiculous “need” for a place to put our cars.

  • patrick

    “If you have a car (most people have one because they need it) you wouldn’t buy a place without parking”.

    If that were true, then there would be no need to legislate it, as no developer would be able to sell properties without a parking space.

    People NEED air, water & food; they don’t need a car.

  • I agree 100% with Michael Rhodes, Matthew Roth, Adrienne & Patrick. Strongly disagree with Uh Whoa. The idea that cars would be the primary mode of transportation was a mistake made made 50 years ago. Every new parking space that is built only reinforces that error.

    There are 7×7 square miles in San Francisco. Do we want a city filled with eco/urban friendly livable space OR cars, congestion, traffic and parking garages? If a car isn’t on the road it’s sitting somewhere. Unfortunately, today we are designing more for cars and parking than we are for people and open space. It’s a big mistake that the SF Planning Department recognizes but unfortunately doesn’t act on.

    If only SF Planning actually carried out the ideas outlined in their policy paper
    “Rethinking SF Parking Requirements”
    http://www.sfgov.org/site/planning_index.asp?id=25134

  • Uh Whoa just vocalized the thinking of many Americans (sadly, that portion of the population still holds major sway), but Uh Whoa is just putting the cart before the horse. The reason most people “need” cars (which I argue they don’t) is because of minimum parking requirements. Buildings need to be spaced further apart to accommodate parking, which makes parking all that much more important, making an increased need for increased parking, and then moving buildings further apart. Now, 50-70 yrs later, we feel like we “need” to have a car to do anything – which for most of the country is pretty spot on. But in SF, it is only wasting a very limited and valuable resource – space – like Tami noted.

  • “Patrick Kennedy, the developer that has been one of the more significant influences on Berkeley’s downtown (Gaia building, among many), prides himself on limiting parking when building near transit”

    Developers would build even more car-free housing in Berkeley than they have, but the NIMBYs usually try to stop them.

    The NIMBYs shot themselves in the foot on the Trader Joe’s project in central Berkeley. If they had insisted on making the building car-free (no parking), the city would not have sold on-street parking permits to the residents, and the building would have attracted tenants who do not own cars. Instead, the NIMBYs insisted on maximimizing tenant parking, and then the developers pointed out that, according to city law, the tenants have a right to get permits if the building has parking. As a result, the building will probably attract some tenants with two-car households – one car in the building’s parking garage and one on the street competing for space with the NIMBYs. This in a location that is an easy walk to UC Campus and that would be ideal for students who do not have cars.

  • Chris

    Regarding planners’ past mistakes – There is no doubt that planners were responsible for U.S. urban planning disasters like slum clearance and interstate highway planning, but we can’t forget that federal housing policy and U.S. consumer preference have been equally (if not more) responsible.

  • Chris, I completely agree. Just look at federal housing policy right now. This is our country’s opportunity to change directions but the tax breaks, etc are just pushing us further down the hole.

  • zsolt

    On the other hand, “consumer preference” is a pretty hollow term, usually not more than a facade for corporations peddling their wares on the largely ignorant public. Once things go sour, it is it claimed the corporations just gave people what they wanted. That’s actually far from truth. What people really want is a livable environment, but without level-headed expert opinion, they are led to vote against their own interests with their own money. (Similarly, what people really want is health and a long life, but given the heavily slanted food landscape, many will go for the candy.)

    Real estate developers in particular have been very cynical in their destruction of the landscape with subdivisions and other schemes, while completely succeeding in selling people on the idea of the beautiful American Dream. Voices of reason have been very heavily outgunned by well moneyed interests, and without adequate pushback from federal and local government, this created a self-reinforcing loop.

  • Chris

    Zsolt, you bring up an interesting point regarding consumer preference. I agree that private developers had a large hand in formulating, selling, and packaging the American Dream. However, it is the American consumer that allowed it to exist for the last 60 years. It is the American consumer that allowed it to wreak havoc on our landscape.

  • Zsolt and Chris, maybe we can agree that the American consumer is an idiot. Using the food example – yes, they want to live long and be healthy, but at the moment of purchase they look price and flavor (both artificial). Also, take the bay area for example – people buy homes in Tracy because the sticker price is artificially low. Just as the study from last week pointed out, once you factor in transportation costs, living in the city is much cheaper. Not to mention the time lost to commuting that could be spent with their families. People also consider a car trip to be relatively inexpensive because the gas is paid for (not per-trip cost like transit) and the maintenance is only once every 3-5 months and parking is cheap.

  • patrick

    Unfortunately it goes way beyond just the developer. Our entire society has been subsidizing suburban housing for decades. Subsidized gas, subsidized roads, subsidized parking, the American dream white picket fence, tax deductions for owners and much more have been making it artificially advantageous to buy in the suburbs.

    And cities are just as culpable, onerous development fees, ridiculous approval processes, anti-development sentiment all contribute by making it a much more painful, expensive, and risky proposition to build in cities. Who would want to deal with the SF planning process when they can easily subsidize some agricultural land in the boonies?

    On the up side, at least some people are realizing that something needs to change, and slowly it is. I wish things would change faster, but there is so much momentum behind the existing system, it’s going to take a while.

  • Chris

    Multiple bad decisions led to the proliferation of suburban banality and auto-dependent communities, clearly. Federal subsidies and post WWII housing policy played a huge role.

    I’m happy that people are (slowly) realizing that change is needed. It’s a big opportunity for planners to redeem themselves.

  • zsolt

    “Zsolt and Chris, maybe we can agree that the American consumer is an idiot.”

    We can absolutely agree on that. Actually, the decision of Americans to become “consumers” sealed the deal.

  • Whew! Seventeen comments and nobody has called anybody a Nazi yet!

    Suburban sprawl: an emergent settlement pattern, reinforced by regulation, enabled chiefly by cheap abundant petroleum.

  • Today was a big day for Peak Oil:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/nov/09/peak-oil-international-energy-agency

    “The world is much closer to running out of oil than official estimates admit, according to a whistleblower at the International Energy Agency who claims it has been deliberately underplaying a looming shortage for fear of triggering panic buying.

    The senior official claims the US has played an influential role in encouraging the watchdog to underplay the rate of decline from existing oil fields while overplaying the chances of finding new reserves.”

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