Friday, February 04, 2005

Is this really Planning?

According to the Webster’s dictionary there are six definitions for the word “plan.” Of most interest to us is the first one: “A scheme, program, or method worked out beforehand for the accomplishment of an objective.” Webster’s goes on to elaborate the verb tense of the word for this very definition as “to formulate a scheme or program for the accomplishment, enactment, or attainment of.” Hence the word planning. Drawing the obvious conclusion then, one who engages in this activity would probably be known as a planner.

The modern profession of planning seldom lives up to that definition. Frequently, that individual finds him or herself stuck right in the middle of trying to do the “right thing” and doing the “expedient thing.” The planner has to balance the demands of the developer, the land owner(s), the activists, the NIMBYs and of course, the politicians. All too often during that process, principles are compromised, ideals are set aside and the pre-existing plan for the area ignored.

The plan itself, be it a general plan, master plan, community plan or whatever, winds up being a flawed document. Two different processes are at work here. General or community plans conducted by public agencies, more often than not wind up taking a final form that is the least disagreeable to the most number of people. Privately proposed plans such as a resort town, master-planned community or some other large scale project too often reflect the financial goals of the developer. Where they coincide with the agency’s goals, fine. Otherwise watch out.

In the end, most plans fail to anticipate an area’s true needs. Take housing for an example. Many jurisdictions are loath to permit high density residential projects. Why? Because too often they are fiscal losers for the city coffers. High density residential, most often represented in physical form by the apartment complex or condo units, typically are more affordable than single family housing and as a result can attract a lower income contingent. Now the city has to build more schools, parks, transit facilities and the like while gaining little financial rewards in the form of higher property tax assessments. So as a result, many plans are short on affordable housing. In fact some jurisdictions are short on housing altogether. Many of the “edge city” centers have intentionally or not, been allowed to gain far more jobs than residents. That imbalance leads to long commutes, wasted energy and increased pollution.

And I can go on from there. Modern planning too often fails to ask those killer questions. Do we have enough water to build this? Is there enough housing to balance the new jobs? Are there jobs for all of those new residents? Can the transportation network carry the new traffic loads? Are there sufficient energy resources to maintain that form of development?

That last question is perhaps the most crucial. Rephrase it if you must. “Is the plan of development you are proposing sustainable if the available energy to maintain that lifestyle is hard to come by?” Of course that question is never asked. Most people just assume that energy will always be waiting for us at the flip of a switch or the turn of a key. But as the financial investment industry is always telling prospective investors: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Just because oil supplies kept growing with our population in the past, does not mean that will continue on in the future. Yet, despite mounting evidence of profound changes in energy availability coming down the pike, we mindlessly march on with nary a concern with the future.

After all, an energy crisis is not in our plans.

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