Monday, August 22, 2005

The "Planning" Process

This may strike some people as surprising and others as the truth, but in reality there really isn’t a planning process. Or at least one that lives up to what one might consider an honest, forthcoming and beneficial process. What we do have in most jurisdictions is a process to more efficiently develop, produce or consume our natural resources while reconfiguring the landscape for the most profitable end use possible. For the most part, the planners ensure this process occurs in a more orderly fashion while producing fewer near term conflicts. In the grand scheme of things, we are just not that important, at least in terms of truly planning for the future.

In most colleges, future planners are taught the rational model of planning. In short, it goes somewhat like this:

  1. Define the Problem.

  2. Clarify values

  3. Select goals

  4. Formulate Alternatives (possible solutions)

  5. Project the consequences of those alternatives

  6. Select the best alternative

  7. Develop implementation plans

  8. Review and evaluate

The elements and order may vary slightly, but the result is generally the same. In most democratic societies, opportunities for public participation exist at almost every step. The process sounds good in theory but all too often, reality sets in. Good or worthy ideas fall by the wayside so that the most economic or expedient solution can be implemented. Let’s reexamine the process from a realist/cynic’s point of view.

  1. Define the problem. In order to define a problem, you have acknowledge that it even exists. Not only that, but if multiple parties are involved a general agreement or consensus is required. In my case, I cannot even get my agency to own up to the fact that there is an energy “problem” looming in the future. More conventionally, various participants have different opinions on the same problem. For example, traffic congestion is viewed by residents as an irritant, environmentalists as a source of pollution, businesses as a waste of money and resources, and local governments as unwelcome side effect of growth which now needs attention.

  2. Clarify Values. If owning up to a problem can be difficult, deciding on values—or overarching goals—is worse. At this point, philosophical points of view enter the picture. Reducing congestion may be the assumed goal, but a person’s or organization’s point of view will reflect in what they think should occur. An environmentalist may value the protection of a natural resource (habitat) as paramount and seek non-construction solutions. The Chamber of Commerce may view economic growth as paramount and promote capacity increasing solutions. Residents tend to value reduced congestion as long as it does not mean widening in their neighborhoods. Political and ideological thinking also clouds this phase. Right-leaning individuals may value private sector solutions while left-leaning individuals may gravitate towards a governmental solution. As the planning process is ultimately an extension of the political process, the values of the politicians in charge are also inherently important.

  3. Goals. Assuming some consensus can be arrived at, goals are developed. Some of these may work well together, while others are mutually exclusive. Businesses and residents may both seek a new road, though for differing reasons. Environmentalists and neighborhood activists may both oppose a new road, again for differing reasons. End goals can and will differ. Increased public transit and wider roads may solve the same problem, but yet are unrelated to each other. It is at this point that the question of finances gets asked. Is this goal feasible? Will the developer pay for it? Will we be able to publicly finance it? Good goals may fall out of discussion for a lack of financing possibilities.

  4. Alternatives. If goals are the free-floating ideas then the alternatives are the nuts-and-bolts plans for implementation. Most of these originate from the planners and engineers themselves and are polished up for public consumption. In many cases these professionals are wedded to one or two real alternatives and will write the lousiest or worst scoring alternatives so that the “preferred” alternative looks great in comparison. I should know. I have been a part of this more than once. I have seen the agency (or developer) go into a project set on doing one alternative. By law, most jurisdictions require at least three. So two loser proposals are written and ‘voila’ you have a viable ‘solution’. When a presented plan faces criticism, many planners face a reluctance to accept that their idea may be flawed or need adjusting. In many cases the alternative gets rammed through as a result.

  5. Consequences. Here is another subject area that gets short shrift when push comes to shove. Planners and developers are loathe to project or examine the consequences of a proposal if it makes the project look bad. Well, duh. Who would? This area is symptomatic of a larger human nature problem, the inability to place long term [sustainability] in front of short term [gain]. Just about everybody is guilty of this offense and as a result we inevitably create a larger mess, err- problems for future planners to resolve.

  6. Alternative Selection. Don’t even get me started. By the time the process gets this far, the agency’s or developer’s planned alternative is going to be pursued come hell or high water. Nothing short of a successful law suit (or in some locales, ballot action) will alter the intended outcome. I have seen this time and time again from both sides of the table. The more determined and deep pocketed the instigating party is, the more likely he or she will realize a successful outcome.

Once the process gets this far, it is all over but the shouting. The last two steps are formalities and are—more frequently than you might realize—often ignored. Good comprehensive or general plans will over time be undone by subsequent variations asked for (and almost always received) by developers. In addition, developers fail to live up to promised improvements and jurisdictions fail to enforce conditions of approval.

Every step of the way, the process is vulnerable to influence by the wealthy or powerful. In most locales, the wealthy developer or firm will ultimately prevail, should they make it worth their while to expend significant amounts of time and financial expense to see it through. A company here spent easily in excess of two million dollars, three full-blown Environmental Impact Reports, and countless technical studies over the course of 20 years before ultimately prevailing at the supervisor level. They just simply wore down their opposition (which had nowhere near the same level of funds) in the process.

It doesn’t matter how “green” a jurisdiction may be, if a wealthy company or individual feels that project X or use Y will make a profit and they have the resources to see it through, they will almost always prevail. Most companies of course take local opposition levels into account, which explains why Coastal California sees far fewer invasive (mines, factories, large developments) projects than points inland where local governments are less hostile or outright welcoming. But if some entity wants it real bad, they will usually get it.

The exceptions to this rule are those firms stopped at the ballot box or by the courts. Walmart tried and failed to overrule Inglewood’s decision to stop their project via a referendum. They were also stopped in Bakersfield by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for inadequately discussing the consequences of their alternative (building a Super Walmart).

Politicians can and do monkey up the process as well. Whether it is out for philosophical or political reasons, at behest of the developer or in fear of another jurisdiction’s sanctions, they can usurp the process by unduly influencing the direction of a project through the application of pressure on staff or handling of the matter during public hearings. The strength of pressure can range between mild persuasion to public berating to outright dismissal (of at will employees). On more than one occasion, I have witnessed this political pressure (on mine or other’s projects) override my judgement, which was based on factual evidence in favor of pursuing a path that had political support.

Finally, members of the public do factor into “process” as well. Just not how you might think. Public involvement generally comes in two forms: activist and ordinary citizen involvement. Ordinary citizen involvement seldom goes beyond the occasional letter of support or opposition to a particular project and in the grand scheme of things does little to affect the course of the project. As discussed in a previous response, a planner is lucky to get much of a turnout of people from this category. The activist on the other hand, stands a better chance of affecting the planning process, though not usually through modification of an intended plan. As discussed above, plans are usually pursued whether or not there is strong support for them or not. What few changes that do occur on behest of an activist group usually amounts to no more than window dressing.

Where an activist group does pack the most wallop is when they can back their criticisms up with a strong legal foundation. In those situations, they are a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, most of that force’s impact is felt in the pre-planning development stage where a company gauges whether or not they wish to proceed with a particular project in light of a potential challenge. One of my project applicants is prepared to withdraw his project if it faces any form of public opposition, rather than invest a seemingly endless amount of money to keep it going.

Taking all of this into account it is easy to understand why I have a low regard for the process I work under. My actual job description and duties have little bearing on what I actually end up doing. By job description and specific request, I was asked to research the availability of key resources over the next 30 years. When my results ran counter to the stated plans, I had to find other resources that we were critically short on (but had a possibility of finding a solution to) and try and develop a solution for instead of changing the plans themselves. Any public findings of my research would need to support the General Plan process and not run counter to it.

What a crock of …


Anonymous brix said...

I assume you've read Bent Flyvbjerg's "Rationality and Power." Fascinating stuff: everyone who wants to understand city politics -- and planning in particular -- should read this.

8/24/2005 8:14 AM  
Blogger Liz Logan said...

Thanks for explaining this. Its a bummer, but it is better to be informed, even if my worst suspicions turn out to be true...

8/24/2005 4:58 PM  

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