Great cities, great planning... and San Diego

Cities that achieve and maintain greatness all share one characteristic: effective planning processes that involve all stakeholders. Does San Diego have what it takes?

by Carolyn Chase
February 17, 2003


    The following are comments presented to the Land Use and Housing Committee on February 12, 2003, concerning General Plan Update Work program for the Planning Department. The group's purpose is to update the General Plan and Community Plans to become consistent with the Strategic Framework Element, aka “City of Villages.”

month before his death in 1963, President John F. Kennedy spoke of the importance of the beauty and balance of cities:

“I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our past and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.”

    Around the same time, the New York Times editorialized, “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for and ultimately deserves.”

    I found both these quotes in a tour-de-force book entitled Preserving the World's Great Cities by Anthony Tung. Tung tells the stories of how approximately 20 great metropolises have approached their growth and renewal since their inception.

    I humbly suggest that this should be required reading for all planners, politicians and citizens concerned with how cities grow over time – how they advance and decline, how they become great and how their greatness fades or is reborn.

    It is of concern to us all here today, since San Diego is embarking upon a new era of growth, whether or not we have the vision, leadership and cultural skills to do it well – or do it poorly.

    I'm afraid that, while I'm supportive of the concepts embodied in the City of Villages approach, without additional leadership from both elected officials, planning staff, staff throughout the city, and the authentic inclusion of citizens, we will ramble along the course of growing mediocrity, economic segregation, and continued decline in our quality of life.

    The cities studied by Mr. Tung ranged from New York to Beijing, Warsaw to Amsterdam, Charleston to Kyoto, Jerusalem, London, Paris, Moscow – every city has distinct cultural, historical and environmental challenges. But as I read story after story, there were common themes to a city's greatness and how it responded to the challenges of planning and politics.

    In brief summary, whether cities achieve greatness depends on the interplay of three main factors: planning, politics and the people, meaning the citizens at large who live there, along with the businesses pursuing economic growth. One element was dominant in the stories of those who persisted to create the healthiest and most beautiful cities – and, not accidentally, the most socially and economically successful cities. That element was the serious participation of the citizens, taken seriously by both the planners and the politicians, both in defense of their existing culture and negotiating the terms of new growth.

    Tung observes the importance of process to any city: “... cities are much more than the physical containers we invent to hold our lives; they are also the living social culture of their inhabitants.”

    On the topic of planning, rational planning “might seem a matter of common sense, but in reality it is very unusual. It is extremely rare for government politics to reflect the best thinking of the most educated minds. In almost all societies, the integrity of expert thinking is compromised by special interest and politics.”

    The renewal of a city depends upon creativity and invention. “Problems of urban conservation, urban revitalization and urban social housing can be reconciled by being solved simultaneously.” Let me emphasize: simultaneously, not by dividing them up, as proposed here. How you think about problems and how they interrelate has everything to do with how and whether or not they are solved, and whether the solutions are indeed great, or beautiful.

    Tung states, “The public spaces serve not only those living along and around them, but the entire city, and the municipality must not give permission to something that is in conflict with the universal laws of beauty.”

    But we do this routinely. Indeed, the culture of planning in our city is really one of non-planning and project-by-project negotiations, where the projects and needs of project proponents to a large degree take precedence over any plan. Open space is looked at opportunistically, not as vital to our culture where people need room to roam and nature needs room even to exist.

    One of the first things I learned serving on the Planning Commission is that we have little to no real planning in the city. The city routinely ignores the General Plan. I've never seen any references in project reports about any of the elements of the General Plan. One of the more frequent items before us, if not the most frequent, are amendments to existing Community Plans. Right now, there is an outstanding list of 37 pages of proposed amendments to Community Plans. And we all should know that most of those Community Plans have not been updated to reflect new lessons in infrastructure, smart growth or transit. So yes, amendments may be needed on the merits, but it's not those kinds of amendments that are most often coming before us, but the kind of project-by-project amendments that disembowel any real plan.

    My point is that the proposed work program for the General Plan passes none of the tests of greatness – and this should be no surprise given the lack of concern and support for real planning. The lack of understanding of what it could do for us and why it is an essential tool for our next round of growth

    If the General Plan elements are never referred to, then I can see why it wouldn't be important to update them in a timely manner, as proposed by this work program.

    So my first suggestion is that LUH [Land Use and Housing] provide the leadership to put into motion the process to establish that the General Plan Elements should be meaningful after the update process.

    Second, the separation of the elements over 8 years only show the lack of importance of the General Plan. [It was the staff recommendation that the plan be updated element-by-element, over a total span of 8 years. -ed.] But given the importance of planning, the elements should all be updated within the next 3 years. This is NOT in any sense an aggressive plan and it pains me greatly to see staff claiming that it is. On their proposed schedule, we would only have plan updates for 2020 by the year 2011 – generously presuming no delays – and in the meantime the currently adopted population projections for the region that we are legally supposed to accommodate in the plans are already out to 2030. So when, exactly, will we be showing how the additional population will be accommodated?

    Furthermore, the simultaneous consideration of these issues is paramount to success. It is the separation for bureaucratic or resource reasons that leads to a lack of success that greatness of any plan demands. I quote from the staff memo, quoting Toni Atkins as part of the motion from City Council, “... prepare a detailed work program for simultaneous updating of the critical elements of the City General Plan such as Housing, Transportation, Public Facilities, Open Space, Recreation and Conservation elements.” It is disconcerting, to say the least, to find this sentence in the same document that is supposed to fulfill the goal, while the proposal itself does not.

    Third, given the budget crunch, the Planning Department should pursue the maximum use of college interns to do research and data accumulation. This is not rocket science. The city has lots of maps and information telling us exactly where streets, parks, fire and police stations, sewers and everything else in the city is. This is more a management issue than anything else. There are some of the best and brightest who could be put to service for the city, at low cost.

    Fourth, please clarify what the CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] process will be. Will each element be a project? When will environmental review take place? Is it the staff's position that the elements do not need EIRs because they are not actually applied in the city? Environmental review can mean a significant cost, making it another important argument for simultaneous updating and a holistic approach to the update.

    Fifth, while combining the Energy, Open Space, Cultural Resources and Conservation Elements into a Conservation and the Environment Element makes some sense, what we really need is a Sustainability element. What about water and water quality?

    Sixth, it is difficult to understand how the Public Facilities and Park Master Plan elements are not being proposed for any action until July 2005. Not only were both these elements of the highest priority with the public, but it's also unclear where financing plans fit into the process. It appears as if they only begin to look at funding sources in 2005. Again, this is NOT an aggressive plan.

    Seventh, funding for new public facilities, in addition to remedying the existing deficits, always had the highest priority with community planning groups and the public. Again, it appears as if they only plan to begin to look at funding sources in 2005. The Planning Commission attempted to point this out – as did the City Council on 10/22/02 in their motion ordering a work plan, stating, “...take a strong leadership role to secure increased funding.” At the Planning Commission hearing and at City Council, the planning staff was informed that SANDAG plans to take a TransNet sales tax extension to the ballot in November of 2004.

    The Mayor has also supported including open space and water quality funding. In addition, a large coalition of interest groups have suggested a package of components to fund smart growth and urban infrastructure, so desperately needed for smart growth to work. Without being aggressive on what goes into the TransNet package for both transit and other infrastructure, we will lose a huge opportunity.

    Eighth, the most important thing to a city's greatness is the effective interaction between the citizenry, city staff and elected representatives. This is where we've had the most problems. I was invited to give a presentation to a local neighborhood committee on planning. At the end, the chair of the committee felt compelled to tell his own story about their experience with the “City of Villages” planning process. He said, “They came out, we gave them lots of ideas and input. They ignored everything.” This is not only frustrating but undermines the entire process.

    I urge the Committee to direct that an effective stakeholders group be created, using an independent Chair – not planning staff. This process has been used quite effectively by the County, where the staff and attorney's representatives attend to answer questions and sometimes instruct. But they do not interfere with the citizens working out their own issues and desires. The staff can make their own recommendations during and at the end of the process, but they are not allow to drive the process, stop or reduce debate, or otherwise limit the work of the process. Only when we move beyond PR and into a real process, where the citizens are able to openly discuss and deal with their issues, will we have a critical mass of citizens able to discover the appropriate solutions to the growth problems before us, and have people empowered to understand how those solutions can be funded.

    To San Diego's leaders – citizens, politicians and planners – I ask: To what degree will our special place – it's architectural culture, its material accomplishments, its civic dignity and the spirit of our metropolis itself – be well planned, and those plans funded and implemented?

    Quoting again from Great Cities:

    “Even in the face of complex obstacles and difficult alternatives... In drafting or plans, might we look to the stars, or perhaps more deeply into the human heart? ...Neither God nor nature has made the metropolis. Human settlement is a product of the human mind. And the destruction or conservation of the mysterious beauty of our urban areas is in the final analysis a matter of choice, a reflection of our propensity to destroy and our propensity to create.”

    If we do not place the importance required on updating the General Plan and the Community Plans, and determine in a holistic fashion how it will all function, we will never convince taxpayers to vote to increase taxes to pay for it; we won't be able to make the case that we are going to be able to maintain our quality of life.

    As the New York Times correctly observed, “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for and ultimately deserves.” We deserve a better work plan that is currently being proposed.