Planning Happens

by Carolyn Chase


ast "Cut to the Chase" columns have noted how our regional infrastructure evolves some by accident, but mostly by design - the design of men with an urban sprawl mentality. Readers have sent in a range of concerns: "Our default planning really does need an overhaul. But how?" Others decried that the City "does not even have a Planning Department anymore. They got rid of the planners and changed the department's name to Development Services, so doesn't that say it all?"

Language is important, so it certainly does say some things. Planning is out and streamlining is in. This change reflects a market-driven orientation where the staff provides services based on demands of "clients." Though it's likely most San Diegans would agree that a service orientation makes sense, this name change implies a different mission than that suggested by "Planning." It shifts the context of staff from that of public service overall - as custodians of a public plan - to that of customer service first. In Development Services, the "customers" are always property owners or representatives of property owners. This tends to put the primacy of attention on property interests over that of the overall public good.

Fundamentally, the current political culture does not believe in planning. Community plans are only unenforceable guidelines unless property interests rally behind them. Community standards are seen as burdens or challenges to be overcome. Planning is seen as interference. The City Council prefers to grant exemptions and negotiate on a project-by-project basis rather than follow any plan.

They believe that economic development is the primary value and everything else is subsidiary to that. Remember Clinton's successful slogan? "It's the economy stupid." The concept is that if the economy does well there will be enough money to solve our problems. The problem is that money can't solve some problems.

Another key value working against planning is freedom: so-called free trade, free markets, freedom of the individual. Private rights are more important than public values. It's actually a very cutthroat competitive, evolutionary world view which implies that government should not mediate the way of survival of the fittest, but government should rather just be one of the competitors.

Planning runs against these key cultural values. But ironically every project requires planning to succeed. Planning does happen. You therefore know the real issue comes down to timing, who controls the planning and who wins and what loses as a result.

In theory, the upcoming updates to the CIty and County General Plans could provide a fabulous forum for the future. In practice, there is hardly a system that human beings cannot manage to manipulate or corrupt for individual interests at the expense of the whole. So you have to design systems with checks and balances. And you have to create a culture of fair people to serve in them.

We do have systems with checks and balances, but we have created a culture of politics where fewer and fewer fair persons are willing or able to serve in them and accountability is either absent or misplaced.

Too few have the time and the inclination to be active in the complex affairs of government. So it is largely reduced to a system being manipulated by the few who get paid for it. Therefore, as long as the economic interests are satisfied, everyone tends to believe the status quo is just fine.

When I see the San Diego city slogan: The First Great City of The 21st Century, it makes me wonder. Did we pay anything to a consultant for this insipid pronouncement? It must have been chosen by someone surrounded only by "yes-staff."

Where does the greatness of a city come from? Not from a slogan. Putting forward new visions is expensive and time consuming. The only ones who can build sizable things are those who have the capital and the power already. Many great cities in America and around the world have a history of wealthy individuals stepping up to support a public culture via philanthropy. The history of great cities reads as a stories of the great men who built them. They may not have had a plan, but they built and supported great public spaces.

But in San Diego we don't have the public plan, nor evidently a sufficient number of private capitalists of vision, to support great public projects as their legacy.

In a truly great city you have great people who underwrite great projects that benefit the public. But here we have a significant number of the sniveling rich who grovel downtown for public financing of their commercial visions.

In a great city, we'd have twenty millionaires who'd each raise $5 million for a downtown library. We'd have another twenty who'd raise it for the City's open space preserve - a true legacy for generations. There are some notable exceptions, but I haven't heard of many local philanthropists who see public spaces as a priority anymore. It's sad to see the decline in support for public spaces without commercial return. It shows a profound erosion of the cultural commons.

Rather than being downtown to contribute to a healthy urban community process, many moneyed interests - if they are downtown at all - have paid lobbyists attempting to get a piece of the public pie for their projects. And they are consistently outraged when the city or other community members request that their projects be designed to sustainably accommodate the growth they represent.

Inbetween the squeeze of those who get money from the system and those who want to reduce their taxes, the real tasks of what government is for - maintaining public spaces for the public benefit in perpetuity - gets squeezed out.

One community planning board member put it to me this way: "There is a complete lack of leadership in the business of what government should be doing."

It's worse than that. Those in government have come to truly believe that the business of government is business - and that by doing commercial deals they are forwarding the public interest. They have confused the overall public good with the private interests of individual and well-connected constituents. In the meantime, no one with any real power represents non-economic public interests. If you don't have a funding base of support, forget it!

Unfortunately, the environment is still not an integrated or respected part of the process either. While other countries are working on "Green Plans" here in San Diego our preferences run to having weak, underfunded plans or no plans at all.