Friday, September 02, 2005

Utah Planners Ineffective?

Let me start this entry by saying I apologize -- maybe because with Labor Day weekend coming, its the end of summer, or because the New Orleans disaster makes me wonder what real effect planners have on making communities better and safer, or, or, or, just a bunch of different things. Maybe its just because of the parents that yelled at me yesterday at the soccer game I reffed. Whatever.

I recently read another essay by Richard Carson (former Executive Director of Portland METRO, current Community Development Director of Vancouver, Washington) about the politics of planning. Carson muses on the role of planners in Oregon and what they really do (or don't do), and so much of it sounds like Utah.

Carson says, "Planners have very little to say about the politics of planning in Oregon. The primary protagonists in Oregon's land use struggle are either developers or environmentalists. Planners have somehow evolved as neutral (neutered?) professionals who believe their job is to facilitate development within a predetermined set of community values which come in the form of regulations. These 'values' are determined at the city, county, regional and state levels by elected officials who are influenced by everyone -- except planners."

After my years of experience at both the local government level and particularly with the state legislature, Carson's comments seem like they could have been written right here. We certainly have developers exerting a great deal of influence over planning -- and that is to be expected, given their keen interest in land use policies and how it affects their very livelihood. But sometimes (most times?) it seems that influence is "oversized." We do not have the strong environmental influence as a counter balance that Oregon has -- though it is gaining strength (witness the Legacy Parkway affair). It seems in Utah, we are seeing a growing counter from groups of organized residents who are generally against anything other than single-family housing.

But planners seem to be missing in action in most of these "discussions" -- opinions and positions on hot topics are being expressed by developers, builders, architects, environmental groups, citizen groups, everyone except planners. Whenever we have a planning issue under consideration before the state legislature, the usual suspects are there to comment and lobby, but it's like pulling teeth to get planners to come out and do so.

Carson gives a clue. "The planner as advocate, for better urban design and land use planning, died out in the 1960s and 1970s. Planners became process people -- they simply shut their mouths and eyes and let the citizens make the decisions. This is not necessarily negative. It meant that the citizens started making their own decisions with our help and guidance.
"Unfortunately, planners were driven from the field of advocacy by developers and were replaced by environmental activists (in Utah, I'd say its citizen activists)."

I even see some state legislators advocating certain planning positions -- like changing sales tax formulas to address the "zoning for dollars" issue. Where are the planners commenting about this, and other topics?

Carson concludes his essay, "I believe that it is once again time for the planning advocate. I don't care what you advocate as long as you act on your faith. We are people who have strong beliefs. Let us articulate them -- through our Association, through our words, and in the end through our actions."



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