March 4, 2013 - From the March, 2013 issue

Former San Diego Planning Director Bill Anderson on Reviving the City's Planning Department

Following Mayor Bob Filner’s election last November, the City of San Diego anticipates an overhaul of its combined Planning and Development Services department. Bill Anderson, former San Diego Planning director, current president-elect, and soon-to-be president of American Planning Association, and Principal, Vice President and Director of Economics and Planning for US West at AECOM, details for TPR the organization, agendas, and partnerships of the “best practice” planning departments San Diego has studied in preparation for its own restructuring. Anderson notes that a city is most successful in achieving its planning goals when its planning department is tailored to the individuality of that vision. 


Bill Anderson

"Historically, planning originally was very involved in the CIP priority decision-making process. Now, often you’ll see an engineering or public works department take on that role, yet the priorities for the CIP reflect the administration and city council’s priorities and one of the priorities could be community economic development or implementing a sustainable community strategy." -Bill Anderson

Bill, the San Diego City Planning Department is now being unmerge by new Mayor Filner. Please share the 21st century organizational history of  San Diego’s approach to city planning?

Bill Anderson: During the budget crisis a couple years ago, Mayor Sanders merged our department, City Planning and Community Investment, with the Development Services Department, which handles permitting, including building permits, CEQA, and code enforcement. The idea was to save some money; the hope was that there would be more efficiency between policy and permitting. Because the new department didn’t use the term “planning” in the title, there was probably a misperception that the city got rid of the planning department, but if you look at the structure it’s very similar to, for example, San Jose’s planning department. So it’s not an uncommon structure.

Then last summer, the director of Development Services reorganized the department with a new structure that fulfilled the integration of the two departments. But in November, the voters elected a new mayor, Congressman Bob Filner. As part of his platform, the new mayor wanted to bring back a dedicated planning department, perhaps combined with sustainability, in order to take on neighborhood and sustainability initiatives. He ran on a “Neighborhoods First” platform, with backing from labor and environmental groups. He took over in December and is now looking at the options of how to reconstitute a planning department. He said during his campaign that planning is more than permitting.

Does local governance of planning, how it’s organized, make a difference to the functions and outcomes of what city planners do for their jurisdictions?

Yes, it does. In fact, this is what we talked about earlier this week at C3. C3 is San Diego’s oldest planning advocacy group, since 1958. We had about 110 people attending the forum. The topic of the forum was: “The Reinvention of Planning in San Diego!” There were senior people from the new mayor’s administration in the audience, listening and looking at the options of how to restructure to fulfill the mayor’s commitment to proactive planning and sustainability. Like you said, it’s more than permitting—permitting is an important function, but planning goes beyond that.

Back to structure and function: How exactly does the organization of planning function dictate what planning professionals do in their offices?

I think there are two things. First, what is the mission of the organization? In my presentation yesterday, I talked about three different examples: Pittsburgh in the 1980s, which was focused on economic redevelopment, and the department was structured to really pursue reinvention of the city’s economy; Minneapolis in the 1990s, which focused on quality of life issues; and Portland from 2000-2009, which took out permitting from the planning bureau and made that a separate development services bureau, so that the planning department could focus more on vision and implementation, things like districts, comprehensive planning, economic development, code and environmental planning, and quality of life issues. In 2009 Portland combined planning with sustainability to really focus on sustainability as well. They now have a planning and sustainability director with a chief planner of planning and urban design—that was their emphasis. There is also a manager of policy research and innovation, and a manager for sustainability education and assistance.

There’s no one, normative, “best,” organizational structure—you structure to fulfill the mission of the city, the administration, and the issues that they’re dealing with. The better examples, however, tend to combine visioning, research, and policy functions with implementation functions.

So looking at these examples, asking people at APA, and checking around, we came up with some best practices. I guess you could say these are my opinions of best practices. First, for the department itself, in terms of management, have a span of management that is deep but simple. One of the considerations is if you have too many direct reports to the director. If there are too many direct reports, it’s very difficult for the director of a department to step back and think about the city and its future. From a management perspective, you have so many different issues to deal with, and the broader the control, the less time for you to focus on what’s important for the city. For example, if routine building permits are within the same department, which often have more staff and a larger share of the budget than other functions, particularly in large and growing cities, will the director be so preoccupied with day-to-day permitting, personnel, budgeting, and administrative issues, that he or she will not have the time to reflect?  So, thinking about the span of management is important.

Also, many of the best examples of planning departments lead or are major partners in sustainability initiatives. They also integrate mobility planning and modeling with land use planning. This is a common issue that you might have with transportation modeling in engineering departments. Many engineering departments really are structured to design and build infrastructure and public facilities, and, as we know, transportation planning needs to be coordinated and integrated with land-use planning and urban design because they affect each other.

Also, the planning department should draft the regulations, including zoning. This is a debate we had in San Diego because, on the one hand, you may have the development service department that applies the regulations as the lead. Instead, you might have, like in Portland in the 2000s, a zoning administrator within a planning department as the lead. Zoning is a tool to implement policy. One could argue that the regulatory tools should be designed by the department that’s formulating policy to ensure that it effectively implements policy. That’s something that should be considered. The current San Diego structure that combined planning and development services does that.

Also, which department has the lead for major discretionary permitting and plan amendments? Often you see that development services departments manage the process of permit applications for efficiency purposes, and there are some good examples of that. However, when you’re doing an amendment of a city’s general plan, those are really land-use, public policy decisions and therefore should be considered in a comprehensive manner. So in some of these best practices cities, that role is delegated to the planning department. In California in particular, that role may include overseeing environmental impact assessments and environmental planning.

In a lot of the examples I looked at, the planning department had a research arm. They were seen as the department that conducts fundamental research—socio-economic, about the physical form, about infrastructure—on behalf of the whole city. That was a common theme in several of the better models.

Most of them either directly lead or were a partner in community economic development. They also helped coordinate public facility planning for operating departments. For example, it’s very common to see operating departments focused on planning their own public facilities—a parks department planning parks, a water and sewer department planning its infrastructure and watersheds—yet these facilities have other land-use and quality-of-life implications which influence value. They shouldn’t be done in a vacuum. Planning for these facilities should be combined with other considerations. For example, planning a park strategically might induce community economic development around that park or fulfill an urban design objective.  Planning for watersheds is also planning for open space and habitat. So there needs to be coordination there.

Historically, planning originally was very involved in the CIP priority decision-making process. Now, often you’ll see an engineering or public works department take on that role, yet the priorities for the CIP reflect the administration and city council’s priorities and one of the priorities could be community economic development or implementing a sustainable community strategy. Planning has an important role in that priority-setting process. In some of these best practice examples, the planning department was actually the lead in managing and proposing CIP priorities to the city council and mayor.

Finally there was an emphasis on promoting urban design quality. The examples had design review, and there are several models of cities around the country that have design studios. Some of them are municipal, some are university-based, and some are non-profit, independent organizations that are doing it on behalf of their city. But their role is to help internal departments, external applicants, and community groups think about urban design—they might be involved in formal design review in certain situations. I understand LA has an urban design studio. We don’t in the City of San Diego, although the Centre City Development Corporation (now called Civic San Diego) which managed downtown redevelopment, had design review.

Bill, what factors did former Mayor Sanders judge decisive when he chose to merge planning into a larger agency? And what factors have moved new Mayor Filner to prefer a dedicated City Planning Department?

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I think Mayor Sanders at the time was very focused on reducing costs because of the severe budget situation. He was looking to combine departments and probably saw that during the recession the higher priority was having a structure to focus on permitting and trying to get projects through as quickly as possible.

Now we have a new mayor who is rethinking priorities and some of the considerations we talked about at C3—what is the mission and purpose of planning?—are fundamental to how you structure a planning department. The department or the director could have direct access to the mayor and council. In the examples we looked at, that was a common theme. In fact, in Minneapolis, at the time, it was in their charter. It was the only department with direct reporting access to mayor and council as opposed to reporting to the city manager. San Diego’s planning function use to have that special charter provision as well.

That kind of direct access empowers a planning department and makes a statement about the importance of long-range visioning and its implementation for a better built and natural environment, and a better, sustainable, quality-of-life. Of course that’s up to the mayor and council, or the voters, to decide if they want to give it that kind of special emphasis.

Is timing everything? When a city is without resources, is it to be expected that there will be a political push to make the penny-wise, pound-foolish budget decision? Or is there something more important at stake here in terms of a city’s focus on long-range planning and the integration of these land use functions?

Well, there is a tendency during recessionary times and when city budgets are constrained to focus more on basic services than on the long term. But in cities that are growing, there’s a lull during the recession and that’s actually a good time to conduct the long-range planning needed in order to get the policies, entitlements, and regulations in place for when recovery occurs and growth continues again. This way growth, when it occurs, is done in a way that fulfills a city’s vision for its future development. I also think long-range planning and coordination leads to more efficient use of infrastructure and public facilities, with long-run fiscal benefits.

What was it about the mayor’s campaign and the victory that compelled him to right-off-the-bat go for undoing what had been done by his predecessor?

His support base included a lot of the environmental community in San Diego, and I think that was a major driver. The mayor also ran on a Neighborhoods First platform that resonated with voters after years of fiscal austerity.

Also, planning advocacy organizations have a rich tradition in San Diego, with C3, the Environmental Health Coalition, Move San Diego, the Council of Design Professionals, community development and affordable housing advocates, community planning groups, community development organizations, and others. The foundation community has taken on greater interest in quality-of-life, sustainability, and planning issues.  So there’s a bit of an infrastructure here that advocates for planning that exists in some cities but isn’t as developed in many places.

Bill, you are now APA’s president-elect. When elevated next year to president, what will be your priorities?

Sustainability, particular in response to a changing climate, and also the integration of planning and economic development, including social equity — I think that’s an important tradition of planning that may have lost emphasis over the years. Designing cities for healthier outcomes is an emerging and important trend, and planning for an aging and increasingly diverse population requires some rethinking of how we do things and how we involve the public. Finally, I’d like to foster planning leadership, both within the profession and outside the profession, by partnering with others. 

Would such priorities mean leadership in the model of a Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, or Portland? 

All of them and more. There’s no one model; that’s the point. There’s no normative: this is the model and everyone should like it. You design the model that fits your context and what you want to achieve as a citizenry, a city, your vision, your priorities, and also your political structure. A city management form of government is different than a strong mayor form of government, and even within a strong mayor government, there’s a difference between those who have term limits and those who don’t.

Lastly, if APA, under your leadership, were to put together a blue ribbon task force to examine the Los Angeles planning department’s organization, who would be on that task force and what do you think they would focus upon?

I think they’d ask, what is LA’s vision for its future, and how can Planning best partner with the other essential departments, agencies, institutions, the private sector, advocacy groups, and the public to achieve that future? 

One other consideration is that planning departments are not just planning from the citywide down to the community (or vice-versa), but now, if they’re going to effectively address climate change and sustainability, they must plan from the city up to the region. So having that kind of integration and knowledge is important.

We can all learn from each other. LA is doing innovative things that inform planning in other cities. The motivation, priorities, and commitment ultimately have to come from within, and the appropriate structure will follow.

© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.