April 30, 1993 - From the April, 1993 issue

Five Westside Planning Directors Explore the Planner’s Changing Role

What is the role of city planners in the 1990s? When five planning directors from Westside cities assembled in March at a Westside Urban Forum breakfast to discuss this question, the ensuing discussion demonstrated how local planning practice has evolved to mirror economic, social, and political changes in our region.

By Kenneth Bernstein, Editor


Beverly Hills’ Ruth Nadel: “What right do you, as a planner, have to advocate a position at odds with the elected officials…?”

Planning in a Dynamic World 

In her opening remarks, Ruth Nadel, the Planning Director of Beverly Hills, said the role of the planner is “to understand the internal world of your city and then bring to it the external world.” Her use of the term “external world” reflected a theme of the discussion: the planners’ role in the 1990s will be shaped largely by external forces and trends. 

For example, with economic growth no longer a given in Southern California, local planners are spending more time devising strategies to jump-start their local economies. “Planning and economic development are now coming together,” said Gay Forbes, Community Development Director of West Hollywood. “Planners need to have an understanding of the economy and an ability to intervene in it.” 

Forbes cited two other trends, often viewed as competing, that are shaping local planning: first, a growing recognition of regional interdependence that creates a need for greater regional planning; and second, a nationwide movement toward localized, neighborhood-oriented decision making. But Forbes later added, “It’s presented as a false dichotomy. You really need both.” 

Mark Winogrond, the Director of Community Development and Redevelopment for Culver City, began by saying that planners, if considered as representatives of California cities, have failed. However, Winogrond also saw a brighter side to the current status of planners. “When I think of our role as visionaries of a better future,” said Winogrond, “we’ve never been stronger or more political. The language of planners is now the language of politics.” 

Planners as Advocates 

Asked whether planners should advocate for their own positions, Winogrond took the strongest stance, asserting that advocacy is “an obligation of the profession.” Winogrond cited as a second obligation of the profession to “advocate for underrepresented groups.” 

Paul Berlant, the Planning Director of Santa Monica, a city with a strong tradition of advocacy planning over the last 15 years, agreed that planners should advocate for their positions and the underrepresented. “In Santa Monica,” said Berlant, “the people on the bottom are now on top.” 

Con Howe, the Planning Director of the City of Los Angeles, agreed that “planners should be advocates,” but added that “the positions we advocate should be truly well-informed.” Howe added an emphasis on mediation to the planners’ role, arguing that planners should “try to synthesize and advocate positions that satisfy as many... groups as possible.”

Nadel of Beverly Hills, expressed a dissenting viewpoint throughout on the subject of planners as advocates. “We are hired, not elected,” said Nadel. '”What right do you, as a planner, have to advocate a position at odds with the elected officials or constituents?” Nadel later asked, “What right do you have to offer your well-informed view over the collective will of the people?”

But Santa Monica’s Berlant saw nothing wrong with planners entering the give and take of the political world. “What we do is politics,” said Berlant, “but we do it under the guise, of a profession.”

Regulators to Instigators 

With overregulation shouldering much of the blame these days for slowing the Southern California economy, are planners ready to embrace regulatory streamlining? Winogrond seemed to hope so: “We run the land use police powers in cities… We run the systems that have shut down the production of housing. We have two choices: we either make recommendations that make others conscious of that, or we don’t.”

Gay Forbes, drawing from her West Hollywood experiences, said that planners’ regulatory emphasis is not characteristic of the profession, but of its practice in California. “What struck me when I moved here from Boston was the incredible dependence on regulation,” said Forbes. “In Boston it was totally the opposite. Most of the development was negotiated development.” 

But Paul Berlant, in defense of Santa Monica’s practices, thought overregulation takes too much of the blame. “I don't know that a city the size of Santa Monica can take the rap for the decline of Southern California. It’s not regulation that causes the economic pendulum to swing.” 

Los Angeles’ Con Howe saw the regulatory zeal of the 1980s fading. “Planners during the 1990s are playing a very different role than planners in the 1980s,” said Howe. “The role of the planner as regulator of development is less important. The planner has become an instigator.”

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“It’s not so much too many regulations but the wrong kind,” Howe added. “The amount of discretion means that nothing is predictable, either from the homeowner’s point of view or the developer’s.”

Regional Governance? 

Asked for the planners’ viewpoint on regional governance in California, Winogrond warned planners to “expect greater impositions (from state government) when cities together abdicate their areas of concern.”

Forbes added that “cities feel the same distrust toward regional government that citizens feel toward city government.” Berlant agreed, adding that “cities are NIMBYs in and of themselves.” 

But Nadel, dissenting again, asked, “What is the theoretical basis for regional governments? They have no constituency, no taxing powers… It’s our responsibility to explain this regional responsibility within our cities.”

Howe said that the “regional approach works best when entrusted to certain functions like the MTA or water quality. Otherwise… it remains fuzzy.” 

Ballot Box Zoning 

When planning fails, citizens often take matters into their own hands, passing initiatives that create caps or formulas to control growth. Berlant took a strong stance against such “ballot box zoning.” “Ballot box zoning is very dangerous because communities aren’t well-informed on these issues,” said Berlant. “You have a yes or no, up or down vote with no room for compromise. Decisions by policymakers simply aren’t made that way.” 

Moderator Peggy Curran, Community Development Director of Beverly Hills, asked the five planning directors what their cities were doing to absorb the two million people being added to this region over the next decade. Winogrond responded, “We’ve ensured that virtually none of those people can be absorbed here (on the Westside) and decided it’s not our responsibility to take care of that increase.” 

Nadel saw within the population increase another new challenge to planners: “The immigrant population is a new constituency that we haven’t figured out how to deal with,” said Nadel. 

Beyond Planning 

Those leaving the forum may have drawn comfort by seeing that the five Westside cities boast competent, articulate spokespersons for planning. But had the discussion focused on the actual issues facing today’s planning directors, it would have become clear that these talented individuals still lack the governmental structures — both within their own cities and among them — to transform many of their ambitions into reality. 

In addition, with planning departments across Southern California standing at the head of the line to face the budget axe, planners in the 1990s will face an ever-mounting challenge of justifying their profession to an often skeptical “external world.” Perhaps their shift in emphasis from “regulation” to “instigation” will be enough, particularly if they add a dose of “empowerment.”

But, more likely, the planning profession still needs to go further, to find a vocabulary as compelling at budget time as the simple but powerful call, “more cops!”

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