December 30, 1993 - From the December, 1993 issue

SCAG: Draft Regional Comprehensive Plan Released

SCAG is due to release their new Draft Regional Comprehensive Plan (RCP). Elizabeth Bar-El focuses on the political landscape of Southern California that will either accept or reject the RCP. The RCP will be critiqued according to its section of economic proposals, namely the concept of 'economic clusters'.

The new SCAG Draft Regional Comprehensive Plan (RCP), due to be released in early December, "starts with the premise that a healthy regional economy is a prerequisite for successful implementation of policies in other areas: transportation, housing, growth management and air quality." Of the thirteen sections making up the RCP, the economic element is seen as the link between them, differing from past regional plans which have centered on physical land use proposals and have viewed economics as unrelated and based on market forces. But as with any new urban planning model, the success of SCAG's RCP, the standard of living blueprint for use by cities and counties up to the year 2010, will be measured to a large degree by the extent to which economic proposals and related social and educational reforms are adopted. And these reforms are largely dependent on the formation of the organizational structures proposed for coordinating and implementing the plan's strategy. 

But forming a new regional planning structure in Southern California which already has a number of institutions and organizations involved in policy-making: cities, counties, special districts, public-private partnerships, inter-city forums, chambers of commerce and non-profits, just to name a few, is no small task. There are many jurisdictions with overlapping and competing interests, while some represent large and complex constituencies, like the City of Los Angeles, others represent smaller and more specific groups. Bringing such diverse interests together, with an understanding of their mutual needs in order to make the RCP work, is the greatest challenge that SCAG faces with the release of the Regional Comprehensive Plan. The economic element may have great appeal to academics, and does indeed embody the very latest in theories of urban development -- economic clusters -- geographic concentrations of interdependent, competitive firms in related industries, and development of infrastructure or economic foundations, but cities in Southern California have more often than not competed rather than cooperated when it comes to regional planning issues. If SCAG hopes to do more than just suggest the right strategy, its first step is to enlist support for institutional innovations from leadership throughout the region. 

A Regional Consortium 

As might be expected, SCAG planners encountered resistance to the formation of a new institutions for regional coordination. According to Dr. Bruce De Vine, SCAG director of economic development, integrating the comments of civic and business leaders involved in the plan's preparation took over a year and a half. In light of the resistance to a new mandatory regional planning body, SCAG is proposing a much more flexible and voluntary organizational structure: 

"As a first step, the 2000 Regional Partnership, SCAG and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce should form a Regional Economic Strategies Consortium (RESC) comprising representatives of existing regional development bodies, industry and trade associations, etc. Its precise mission, organizational structure, financing, etc. will be defined by the Consortium leaders and partners." 

This leaves the nature and purpose of the proposed Consortium open for interpretation and depending on your point of view, less focused. Mark Pisano, SCAG executive director, explained that the Consortium would represent the coalition of private sector organizations who would work side-by-side with government as represented by SCAG. 

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As a voluntary body, the consortium can only succeed if the key forces in the region acknowledge the benefits of cooperation and agree to be a part of the process. But how likely is this in Southern California's current civic culture? Although the RCP emphasizes a "bottom up" planning process allowing cities and counties in the region to maximize their participation through thirteen subregional organizations, so far only the hardest hit areas by Southern California's worsening economy have been eager to participate in the plan. Each subregion was asked to submit its comments to the SCAG planning staff, in order to produce an improved final draft that will be responsive to the cities' concerns. According to DeVine, most subregions had something to contribute, but only the outlying areas most directly affected by the defense industry cutbacks, such as the South Bay and Pasadena/Burbank, as well as the San Gabriel valley, which is trying to develop new technology industries, have developed extensive input on the economy of their subregions. The areas affected most by last year's civil disturbances have also been particularly enthusiastic about participating in a plan which comprehensively addresses the problems of the whole region. 

As with any "grand plan", how it is received politically, particularly by local elected officials, will probably be the determining factor in the plan's success. SCAG is hoping that mayors and councils will fully appreciate the importance of the "big picture", and that this understanding in conjunction with recognition of the cities' obligations and ability to effect economic revitalization will prompt them to make many of the reforms mapped out in the new SCAG plan. However, as past experience has shown with plans that emphasizes a regional cooperation approach, cities tend to act in more self-interested directions, especially in this era of economic and social retrenchment. Results on a regional level will only be seen if competition between cities can be kept at bay while the infrastructure for the region as a whole is improved. 

In a letter to Pisano, former Burbank city councilman Thomas Flavin, a consultant at Business­Government Partnership, who has been involved in the plan's development, emphasized that while competition between cities is "a real obstacle to multi-jurisdictional cooperative efforts... long-term economic opportunities which exists in the new technology efforts such as Project California and CALSTART lend themselves more readily to multi-jurisdictional approaches." Flavin recommended a high-profile effort by SCAG to put the plan on the agenda of a regular meeting of every City Council, noting that while the sub-regional forum is adequate for thrashing out policy issues, only at the city level can regional plans of this magnitude really be implemented. The success of this effort is what will differentiate between merely a good plan and a truly effective one. SCAG is planning such a campaign after the release of the RCP in December. 

All of us in the Southern California region know that the road to disorganized sprawl is paved with well-intended plans. It is not difficult to dig back and find many well thought out plans on the cutting edge of planning theory that would have transformed the urban landscape and improved our cities - had they been implemented. The SCAG Regional Comprehensive Plan will need to make a great effort to overcome skepticism, competing interests and provincial attitudes if this plan is to be different and inspire real reforms in the region's approach to economic development.

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