September 1, 2001 - From the September, 2001 issue

Public Sector Role In Growth: Lead Or Get Out Of The Way

Southern California will grow. That fact is not disputed. But how it will grow and evolve will be determined by a number of constituent groups, including the private sector, the public sector, and the environmental community. But which of those groups will lead? And what are the issues that will shape the vision for Southern California's future? In hopes of shedding some light on that subject, the Urban Land Institute recently organized its Southern California Real Estate Summit with the sole purpose of creating Strategies for Solutions. The opening remarks, by Azusa City Manager Rick Cole, codified some of the dilemmas inherent in the process and detailed how they should be solved. TPR is pleased to offer his remarks as an extended version of our ongoing Envision L.A. feature.

Rick Cole

As we've heard here this morning, the question of growth in Southern California is a complex one. But when it comes to the role of the public sector, the question is simple: either we lead, follow or get out of the way.

Which is it? What's the role of the public sector in dealing with the profound challenge of growth in Southern California? For most elected and appointed officials, the honest answer is not to lead. It's not to follow. It's certainly not to get out of the way. The sad, but honest answer, is that our role these days is to get in the way.

One City Manager recently shared with me her city's motto: process is our product. In the public sector, our focus on planning for growth is to focus on planning for the growth to go somewhere else.

We have Planning Departments and Planning Commissions, but we really don't plan. We react. Even when we do what's called planning, we aren't really preparing for the future, we're preparing plans. These plans go on a shelf. These are used primarily by lawyers to sue us. In fact, the overriding shared interest between environmentalists and the private sector is a shared interest in suing the public sector. I was talking to a developer recently and I asked him how his project was going. He was typically upbeat. He told me almost everything is in place, he's got his financing, he's got his tenants, he's got his entitlements, the only thing left is the litigation.

We have regional plans and neighborhood plans, general plans and specific plans, land use plans and transportation plans. What we lack is vision. What we lack is political will.

The problem is not electricity or water or density or growth. We have met the problem and it is us. The Old Testament puts it bluntly: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

Where does vision come from? Does vision come from enlightened private sector developers? Or courageous political leaders? Or far-sighted environmentalists? Obviously, we need visionary leaders from all of these perspectives. But no matter how much we talk about vision and leadership at summit meetings like this, visionary leadership is not forged at the top. It doesn't matter whether we call it LA 2000 or the "Real Estate Summit, Strategies for Solutions." It makes no difference whether the meetings are co-sponsored by USC or UCLA. If we are looking for vision and political will at conferences, we are looking for visionary leadership in all the wrong places.

If you want a prosperous and livable future for twenty million people in Southern California, you can't get together to plan it with 200 of your closest friends. Or even 200 key stakeholders. The only way to envision Southern California in 2020 is with the active participation of at least 200 thousand people.

I actually believe it takes millions, because that is how many people are affected and that is how many people vote in elections. But nobody really thinks voting is about making informed choices about the future, least of all the public sector. Everyone claims they want vision and political will, but nobody wants to actually garner a majority of votes for the difficult choices of change.


A long time ago, the lazy young king of Egypt asked his tutor, Euclid, the mathematician who invented geometry, "Isn't there an easier way to master this difficult subject?" He replied, "Sire, there is no royal road to geometry."

Precisely. There is no royal road to vision and political will in our nation's largest and most diverse region. There is no royal road to smart growth. Is engaging the public expensive and inconvenient? Sure. Let me give you just one comparison. In Azusa, we have just under 45,000 people, in the City of Los Angeles just over 3.5 million. In Azusa, we have spent more on public participation for our General Plan effort than was spent by the City of Los Angeles in theirs. Not more per capita. More total! So if you wonder whatever happened to the Framework Plan, ask all the people who weren't involved in framing it.

Here's another contrast in serious commitment to citizen participation. In Azusa, we've enlisted more citizens in developing our General Plan than SCAG involved in developing an $80 billion dollar transportation plan for five counties. It's no wonder that SCAG stands for Southern California Association of Gridlock. Where there are no people, the vision perishes.

If we are to truly envision Southern California, it won't be achieved here. But it can start here. The role of the public sector is not to get in the way. Nor should we just get out of the way. We can't afford to follow. We have no choice but to lead. But the public sector can't lead unless we engage the public. Does anyone in the public care about SCAG's RTP? Obviously not, or the public wouldn't stay away in droves from the process. But we live in a region where traffic reports come every six minutes. Is there anyone in Southern California who doesn't care about traffic or pollution or getting to work or taxes or a better future for their kids? If people don't care these issues, check their pulse. Millions of people do care where we spend $80 billion of their money. Millions of people do care about the future of the place where they live. Millions of people would embrace smart growth if they understood the choices before us.

Vision comes from capturing people's imagination and hopes about their future. Political will comes from harnessing that vision to the tough choices needed to achieve it.

Capturing the imagination of millions of people is hard work. Engaging millions of people in making tough choices is no easy task. It's called leadership. In September 1962, when John Kennedy went to Rice University and captured the imagination of this nation, he proclaimed, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade, not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."

In a democracy, visionary leadership is not an optional role for the public sector. It's our job. It's our responsibility. Particularly in these difficult times, I pray we are up to it. Not because I'm a city manager. And not just because Southern California is my home. But most of all, on behalf of Diego, Lucia, and Antonia, our three little children who--along with millions of others--are growing up today to live here in the future we create.


© 2023 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.