November 26, 2002 - From the November, 2002 issue

Are Planners Too Apolitical? Rich Carson Says, Yes!

The old axiom that "all politics is local" often manifests itself through the planning process. Rich Carson, a planner for 30 years and the Director of Planning for Clark County in the Greater Portland area, recently wrote a column lamenting the lack of political skill exhibited by most planners. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Rich Carson, in which he elaborates on this thesis.

Rich Carson

You recently wrote a column entitled "The Art of Planning and Politics," in which you identify the unproductive disconnect between city planners and the political world in which those planners work. Is this not the essence of your thesis?

Yes, as planners, we're trained to believe that we are above politics. In other words, we believe the political process is about backroom deals that are unethical and politically exclusive. So, we don't involve ourselves in politics for that reason.

The consequence of this worldview is that decisions are often being made in a vacuum, in the sense that we are not involved in the process. And, I think we should be involved. Lobbying is not a bad thing. In some cases, the lobbying can actually be considered shuttle diplomacy between special interest groups, citizens, and elected officials to come to a positive conclusion. We don't do that. We tend to sit back and let it happen.

Elaborate, if you could, on how it should work if planners better integrated their technical planning skills with politics advocacy. What should planners do differently?

We need to be more aggressive about inserting ourselves into the process-do more lobbying, more facilitation-to try to get some kind of a positive conclusion. A lot of times, these things will literally just fall apart.

You served as a planning executive with Portland's Metro (the regional government serving the metropolitan Portland area). Were the planners there more political?

Metro was very difficult in some ways. In one way, Metro is unique. Metro is the only regional government in the nation with elected officials and the power to mandate transportation and land use policy to cities and the counties in the region. That's the good news. The bad news is Metro itself was, at times, a very dysfunctional agency and the elected officials don't do a very good job communicating with local officials. So, there are a lot of hard feelings between them.

When I was at Metro, we accomplished a lot of great things. We created a Region 2040 program, which was a 50-year plan. We developed Metropolitan Green Spaces, a totally connected parks, natural areas and trails system. We built a solid waste management system with the highest recycling rate in the country. Much of that happened because I spent a lot of time working between Metro's elected officials and the local government officials so that they were not stepping on each others' toes, insulting each other and creating hard feelings.

Are planners in Clark County, where you now work, politically effective?

Clark County is not as contentious. Clark County is the fastest growing county in the state of Washington and in the Portland- Vancouver metropolitan area. So, we have a lot of growth management issues to deal with. But, the working relationships between the county commissioners and the cities are very good. I'm spending more time managing the department than managing the process.

Elaborate on how Clark County is coping with sprawl.

You have to define what sprawl is, and that's difficult. Los Angeles is denser than Portland. Yet, everyone badmouths Los Angeles as having more sprawl. In the 60's, sprawl was called leap-frog development. I think we've done a very good job in Clark County of managing leap-frog development and making sure the infrastructure delivery is cost efficient through the use of urban growth boundaries and infill.

There are two problems. They are big problems and we literally have no answer to them. Number one, in a fast growing market, housing becomes less affordable and there is no way to change that except to subsidize it. That's not going to happen in this day and age.

Number two, congestion is getting worse. Portland is one of the most congested cities in the country. My personal feeling about this is that maybe it is time to seriously talk about limits to growth-not slowing growth. The way we're going right now, we're going to have a megalopolis that stretches from San Diego to Seattle one day. There is no question about that. It's just a matter of how long it will take. It's going to happen because the urban growth boundaries are going to keep incrementally moving up and down I-5. There should be limits to growth and that cities should only reach a certain size.

The thing I loved about Portland when I came here 25 years ago was that you knew where the region ended, and it was manageable and you knew everyone. You knew who the elected officials were, you knew who the planners were. You get into an environment like Los Angeles and you don't know who anyone is. It goes on and on forever and the communities lose their identity. I don't know that we're going to go there in the future, but I think it terms of how we manage sprawl, I think you need to stop someplace and say, "Okay, we're done sprawling."

Returning to your critical column, you emphasized that "most (planners) are not inspired visionaries and very few of us have the political skills to make such a vision a reality." Elaborate on how you came to that conclusion. What it is about the profession that attracts the apolitical personalities you referred to?

Planners are people that personally feel that community consensus building is more important than individual advocacy or lobbying. I came to this conclusion after 30 years in the business. It's ironic, but the APA Planning magazine recently looked at the top 6 planning pioneers of the century, and not one of them was a planner. They were all architects, landscape architects and writers. Whether we're born this way or trained this way-that's just the way we are.

The consequence of that is that we don't do as good a job of managing the planning process to a positive conclusion. It can literally run away without us or melt down or, at the end of the day, leave people with long-lasting hard feelings. I've been in areas where the negativity from a certain process would last a decade after it happened. That's not what we should want to do.

Give our readers a better sense of how professional planners ought to behave. What, for example, is the ideal job description for the planner seeking to be both visionary and practical?


There's a trilogy of special interests, citizens, and elected officials. Our job is to work among those three groups. The special interests are diverse: developers, environmentalists, property rights advocates, etc. The citizens are people who come out of neighborhood associations or are small business people-they don't have an agenda. They don't have biased views, other than they may not want something. The job is to work with those people to the point of asking them, "What is it that you really want? What is it you're willing to give on, or trade, to make this work?" The job of a planner is to advance this negotiation behind the scenes to get something to a particular outcome.

What conditions need to exist in a metropolis, county or region to complement an otherwise effective planner?

First, it takes reasonable people for the planner to work with. Sometimes, even the most politically savvy planner cannot achieve something because the issues are so contentious and the people are so unreasonable. First, we must create a place where people are actually willing to discuss something and listen to each other before they get to a conclusion. A lot of times, people walk in the door and they have their agenda, they've got their conclusion, and they aren't going to move off it for whatever reason. You need civic-minded people in the process to really achieve something.

Do you also need to have visionary elected officials?

We have had visionary leaders in the past. At the state level in Oregon, it was governor McCall, who was a Republican willing to work with a Democratic legislature to say, "The growth in the 60's is too much. We have to do something." He was both visionary and willing to compromise to achieve what they achieved in Oregon in 1974.

Another person like that was Neil Goldsmith, the former mayor of Portland, who was very visionary. Responding to plans to build a freeway, he said "we don't need a new freeway, we need a transit mall and eventually light rail." He went on to be the head of the Department of Transportation at the federal level and we actually built light rail. So, it takes people with that kind of vision and the ability to be persuasive, so that others will go with it.

What's the state's ideal role in the planning process?

he role of the state should be to create general goals for local governments to achieve on their own and in their own manner. However, both Oregon and Washington are unique in that they have state mandated land use planning. They both have 20-year comprehensive plans. They have similar elements written into the plans, like transportation, open space, and housing. They both have urban growth boundaries and allow for impact fees, moratoriums on level of service failure, and both require that you monitor your plans to see if you are achieving infill before moving your boundaries. And, unfortunately, both states are very litigious, where the lawyers have the final say and not the planners. But these approaches are very different in terms of how people like me at the local level are affected.

Oregon is a one-size-fits-all program with a very strong authoritative state agency and a single land use court. Washington has a single agency, but it's less of an enforcement agency and more of an encouragement agency. It has three regional hearing boards. We get many more locally defined decisions in Washington. Decisions are made because of the place we're in, not because we're ordered to do something. We're not being micro-managed by the state.

Oregon has a problem. In Oregon, someone comes in and says, "thou shalt reach this density in your area." In Washington, that's not the case. We're looking to have compact urban growth form and optimize the infrastructure, but we have more leeway in terms of how our communities look and what our densities are.

Review for our readers the planning profession's current thinking on how best to manage the growth that is taking place in the West?

People are still talking about smart growth. Oddly enough, people are spending more time talking about sprawl than smart growth.

Both are very loaded terms. I see the smart growth movement as having stalled. But, I do see that people's post 9-11 concerns will impact planning. I think people are going to want more personal space than public space. They are going to spend more time in their backyards than in their front yards. Cul-de-sacs may see a resurgence because they provide a place for kids to play without taking them to a park. Also, there may be a resurgence of the campus style industrial park, because many people no longer want to work in 60-story buildings.

There is a palpable change in thinking taking place and it will be different from the new urbanists' vision. Basically, it's a model that, in the beginning said that leap-frog development is very costly and it's killing the inner city. Through urban growth boundaries and urban infill, we have created inner cities that are now places where people want to live and enjoy. We have standardized-not in a cookie cutter way-the things in the comprehensive plan you have to take into account.

What are the tools you have to implement such planning? Planners are not real savvy in terms of finance, but things like tax increment financing, urban renewal, and those kinds of things are powerful planning tools to actually make something happen. One of my criticisms of planning is that we aren't trained to make plans become real. Just as we aren't politically savvy, we are not financially savvy in terms of the art of the deal and how to make plans real. I think we've done that to a great extent in Oregon and Washington.

Lastly, Richard, would you ever take the job of Los Angeles City Planning Director?

I was born in L.A, and I left. One of the things I like about where I am now is that, besides having real seasons, it's a very family-oriented set of communities and very progressive. And people care very much about the environment. Oregon and Washington have really taken the art of land use planning a long ways. I would hope the future of land use planning in the country would be to move to those models.


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