February 1, 2003 - From the February, 2003 issue

SCAG Investing In Citizens' Visioning Process With Goal Of Accommodating Regional Growth

SCAG recently launched a two-year visioning program to examine the demands of anticipated growth in the region over the next 25 years and to build a constituency for the strategies to accommodate that growth. TPR is pleased to present this interview with John Fregonese, founding partner and principal of Fregonese Calthorpe Associates. As the primary consultant for the Compass project, John addresses the challenges and opportunities presented by such a massive, regional growth visioning exercise.

John, you're working with SCAG on what is clearly one of the largest growth visioning efforts in the United States. Explain how you approach a growth visioning process for a six county area and a population the size of most states. Is it possible to envision such a large metropolis?

Regional thinking is not new in the United States. Certainly the Plan of Chicago from 1909 was a real approach to the metropolis. That was created in Chicago and has certainly become the dominant form of human settlement in the twentieth century. We've gotten to this point where we have these large metropolitan areas, we know they function as a unit-labor, transportation, air quality, water, and so forth-and they are basically a single organic construction. You can see from the air what they look like, and yet we have not, in the United States especially, approached looking at solutions that way.

The advent of geographic information systems (GIS), the availability of rich data sets, has allowed us to tackle this, because the computer allows you to understand and model a large region which we weren't able to do a decade ago. Technology has freed us from the details allowing us to think about the region, model it, and look at different solutions. It's one of those cases where, because it's a complex region, the computer allows us to do things that we couldn't otherwise do. We can conceptualize ideas and play them out in scenarios and see what to do-we have built a virtual reality of the Southern California area and can model different scenarios in detail, run it through the transportation model, and see what the impact is on air quality, for example. By looking at a lot of different choices, we can start to understand the consequences of our planning decisions.

Elaborate for our readers how one designs a growth visioning process for 17 million people living across six spacious counties. Also, how will the process roll-out over two years?

First, we set up our measurement tools. We have three basic models: an economic forecasting model, a land use model, and a transportation model. We've set those up and are integrating them. That's the benchmark where we test ideas and we see how well these ideas work.

Next, we try to figure out what it is people want. There are a number of things you can do with a large population. Certainly, it's no mystery to businesses how to address large populations-go to the media. We use some of the same tools-we use polling and broad-scale outreach to find out what people are thinking. We released a poll on February 13 that looks at what people consider the basic problems and what solutions they think might work. Then, we are going to be asking people to build their view of how the future ought to work. In a traditional planning process, we would develop a Master Plan that would address all of the problems we identify in the data gathering stage. Because we are using scenario planning, we're going to go through this process where people can come up with their own ideas of what would work. We'll try those out and we'll see how well the ideas work. From that large trial and error process, we'll find a good solution.

Our method of doing that is going to be workshops held around the region with thousands of people invited to attend and work on large scale maps of the region. They will be provided with a set of tools that represents the actual forecast of expected growth. People will have to figure out, working with eight-to-ten other citizens how they would like to approach each problem. We're going to be able to integrate that together into a number of discrete scenarios, analyze them objectively and let people know what the results are and see what they think of them.

Mark Pisano is quoted as saying, "Local governments, by their nature, give priorities to local interests and concerns. There is no cohesive regional framework in which to view problems, yet most of the forces that shape the region and affect the quality of life are those that reach across political boundaries: air quality, open space, transportation, housing, and jobs. Without a regional solution, the only logical strategy is to act parochially and that's exactly what our local governments tend to do." Assuming Mark's insights are accurate, is it fair to ask what regional entity might implement whatever visions come out of this process you are helping to manage?

We're probably going to look to implement this through existing regional entities: SCAG, MTA, the sub-regions and so forth. You can liken it to the way Europe started getting together in the common market back in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. It's now the European Union, but back then, they were getting together on a few key issues where cooperation clearly was in their mutual self-interest-and, the EU still is a fairly weak organization. Regional governments and regional entities will remain fairly weak for the foreseeable future. People in America don't like the idea of a new form of government. But, there is a common vision and a common approach that has widespread acceptance in terms of what the problems are and how to deal with them. Getting to consensus on that is a big step towards regional cooperation. Right now, one of the problems in Southern California is that the problems already are well known. However, the solutions are not well known. What is the solution? What's the best way to grow? What's the best way to accommodate the expected population increase? What is the optimal transportation solution? Those questions have not been explored in a form that allows people to come to a common understanding of the best solution for them.

Let's dig a little deeper, John, and draw on your experience with Portland. Southern California has some of the nation's most significant and effective public, single-issue regional entities-MWD and SCAQMD among them. But none are a holistic planning entity that could effectively implement the recomendations of a growth visioning process of the kind you are commencing? What government entity has the scope of authority to address growth management holistically and in an integrated fashion?

I don't know of one that exists right now-and it doesn't exist in most regions. Those entities tend to grow out of a common understanding of the solution. They don't tend to come in and then create the solution. And, the evolution of these entities tends to happen slowly over time. People point to Portland, but it took a good 50 years of regional collaboration for a government to emerge-and one that is very limited in its reach. The first thing that we do in approaching regionalism is to take all the regional decisions we're already making and integrate them in a regional strategy with a regional vision that's commonly understood to be a solution.

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One of the best solutions may be a private non-profit advocate for the regional solution. SCAG, for instance, addresses transportation issues. But, you can't address transportation without looking at land-use and open space and water. These integrated regional solutions are going to cross political boundaries, they're going to cross disciplinary boundaries, and they're going to cross the turfs of the existing regional and sub-regional institutions. One of the most effective ways of going down that path is to have citizen-based organizations that keep the vision alive. One of the better institutions exemplifying this strategy is the RTA in New York City. Since the ‘20s, the RTA has been the advocate for thinking as a region for the New York area. Also, they have been very active and influential in guiding that region's development through their three regional plans over time. It could be something that will grow out of this exercise in Los Angeles.

The L.A. basin over the next two to three decades is expected to accommodate five million more people, growing in population from 17 to 23 million. Critics ask, "Why should we encourage growth by planning for it?" And such thinking fuels a slow-growth movement that coincidentally stifles any proactive planning for projected growth. Will extensive citizen involement with the growth visioning process you are managing change the above described dynamic?

It's clearly difficult to grasp the future of the Southern California region. Clearly, if current residents think about a six million person increase in population by the year 2025, they could argue either that it shouldn't happen so fast or shouldn't happen at all. And it might not happen by 2025; maybe it's 2030, or even 2040. But, sooner or later, as a result of births over deaths, Southern California will grow in population to that size. There hasn't been a region in the history of the world that has successfully limited its growth unless the local economy failed. But that's not anyone's goal. So, as long as the economy grows, Southern California will continue to grow.

Rather than discussing when it happens, we want people to think about how to maintain livability and how to take advantage of the change that growth can foment. Part of the problem is that people need to understand where that growth comes from. Most of the growth is fueled by a natural population increase (i.e. childbirths), as well as from immigration. If you look around the world, about half of the population, about five billion people in 2050, is going to live in metropolitan areas. A lot of these metropolitan areas are going to have between 30 and 50 million people. Southern California is one of the places that's going to have to figure out how to make a metropolis work in the 21st century.

Draw from your experience living in Portland re how one balances the goals of regional planning with demands for local growth management protections-between the need for regional infrastructure investment and principles of local control and neighborhood preservation.

You have to clearly delineate the issues that are strictly local, stay away from them, and not try to second-guess local governments in making those decisions. However, there's a certain awareness among local governments that it would benefit all of them if, in areas where cities impact one another, especially where there's a zero-sum gain, having some way of leveling the playing field benefits them all. So you have, in a sense, the tragedy of the commons-where everyone is competing in a zero-sum game to capture the flag of retail development when really it's serving the same basic population divided among different local governments.

One of the big fears of regional plans is that it will make cities all the same, providing a one-size-fits-all solution. The solutions that you're talking about need to be flexible enough that local governments can put their local spin on it. Nobody wants a region where everything looks the same. People enjoy and want to emphasize diversity among communities and neighborhood individuality. You've got to craft solutions that are more performance-oriented, that are truly tied to regional impacts and try to give local governments a performance measure to meet without the specifics of exactly how to do it.

What's the end game here? How do you envision SCAG using the results of the 2-year visioning process that you're leading?

SCAG is looking at it in terms of helping to guide the 2004-2007 regional transportation plan. I think that SCAG knows in the last RTP, they did some 140+ measures for air quality and made one small adjustment on land-use. That land-use adjustment had a greater impact on air quality than the 144 fairly painful measures that they were looking at. And they know that having a more efficient land-use pattern is the most effective tool that they can use to solve transportation and air quality problems. So I think that's going to be a key.

My hope is that something like the RTA-a regional advocacy group that is supported by a broad coalition of citizens-comes together to keep the regional picture in mind. That group will need to advocate for things that aren't necessarily SCAG's priorities-open space, water quality, making communities livable and supporting investment and reinvestment in some of the more poverty stricken neighborhoods. You can't really solve the land-use problem until you solve security and you can't solve that until you solve education and training. I'm hoping that something like what has happened in New York and Chicago will also happen in Southern California. The number one and number three regions have very strong private sector advocates that keep an independent and strong voice for regional solutions and Southern California could profit from such an entity.

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