April 1, 2003 - From the April, 2003 issue

Former USC Planning Dean Ed Blakely Now A New Yorker

As Dean of USC's School of Urban and Regional Planning, Ed Blakely was a key figure in Los Angeles' planning community. Now, as Dean of the Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy at the New School in New York City, Blakely has involved himself with the unique challenges New York City faces of planning and rebuilding post-9/11. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Ed Blakely in which he discusses his activity in and among the planning community in New York and his ongoing commitment to projects in Southern California.

Ed, a vacuum in LA and at USC was created when you left Southern California for a position at the New School in New York City. Please bring us up to date on what your new responsibilities include, both teaching and civically.

Well, I'm taking a break from LA in New York. In Los Angeles, I was involved in city and regional planning as well as involved with the schools and in the building of civic leadership. New York, as strange as it sounds, offers a lot of opportunity and September 11th created a new focus for me. In addition to my academic responsibilities, I've been involved very much in the re-planning of ground zero and putting together the civic coalition that has that's done that planning work. Also, I am a member of the board of the Regional Plan Association looking at region-wide plans and I'm doing some planning on Long Island, trying to get suburban planning to be more responsible to community needs, but also dealing with smart growth.

Let's flesh out each of these new challenges. Let's start with your Deanship of the Malino Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy at the New School. What's your primary mission and academic agenda?

Well, the school is interesting because it has both a private sector and a public sector within the school and heretofore those operations in school operated separately. So, I pulled them together. We have a very strong management core-it looks very much like a business core-in our teaching program. We added an international dimension and got the school very much involved in the civic problems of New York City, both in the non-profit and the private sector. Basically, I took the kind of stuff we do at USC's Center for Economic Development and made them school-wide efforts here. We have gotten students involved in planning problems for civic organizations as well as for the city through a year-long course-it's very exciting.

Let's turn now to New York post-9/11. What's been your role in planning the reconstruction of Ground Zero?

Well, there are two roles. The first role has been to stop some of the kinds of activities that were going on, like just rebuilding on the site as-is. We played a very vital role there in putting together a 5,000-person forum last July to look at the options. Of course, the community rejected all of the options, so they went back to the drawing board and two things came out. One was a more sensitive physical plan. But also, more involvement of the community in the planning so that the sites result in more of what the neighborhoods need versus what commercial establishment needs. I think it will be better for both.

We have carried a number of interviews in TPR, including one by George Lefcoe on the USC Law faculty, asserting that there's very little planning going on in the public sector these days. Planning departments appear to be more involved in mediation than actual planning. Is New York different?

Well, yes and no. There's more city planning going on from the point of view of big projects. Like the Olympics and like Ground Zero. But overall, planning the structuring of the city of New York, better urban design and so forth is just being talked about now, because this has been left to private developers like Donald Trump. But now, we have a new planning commissioner and a new mayor, who is very engaged with the community. Mayor Bloomberg wants civic participation in the planning process and has a very different notion of what New York should look like and feel like. That's just starting. The jury is still out as to how the citizens will even react to it, because after more than a hundred years of not being involved, they are very suspicious.

Ed, you've worked in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and now New York. Given that experience base, what conditions must exist in a locality for truly good urban planning to occur?

Well, the thing that I'm coming to, sadly, is that you have to have the right leadership in place. It's not the process, it's really the leadership. If you don't have the mayor lined up with a good planning director, along with a very strong and ably led regional planning organization, you are not going to get anywhere. The formula is to get the right people in place. It's not having good plans or good planners or good techniques, but the right people.

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Many planners, commentators suggest, presently wish to be apolitical. Can one be apolitical and still do good planning?

No. There's no such thing as apolitical planning and I've been singing this song for a very long time. But that's not to say people should be involved in partisan politics. But, they have to be involved in advocating for what they know and think is right. They have to be involved with citizens who may disagree with them, so that the new agreement is better than the contentious stalemate that we have now.

Let's return to what's being studied at schools of urban planning. Any pedagogical trends worth noting?

A couple things. One, graduate schools of planning are beginning to get the message with the politics of planning. More and more schools are concentrating on training the planners on how to work effectively in the political arena. But, the essential things that they need to know remain the same. A good planner has to know the financial side. You can't plan without knowing finance. You can't plan without knowing urban design. And, you can't plan without knowing zoning and regulatory processes. These should be tools of planners, not the end point. That is, the planner is there to plan, not to react to other people's plans-this is where we've gone very wrong. Planners have been reacting, they haven't been planning.

By way of context, we are doing this interview at Dos Lagos, a planned, mixed-use developoment in western Riverside County because you're chairing the development's advisory board. How did you become involved? What is your role?

I became part of it because one of my students started the project. The value added I bring is all of the experience I've had in the public and private sectors has gone into conceptualizing this. We are intending, and I hope it works out this way, that this will in fact be a sustainable, sensitive development. It will make a lot of people happy. It may make a few people rich. But, the most important thing is that it will add a real good example of how planning should be done and be the metaphor, if you will, for planning in the Inland Empire, in Arizona, and in all of the places where there's a lot of growth. We can plan better. We're not going to use more land here, we're just going to use it better.

Lastly, when one visits western Riverside County, one is awed by the number of housing units being built along the I-15 corridor. What is the prospect of Dos Lagos, a planned mixed-use development, being the model for future developments?

I think there are a couple of prospects. One of them is that we're trying to put together a center at UC Riverside that will be a place where people convene and talk about what are the best planning mechanisms and vehicles for the area. The other thing is that this project provides civic education. Thousands of people have been through this project. They see another model, including other developers. People want to go with something they think will work, that will be profitable, that is intelligent, where they can be ahead of the curve rather than behind it. So there's the imitation effect.

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