June 26, 2007 - From the June, 2007 issue

Outgoing TPR Editor Offers Insights Gained from Covering Southern California Public Policy

Always an astute observer of his native Los Angeles, Josh Stephens quickly became an expert on the subject during his tenure as editor of The Planning Report. His passion and expertise made Josh a fitting steward for each of the ABL newsletters during a period when Southern California was characterized by reinvestment and revitalization. Before moving on to his next challenge, he agreed to reflect on his tenure, offering insights into many of the defining public policy issues of our times: land use planning, public investment in infrastructure, and recently, climate change.

Josh Stephens

As editor of The Planning Report/Metro Investment Report for the last two years, you have been a keen journalistic observer of Los Angeles. As you move on-traveling the world-what do you see as the prevailing trends and significant drivers of change regarding land-use planning and public investment in Los Angeles and California?

Contrary to assumptions about cities and bureaucracies, I've observed an intense goodwill amongst almost everyone working in the public sector. Obviously there are always competing interets, but most of L.A.'s civic leaders seem to have the best interests of L.A.´s communities at heart. They speak of progressive ideas, such as smart growth, transit, and of wanting to build a better city.

Whether those desires conflict with their particular jobs or the organizational structure in which they operate (or if they're private sector, whether their economic ambitions clash with economic realities or with the entities, public and private, that they have to work with), I think it's another story. But the decision-makers, civic stewards, and advocates I have had the opportunity to engage with speak optimistically about this city.

The biggest question for the next couple of years revolves around the time it takes to implement these lofty agendas. If a better L.A. involves development, then we have to wait for the planning/permitting process, which takes forever. It's a notorious detriment to this city. If it involve infrastructure, then that, by nature, takes time too--first to plan, then to fund, then to build. So, whether the metropolis looks the way people are talking about it in five or ten years remains to be seen.

As editor, you have contributed to the publishing of more than 250 interviews and policy excerpts over the last two years. What themes and issues dominated the time?

In The Planning Report, the themes are smart growth, increased density, promoting housing in the city, and promoting what I perceive to be New Urbanist ideas: walkable neighborhoods, urban character, and urban design.

Regarding infrastructure, it's not typically so futuristic or bold; it's more of an effort just to keep up with the backlog, move the goods, move the people, and, on a local level, decrease congestion. It seems that crisis-rather than a vision for the state/region/city-drives the public/ private infrastructure agenda. The streets have to become gridlocked for the public to clamor for more public transportation. The ports have to cause cancer for the public sector to make the investments to clean them up and speed the goods out. That's a shame, for many reasons.

In the last two months, you have also begun editing Verde Exchange News. What is the focus and importance of the new newsletter?

Climate change clearly has emerged as the overarching signifier for what's going to be the single biggest issue for the next two or three generations. Climate change, above all other global policy issues, is going to dictate the themes and actions of the 21st and maybe even the 22nd centuries at every level of commerce and government. The mitigation challenges arising from greenhouse gas emissions will manifest locally and globally in ways we can't even imagine.

In The Planning Report many of our interviewees speak about denser cities. (Paul Hawken described cities as the "ark" in which we will hide while we figure out how to live more efficiently.) Infrastructure is MIR's focus, with most attention on mobility-on goods movement, public transit, and getting people out of their cars.

Many of the solutions are going to come from green technology and innovation. We have to devise every technology imaginable to reduce our reliance on carbon-based fuels and seeing which ones work, which ones can be used on a broad scale, and then hopefully promulgating those ideas around the world. At the same time, we're going to have to learn to change our behavior, and I hope that civic leaders have the courage to effect those changes on a broad, societal scale. That's the subject matter of VerdeXchange News; and, I'm proud to have been the editor of this new monthly newsletter's first two issues.

You're well educated; you've traveled the world; and you've grappled both before and during your tenure as editor. What do you find in your conversations with friends, professional colleagues, and social acquaintances about their level of understanding on these issues?

It sounds like a cliché to say so, but most of my friends and acquaintances have no idea what I do and no idea about the world that I've become immersed in. I think they're aware of the issues in the abstract-they're aware of politics and want to vote for the right people and have certain issues in mind, but whether they appreciate the intricacies of metropolitan or state public policy-I think they simply don't. On the other hand, many of them are deeply interested and are glad to talk about politics and policy when the chances arise.

I think people my age are rightfully preoccupied with making their own way, with their own careers and families, and it's difficult to grapple with the political infrastructure of a city of four million, a county of ten million, or a state of 38 million. Is there anything more complex than our governmental system? But it's complex for good reasons, and I think the average, well-educated, well-intentioned, ethical person has a hard time appreciating that.

So how do you share what you have learned as editor?

With my friends, I try to educate them. I try to get excited about both the good and the bad things that are happening and often talk about the people who they may have voted for and the policies that are afoot. I talk about many of the enormous challenges, which I can talk about with a certain amount of excitement because I think that, at risk of propogating another cliche, challenge is an opportunity. I hope that if I can speak in an animated way about what this city's facing, then my friends who I talk to will pay more attention and get excited about it, too. And I think the most important thing for a local perspective is for people who live here to have a stake in this city and realize that whatever they think L.A. could be, that vision is a possibility.

Will you share with readers a few of the best interviews published under your tenure? What person did you most enjoy interviewing/editing; and whom would you most like to interview next, if you could?


That's a really good question. I would like to interview anyone next. My biggest regrets about leaving this job is the prospect of the unknown incremental interviews that I'll be missing and people that I won't meet. Every month is an adventure; every month brings new people and issues. I could never anticipate which interviewee was going to say something stimulating or brilliant or unexpected, so I could project myself into June and July and August and onward and imagine all the people that I would get to talk to and learn from.

So, I don't even know whom I would choose to interview next. As far as looking back, it's tough. I found that issues that used to excite me, because I knew so little about them, became almost commonplace. I don't mean that in a bad way; I mean commonplace in that many other people are thinking about them and talking about them, whether it's smart growth, urban design, greening the river, or building a subway. The public conversation is steeped in those ideas, and, as I said before, the challege now is to ride this consensus and implement those ideas. As a layperson, I used to get excited because I would think about them very rarely. Now, I think about them all the time.

The journalist in me is dispassionate to an extent, and the monthly cycle means we crank out articles and publish them and are proud of them and then we go on to the next. So, in some sense, it's hard to pick out a highlight. I think, in many ways, they're all highlights because they're important people working on important things.

But for the sake of naming some names, my first day on the job, David asked me who I most wanted to interview, and I said Stefanos Polyzoides, because in my casual perception of urbanism, he was a towering figure, so we interviewed him. As it turns out, he's not necessarily terribly active now in L.A. policy. But he was a nice start.

It was exciting to be able to pick up the phone and talk to exactly the person I wanted to talk to, whoever that may be. I admire Lewis McAdams, who's been fighting for the L.A. River for a long time and is very eloquent. Interviews of Cecelia Estolano, Bill Bogaard, Gail Goldberg, Joe Edmiston, or the Mayors of Bogotá and Curitiba were also memorable. I think also of Corbin Smith, who, esoteric as museums may be, acknowledges the profound role they play in our city and spoke in great detail and with great passion about their work restoring the Getty Villa.

For MIR, transit has always excited me, so speaking to Roger Snobel or Zev Yaroslavsky about the plans for the future, no matter how distant they may be, was impressionable. But also of lasting interest were our interviews of: Mary Nichols, Steve Erie, Adam Schiff, Sunny McPeak, David Janssen, and Robert Hertzberg.

For VerdeXchange, our interview of Fran Pavley stands out. Depending how history goes and how she solidifies her legacy, she may be remembered as the Columbus or the Einstein of climate change for her authorship of what is, so far, the most important climate change legislation in this country. There also are other accomplished people we interviewed, like: Robyn Beavers of Google, who describes private sector commitment to solar; or James Dehlsen, who talks very specifically about wind power; or, Andy Howard, who shared Arup's global portfolio of sustainable planning work.

For New Schools Better Neighborhoods, which we also publish, I think the cause is so worthy, and we spoke to many good people. Two of most memorable are: Dr. Neal Kaufman, whose ideas on health and a built environment centered by schools, I think are revolutionary, and they make so much sense, especially in an age of rising health care costs where we treat the disease and not the person. Designing schools in neighborhoods to promote walking and togetherness and recreation makes all too much sense.

In summary, what I feel privileged about is that you can name any interviewee we've had and because of the work that I've put into it on that micro scale of editing and transcribing, I could tell you something about all of them and much of it would be positive.

Lastly, how do you build on this editorial experience? What are your plans for the near future, and if we speak a year from now, what will we discuss?

For the immediate future, I'm spending two months in Eastern Europe. Whatever I do after that, the trip will make me a better, smarter, more grounded person. The urbanist in me is looking forward to seeing other cities-Prague, Krakow, Warsaw, Riga, etc.-to see how they construct how people live there.

Hopefully I'll be able to bring that experience back to L.A. I've invested a lot here; I've lived here forever, almost, and I want to see how I can take it further. I think that one option is to continue to write as a freelance writer or to work for another publication and develop my own voice on the city and urbansim.

The flipside of that would be to abandon journalism for a while-abandon objectivity and abandon the monthly pace and dig into a cause. I journalism lacks the thrill of advocacy, of having stake in something specific, such as, say, NSBN, or having a stake in climate change, a real estate development, or a transit project.

I could see myself working for an environmental group, or for what I would consider to be a progressive developer, for the public sector on an elected official's staff, or even within bureaucracy, like communications. I think that getting the word out is crucial-getting the word out to informed people and gathering support for good projects. That contributes in a direct, tangible way to making this city a better place.

That's always what I've wanted to do, whether it was teaching, writing, or editing The Planning Report, and I want to continue in whatever way I can.


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