August 14, 2019 - From the August, 2019 issue

Michael Woo, CalPoly's Planning School Dean, on Why's and Wherefore's of City Planning

The Cal Poly Pomona College of Environmental Design offers an experiential approach that aims to ready its more than 1,600 students for careers in architecture, design, and urban planning. TPR sat down with retiring Dean of the school and former Los Angeles City Councilmember, Mike Woo, to discuss what skills are valuable in city planning departments today and to revisit the perennial question of whom planners should be planning for. Demonstrating the practical value of pursuing the profession, the College recently released a report, “Design for the Future: ENV Jobs in a Transforming Jobs Market” that projects new design-related job opportunities coming on line in Southern California over the next five years. To the former point, Woo reminds readers of the visionary responsibilities of elected officials to ensure the plans of today indeed consider the needs of tomorrow.

Mike Woo

"Planners have the responsibility to sketch out, explain, and articulate the connection between what’s here now, who’s here now, and the future"—Mike Woo

Mike, with over 200 housing bills introduced this year in the California Legislature—including proposals to wrest control over city planning & zoning from cities in the name of supply-side economics—city planning seems disrespected by all interests. As the retiring Dean of Cal Poly Pomona’s School of Environmental Design, what explains the aforementioned; and, how should city planning professionals frame their role and contribute to new housing in cities throughout California? 

Mike Woo: Professional planners frequently feel constrained about becoming advocates for policy change, especially if they are planners working in the local discretionary approval process. If a planner is a public employee involved in what the lawyers call a “quasi-judicial” process, then he or she is expected to be an impartial interpreter of zoning ordinances or plans. Unless the local elected officials in a jurisdiction are unabashed advocates for changes in housing policy, it could be dangerous for a planner to get into the habit of sticking his or her neck out.

On the other hand, planners may have useful knowledge or experience relevant to our current housing problems. Therefore, if professional planners want to be relevant to the housing debate, they may have to get out of the conventional roles in a planning agency and bring their expertise to a different role or setting in which they can use their knowledge to fight for housing. At the municipal level, this could mean going to work for a mayor or a councilmember who cares about housing issues and is willing to take some risks. It could mean going into the nonprofit affordable housing sector or finding a spot in the for-profit world in which profit and an affordable housing product are compatible. Or you can go into the media or academia (like me) and try to influence the opinions of others.

Is the 'housing problem' for urban California simply one of housing supply? Is it not also income inequality? Not also climate change and a 'new normal'? There seems to be a host of interrelated crises needing legislative attention. Who from academia, public policy, and development is thinking about California’s urban challenges most holistically?

I don’t think that you can separate the lack of housing supply from the problem of income inequality. Both are pungent examples of what two of my former Berkeley professors used to describe as “a wicked problem.”  Wicked in the sense of being hard to define and lacking in easy solutions. We have to increase the supply of housing, especially affordable housing, and we have to increase wages and enable lower-wage workers and their children to move up the ladder to better jobs that pay higher salaries.

I don’t see or hear very much from a holistic point of view about housing in California. We're just as fragmented and siloed as any other part of the country, perhaps even more so. But I can pinpoint a few thinkers who see the big picture in California. One would be Mayor Steinberg of Sacramento, who was one of the few leaders in the Legislature who understood the link between transportation, land use, and climate change, and now is co-chairing Governor Newsom’s task force on homelessness with Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. I think that they’re on the right track in bringing up the New York City precedent of establishing a 'right to housing' and dramatically expanding shelter resources and getting homeless people off the street.  An academic who has a clear vision of how economic regions work in California is UCLA Professor Michael Storper who has written compellingly about the reasons why the Bay Area and Silicon Valley regional economy has grown so differently than the Southern California regional economy. And in the foundation world, I would point to Michael Mantell, president of the Resources Legacy Fund, who has demonstrated a unique ability to bridge the worlds of foundations and state policymakers and has a keen awareness of the implications of California’s growing diversity.

Mike, before you were appointed Dean, you were an appointed Los Angeles City Planning Commissioner, as well as a City Councilmember, and, before the aforementioned, a UC Berkeley-trained urban planner. For decades, you’ve been in important positions to address the livability challenges of our cities. Help our readers understand how policymakers should be framing and addressing housing.

After all these years, it’s rather humbling to realize that some of my thinking about planning and cities has changed a lot. In the 1980s, I thought that it was possible for the city to live by a practical truce between lower-density neighborhoods that would stay the same and higher-density neighborhoods that would accept more density, thus accommodating growth in the city’s population. Now I don’t know that the practical truce will work anymore, not if L.A. continues to function as a magnet for people who have hopes and ambitions.

Then there’s the transportation quandary and land use. At one point in the 1980s, when I was a Councilmember and we were conceptualizing the Hollywood redevelopment plan, transportation planners floated the radical idea of addressing the worsening east/west midtown traffic congestion by converting Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards into a pair of one-way streets carrying freeway-like volumes of automobile traffic. It’s hard to imagine that this idea could ever have been taken seriously. I ultimately decided against it because I thought it would turn Sunset and Santa Monica into “rivers of traffic.”  Not rivers in a picturesque sense, but in the sense of a flow of cars that would overwhelm any possibility of human scale in the built environment on boulevards like Sunset and Santa Monica. 

I wish that there was 'political space'— safe space for free discussion — about big visions, big ideas, and looking at a big-picture view of our city. In 1993, when I was running for Mayor, I wanted to talk about some big ideas such as building a new international or intergalactic airport out in Palmdale and planning a new town around it.  There could be a high-speed rail system connecting the new airport and the new town to LAX and “the old city” on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains.  And it all could be timed to coincide with a world’s fair or expo bringing visitors from around the world to see the wonders of our city.

But my mayoral campaign advisors persuaded me that bringing up these kinds of ideas wouldn’t help me win the election. It might have seemed like a fantasy. But why be mayor of a big city like L.A. if you can’t have fantasies?

The Planning Department of the City of LA, as well as a number of other planning departments in the region, are hiring new planners— in great measure with financial support from Metro. Who should they be hiring? And, as a Cal Poly Policy Dean of City Planning, what should schools of planning and architecture be inculcating in their students to give them the credentials to be hired? 

When students ask me for career advice, I always tell them that if they plan to stay around Southern California, transportation is likely to be a very fertile source of jobs for decades to come. L.A. County voter approval of Measure M is expected to create 800,000 jobs directly or indirectly related to transportation over the next 40 years. This represents a tremendous opportunity for young planners, architects, designers, or just plain creative people who want to play a role in shaping the future of the way people live and work. 

But from the point of view of the transportation and planning agencies who will be doing a lot of the hiring, the challenge is that it’s hard to predict what will be needed in the future. I was talking to a planning director recently who told me that for years, people have been asking him whether his city is ready for autonomous vehicles. He told me that he thinks that autonomous vehicles probably aren’t going to be a reality for another 20 – 30 years. But then suddenly the electric scooters come from out of nowhere, landing on our sidewalks and rights of way, that nobody sees coming and nobody is prepared for in terms of rules and regulations. The planning director told me we’re obsessing about the wrong things.

How do we obsess about the right things?  Schools, like our College of Environmental Design, need to learn to do certain things right. We need to produce people who are good at analyzing problems and thinking creatively. Software and technical skills are important, but the best graduates we produce will be more than just technicians, because the software will be constantly changing. The best graduates will be generalists whom the employer can move around to different assignments and different teams that may not be predictable at the time the graduate is originally hired.  Oral and written communication skills are very important because if you can’t communicate your good idea, what good are you? The planning director who recently told me that we’re obsessing about the wrong things also told me that he thinks that visual communication is rapidly becoming just as important for planners as oral and written communication.  That means getting beyond poster boards and even beyond PowerPoint to more state-of-the-art means of visual communication.  It could mean using social media, video, apps, games, or virtual or augmented reality. 

While some of us are thinking about urban futures influenced by AI, autonomous vehicles, drones, and intelligent systems, there may also be a counter-reaction coming.  My friend the architect John Kaliski thinks that the growing pervasiveness of AI and intelligent systems is going to generate a “high-touch” counter-reaction, with consumers seeking out certain personal services that can’t be provided by a machine, such as exercise, massage, nail salons, specialized foods. Some employers have been telling me that in this era of screens and sensors, they still want designers who have learned to hand-draw, that there is something special about the creative process involving the hand, the eye, and the brain.  The landscape architect Sean O’Malley told me that “when you look at somebody’s doodles, it tells you something about them.”  I think that what I’m trying to say is that there will be some value, maybe a lot of value, to cultivating your personal spark.


 A corollary question, Michael: Who should planners be planning for?

My answer to your question is, planners should be planning for the future. This is one of the weaknesses of planning in that we are doing things for people who aren’t here yet, who may not be part of the community yet.

Ought city planners disregard who is “here now”?

No, but planners have the responsibility to sketch out, explain, and articulate the connection between what’s here now, who’s here now, and the future. I think the future is an essential ingredient, and in many cases, planners either don’t get the assignment or don’t get asked to connect the present conditions with the needs of the future.

I think that in a democratic society, the elected leadership has the primary responsibility for defining a vision of the future. Of course, the leaders may need to be responsive to the senior citizens among us, or the people who are registered voters among us. But, beyond the short-term responsibility of representing the people who elect the officeholders, the elected officials and the politicians have a higher responsibility to think about the future, including people who aren’t here yet, haven’t been born yet, and who can’t vote.

TPR recently published a timely analysis of residential property ownership in the largest metropolitan areas of California since 2008. Blackstone was identified as the largest owner of residential property in Sacramento, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Ought City Planners be addressing Blackstone’s interests? Who do you believe should define what the future should be, if at all? Google, Amazon, Facebook, or 70-year-old grandparents primarily concerned with safe, healthy neighborhoods?

No, I think the public sector needs to step up and define what the future is going to be about. The private sector definitely deserves to have a large voice, but it’s not the private sector that should decide. By definition, the private sector cannot define what is in the best interest of the public.

If you were to transition, hypothetically, from academia and apply to be a planning director of a California city, what housing policies would you prioritize as a local planning director?

That’s a hard question, but I think my very first point of negotiation taking a job like that would be to get a contract that would give me a set period of time to do what needed to be done during which time I couldn’t be fired.

That kind of job would only be worth taking if you have the freedom and authority to do what needs to be done. Otherwise, I would say it’s not worth being in that kind of job.

To close, the last time the Man of the Year in Time magazine was a planning director was fifty years ago. Who would be that planning director be today, if at all?

I don’t know. I don’t think there is an Ed Logue [visionary planner of New Haven, Boston, and the South Bronx] today.

And, why? 

Because the people in authority don’t want one.


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