Planning isn’t perfect:

This and 5 lessons I’ve learned in a few years on a municipal planning commission.

I’ve spent the last six years serving on my fast growing town’s Planning & Zoning Commission. I’ve gotten the chance to review more zoning cases than I can count, been involved in two major Comprehensive Planning efforts, seen many thoughtful ordinances passed and just as many bad ideas codified. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

1. The Devil is in the details.

Cliche or not, it’s the truth. Whether it’s a requested zoning change, a variance case, or a text amendment to an existing code the way that these changes affect your built world usually comes down to small details. As an example — here is a rendering of a project that we saw for a ‘mixed-use’ development.

Look at that beutiful food truck park and amphitheater (at the end of a cul-de-sac?) What a pedestrian dream!

And here is what it looks like built.

“Walkable, pedestrian frontages.” Say what now?

Why don’t these images look all that similar? Because we don’t zone based on renderings. And the building size, footprint, and placement is identical to the zoning language. What was not in the zoning? How these building interfaced with the public realm and how this development implements its connections to surrounding properties. It’s easy to be swayed by pretty pictures, but its important to separate out what the renders show from what is actually required by the zoning language.

And by the way, where is that super cool food truck park? Well it doesn’t exist because it would reside on city owned property unrelated to this actual project. And this was obvious when the case was reviewed — but some commissioners were swayed just by the idea of a mythical something ‘fun’ being in town.

2. Everything we build has to be maintained.

Every road, bridge, rail-line, stormwater system, electrical substation, and traffic signal has to be maintained in perpetuity. That is expensive.

MTA workers in New York installing switches north of Myrtle Av on the J line.
MTA workers in New York installing switches north of Myrtle Av on the J line. Photo from MTA

Who pays to maintain these things? We do through services fees, or property and sales taxes, and the maintenance bills come long after the initial buildout starts. That means it’s easy to find ourselves in a financially unsustainable position at a time far removed from the infrastructure being installed.

Another way to put this is to recognize that we, the citizens of our cities and towns are ‘developers’ just as much as the company building a strip mall or neighborhood full of houses. Our towns builds/develops the roads and traffic signals and is responsible for maintaining them. We the citizens pay the taxes that pay for that. Every piece of built infrastructure has a cost associated with it both immediately and over its lifetime to keep it running corectly.

When a company builds they consider how much every decision they are making will cost, both short and long-term. A residential builder will not build 20 extra houses ‘for future growth’ if they aren’t certain that there are buyers ready to buy them. And why would they? Maintaining an empty house doesn’t make financial sense.

Thoughtful decisions regarding infrastructure improvements can be used to generate wealth for our community but careless building simply creates a liability that the existing community foots the bill for. To expand the metaphor building a road ‘for future growth’ is shortsighted for a city just like the extra houses were for the home-builder.

3. Land is a finite resource.

Obvious? Not as much as you’d think. Land use planning is as much about determining how we don’t use land as it is directing how the built environment inhabits it.

Humans universally like natural, open places. In the decades after World War II Americans were sold the promise of their own little slice of nature in the form of a rolling and lush lawn. This built us the suburban ranch house, and the neighborhoods that much of Gen X and the majority of Millennials grew up in. When everyone lives on a 1/4 acre you run through your finite land more quickly and building moves ever more quickly out.

An image by Tom Low shows that development pushed together into cohesive neighborhoods (on the right) provides for more open space than the alternative sprawling development pattern.

As a result, the idea of bringing people closer together on less land in a denser pattern of development feels anathema to many people who have only experienced the curving suburban streets and cul-de-sacs of the past 60 years. But doing so brings with it some incredible benefits. Most people living reasonably close to a major city will have access to a large Cadillac park. This is the jewel of the city, it’s the place everyone brags on and pines for when they are away from home. These places are smaller than you think, take a look next time you browsing around Google Maps, we can have a network of large undisturbed park spaces if we are willing to build our homes and communities in a more compact way.

4. The Planning Professionals have gotten it wrong, many times over.

We should feel comfortable as citizens to question the wisdom of the professionals. There is a long history of bone-headed decision making because a small group of people decided it was ‘proper’. The list is long, but lets hit a few big ones:

Construction on the Cross Bronx expressway digs a large hole between blocks of a neighborhood.
The construction of the Corss-Bronx Expressway quite litterally cut a neighborhood in half. Image Courtesy Lehman College Library (CUNY)
  • Euclidean Zoning that categorizes every use and separates them forcing us into our cars for even the most basic of needs.
  • Restrictive Covenants that were used originally to racially segregate our communities and apply the thinking of previous owners to the future of a place.
  • Highway building through the centers of communities that breaks up the connected nature of cities in the service of moving people ‘through’ your town as quickly as possible.
A deserted shopping mall and parking lot
A deserted shopping mall and parking lot. Photo by Christine Barton-Holmes

Why did many of these things take hold so fervently? I’d argue that most often it is because the people who inhabit and are most closely connected to their cities and towns were removed from the decision-making process and told that the ‘professionals’ knew better.

5. There are lots of places to learn from and lots of people who want to help.

In the Information Age we can learn a lot from the mistakes and successes of the communities around us. And we can learn a lot from the iterative improvements we have made around the world throughout recorded history. Here are a few places that I have found to be good resources for learning about how and why we build cities the way we do.

Ultimately we all have to take a part in making our communities better, healthier, more financial resilient places. If you try and do this by serving on your local planning commission then remember that you can bring something novel and unique to the job: your personal experience and your connection to the place you live.

Graphic Designer, Dad and gadget nerd from Leander, Texas.