Am I Making a Difference?

Staff-level planners often ask: am I making a difference? Often, they do make a difference but lack a holistic view of project conceptualization, planning and design, and implementation.

For example, municipal planners are not privy to developer deliberations about project parameters. A municipal plan may influence the developer’s project idea before it reaches the approval process.

Similarly, the developer’s consulting planners do not know the full political dimensions of project approval. The municipal planner may ask for a project mitigation measure that seems to have symbolic value but paves the way for approval.

Finally, those involved in mitigation monitoring may not know the tradeoffs in project design that were made before mitigation measures were adopted. They may wonder why better project planning did not alleviate the need for environmental mitigation.

The higher the planner’s management level, the broader the view.

The staff-level planner does not see the upstream and downstream decision making. Not at the table for negotiations, management meetings, and elected official briefings, they receive task assignments after they have been decided by managers. Without the full picture, such planners may underestimate the positive impact of their work, not knowing its impact on the overall process. Some may feel that they are not making the contribution they desire.

Let’s take environmental planners as an example.

Environmental review laws require that alternatives be considered to the proposed project. Because a lot of technical and political work is invested in bringing a project to the point where it can be environmentally reviewed, alternative analysis in environmental review rarely leads to the adoption of anything but the preferred project. Of course, it may lead to modifications to the preferred alternative or the development of mitigation measures.

To a staff-level planner doing the work, alternative analysis may appear to be “going through the motions” because alternative projects are rarely selected. It may seem like an expensive and analysis-heavy form of rubber-stamping projects. Without a broader view, such planners may conclude that their work isn’t benefiting the environment.

In my view, the EIR is the wrong place for substantive alternatives analysis — that should occur upstream in the planning process. But the EIR requirement may have done its work in the project conceptualization stage — where developers and designers knew that subsequent review would expose environmental problems. By being part of that complex process, the staff-level planner may be achieving the goal of reducing environmental impacts in ways not directly apparent.

Understanding upstream and downstream processes from one’s particular role provides a broader perspective about how planning and regulatory processes affect outcomes. As a staff-level planner's career proceeds, they’ll move to management levels where impacts can be more clearly seen.

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist," here.

Top image: Thinkstock photo.


About the Author

Richard Willson, FAICP

Richard Willson is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and academic strategic planner. Willson's research addresses parking policy, climate change, and transit-oriented development. He is the author of Parking Reform Made Easy, Island Press (2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson is a mentor to young planners. His forthcoming book, A Guide to the Idealist, provides a path to effective practice and personal development. He consults with regional and local transportation agencies such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, cities, and developers of urban infill projects. Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor's of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.

February 28, 2017

By Richard Willson, FAICP