Aug. 31, 2023
When people think of city leadership, their first thought may be of the mayor or city council. But few public officials can influence city policies quite the way planners do.
Taiwo Jaiyeoba is currently the city manager of Greensboro, North Carolina. Before that, he served as the assistant city manager and director of planning for Charlotte, as well as the planning director in a handful of other places. He says that there is more to the comprehensive plan than meets the eye and that it is key to making and managing change.
"A good comprehensive plan has to also be a good equity plan because you cannot divorce a comprehensive plan from a discussion around social justice," he says.
Jaiyeoba sat down with Meghan Stromberg, editor-in-chief at the American Planning Association (APA), on the People Behind the Plans podcast to talk about his work in Charlotte and Greensboro, North Carolina, where comp plans prioritize livability and housing choice. He also shared his experiences working to educate and bring people around to the idea that eliminating single-family-only zoning actually expands housing choices for all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity, but you can listen to the whole conversation at planning.org/podcast or wherever you get your podcasts.
STROMBERG: How did you become interested in planning?
JAIYEOBA: I grew up in a very well-educated family. I had two uncles who were urban geographers. One of them went on to become an adviser to the president of Nigeria on remote sensing and urban planning. My dad said to me, "Planners shape the world by their thinking." He told me that I would be successful at city planning because of the way I was wired: I had a good sense of space and places.
By the time I got to my very first planning class, the professor quoted Shakespeare: "What is the city but the people?" When I heard that quote, I thought, if you can influence those decisions that people make in urban places, then you're successful. And that's what grabbed my interest in planning.
If you can influence those decisions that people make in urban places, then you're successful. And that's what grabbed my interest in planning.
STROMBERG: Since moving to the U.S. you've helped develop a number of cities' comprehensive plans — including Greensboro's, GSO2040, which earned the Daniel Burnham Award from APA in 2022. What are some of your guiding principles for comprehensive planning?
JAIYEOBA: Comprehensive planning is about addressing inequities through policies — not just coming up with new policies or even building on existing policies that perpetuate inequities.
When I think about comprehensive planning in the past, I think about Harland Bartholomew. I felt that he did more damage to our cities through his plans' development than anyone else because his work and teachings were widely influential, particularly on the use of government to enforce racial segregation in land use. He was responsible for developing more than 500 comprehensive plans in the United States.
Unfortunately, today, a lot of plans continue to merely update the work that was done rather than correct those inequities. I believe the only reason history will not repeat itself is if we intervene and intentionally alter its course.
So today's comprehensive plans should be about integrated community engagement, achieving equity, promoting sustainability and resiliency. Ultimately, a good comprehensive plan is also a good mobility plan, a good sustainability plan, a good housing plan, and an equitable plan.
STROMBERG: How do you define livability, and what does it look like on the ground?
JAIYEOBA: I believe absolutely that livability should be about proximity. I talk more about affordable living than affordable housing because what's the point of having an affordable housing unit that's far from the other basic necessities of life? There are areas in my city, and in many American cities, where I drive miles and miles to get to where I need to go. Housing is more affordable if you can minimize what you spend on getting there.
Livability should engage people to talk about proximity to what they need and want in their communities. In Charlotte, single-family-only zoning and ten-minute neighborhoods were basically the only topic of conversation on social media. Whether people were for it or against it, they wanted to talk and engage more.
One of the big ideas in Greensboro's comprehensive plan that came from the community is becoming a car-optional city. For context, our downtown has about 36 percent of its land use dedicated to public and private parking spaces. Now, we're going through a parking plan to determine how we can convert some of these downtown parking spaces into livable spaces that will bring people closer to work, restaurants, bars, and places where they do life.
Our council also adopted two policy initiatives to modify our land -use zoning to accommodate multiplexes in single-family-zoned areas to encourage more missing-middle housing. We are also flexing our ability to allow more accessory dwelling units. Council could only take these steps because a larger segment of the community wanted this.
In Charlotte, single-family-only zoning and ten-minute neighborhoods were basically the only topic of conversation on social media. Whether people were for it or against it, they wanted to talk and engage more.
STROMBERG: There must have been some backlash. How did you overcome those objections and what lessons from that experience are you bringing to Greensboro?
JAIYEOBA: It was very important in Charlotte to win the crowd quickly, convincingly and continuously. I could never make assumptions that elected officials, and even some in the business community, were all going to be supportive. So, we had to win them with facts.
When we talk about eliminating single-family-only-zoning, things become personal quickly, primarily because to every homeowner, their house is probably their best and most valuable investment. But we are not eliminating single-family housing, but rather saying we want to be able to accommodate diversity of housing in every part of the city.
Data and lived experience were our best ways to overcome the objections. We got people who actually live in townhomes to tell their stories. It meant ruffling feathers and upsetting the powers that wanted things to remain the same. That meant that we planners had to step out of our comfort zones. Planners are leaders. And when you lead, you've got to understand that you are going to make some things uncomfortable For example, we could never assume that people, especially elected officials, even some supportive stakeholders, would constantly be on our side. So we had to work hard to win them by laying bare the facts, benefits and impacts of the initiatives.
We could never assume that people, especially elected officials, even some supportive stakeholders, would constantly be on our side. So we had to work hard to win them by laying bare the facts, benefits and impacts of the initiatives.
STROMBERG: Why did you want to take on the city manager role, and what do you think planners should know about working with elected and appointed government officials?
JAIYEOBA: As a planning director, if you swing the bat hard enough on key initiatives, you can become the most powerful person in your municipality, with the exception of one individual: your city manager.
As a city manager I'm able to clearly articulate why land-use planning is critical to sewer, water capacity, sustainability goals, housing efforts, homelessness, policing, even fire service deliveries. Every decision is tied to smart use of land. So, with my planning background, I feel that I am best suited to lead a city that's experiencing the most significant economic development and expansion in our history.
I've realized that planners often don't understand the influence we hold over every single decision that's made. Sometimes the most important issue in a council meeting is one rezoning petition or an area plan. And elected officials are not typically the subject matter experts. They depend on us. It takes a planner to unpack the details.
With all due respect to every other profession, it takes a planner to be the best city manager. Planners have vision. We see how things connect.