THE BEST – LAID PLANS

How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocket Book and Your Future

Best Laid Plans

Government panning has become an accepted part of life in the United States.  Almost every city and county in the nation has a plan and employs planners to make studies and establish plans to better the future.  Most states require cities and counties to prepare plans, some being required to access much needed grant assistance to fund local projects.

Planning America CoverIn a recent study (spring 2012) Planning in America: Perceptions and Priorities     http://www.planning.org/policy/economicrecovery/ commissioned by the American Planning Association, the trade group for professional planners, 79%  of American’s like the idea of local community planning even if they are unclear about the goals that planning should serve”.

However, according planning critic Randall O’Tool author of the The Best Laid Plans, “a plan written with the best intention, will likely go horribly wrong”.

He claims that planners who “advertise their methods as the solution to almost any problem or controversy” allow elected officials to turn over thorny problems to the planning bureaucracy rather than force elected officials to make decisions.

He notes this planning decision process is run by “well-intentioned but often clueless people called planners, who, having graduated from architecture [and planning] schools and other universities are eager to bring their visions of utopia to the American people”.

O’Tool cites that it’s  a ”bitter irony, freely admitted by numerous planners, that many of the problems that planners propose to solve were caused not by the free marketplace, but by past generations of planners and other government bureaucrats”.

He basis his conclusion on two fundamental facts –

  1. That rational planning cannot occur in a highly politicalized environment, and
  2. The notion that competing groups can sit down together and negotiate the goals for all interest groups is unachievable.

While published in 2007, the validity of his statement surely is confirmed as demonstrated by Republican and Democratic Party actions during Presidential election and currently shown by congressional efforts to address the pending national fiscal problems.

O’Tool notes “planners tend to be attracted to fads over hard economic based analysis”.  Try TND, TOD, Smart Growth and today’s placed based community strategy, as examples.

He claims, planners unlike employees in the private sector, face no risk, allowing for planning to be done without the risk of failure.

This “no risk – no consequence” situation O’Tool suggests, allows planners to  “hide behind risk-free prepackaged concepts such as smart growth principles for their plans rather than doing detailed economic analysis that might or may not lead to success”.

The fundamental premise held by these planners is that “government can be blindly objective and even altruistic and create great plans, whereas private individuals and corporations working in their own self-interests cannot.  Only government can protect the common good”.

O’Tool’s opinions are obviously disputed by planners based on the results of their recent survey.

The recent (APA) survey disclosed that the American public recognizes the importance of government planning in economic prosperity with 92% of the respondents stating they believe “things work better with a plan and that community planning is important to the economic recovery” with local job creation ranked seventh in importance by over 70% of the responders.

Ironically, macro-economic theory is not typically emphasized as a critical component in planner education.  The educational framework of most planners is based on the notion that architectural design; the creation of a hospitable and livable physical environment, will dominate and shape people’s behavior.

O’Tool sees this dichotomy – the emphasis on physical environment shaping human behavior and providing the basis for job creation opposed to a free markets making the job creation decisions as the fallacy of government planning and reason that planning never will succeed.

So what are the planners to do?

Based on the notion jobs and economic development are to be higher priority for current community development strategy, planners need to gain a higher level of understanding of macro-economic influences that shape, or result from, community development plans.

Planners need to –

  1. Gain macro-economic education allowing assessment of potential impacts of optional community development strategies.
  1. Widen inputs into the comprehensive planning process to include greater consideration of government macro-economic policy upon future growth trends and the amount and timing of new development land needed to accommodate growth.
  1. Elevate the importance of municipal economic viability and sustainability into the overall framework of plan implementation, as professional standards of practice.
  1. Make mandatory the role of “concurrency” the notion that every capital expenditure must be confirmed by a funding source prior to inclusion into a comprehensive plan, thus eliminating speculative “build it and they will come” projects.
  1. Seek closure of the gap between the practice of economic development and comprehensive planning, recognizing that economic sustainability is only achieved when both disciplines act together to implement the comprehensive plan.
  1. Make real estate development economics a mandatory requirements of planner education giving planners a better understanding of private sector risk and reward principles for the creation of real estate taxable valuation which is the basis of local property taxes that derive revenue for local government operations.
  1. Create new unique public-private partnerships infrastructure models in recognition that traditional forms of developer “exactions” specifically the donation of public infrastructure will become a remembrance and local governments will be called upon to provide infrastructure when un-fundable by the developer’s lender.
  1. Create understandable and communicable matrices to quantify and measure success of plan implementation stressing short-term tangible results specifically new job and real estate investment creation.
  1. Establish accountability performance requirements for plan implementation which hold planners , as well as elected and appointed office responsible for plan implementation.
  1. Planners must also abandon the fundamental principle that community development and economic development programs must resolve multiple problems in order to be politically acceptable and fundable by local government officials. Planners must be able to “turn their back on certain problems which maybe a political impossibility under many current community and economic development strategies.

While O’Tool claims, “planners tend to be attracted to fads over hard economic based analysis”, there is evidence that a new fad – the recognition of macro-economic inputs into the shape, direction and viability of comprehensive planning may set direction for a stronger physical, social and environmental important strategy.

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