By Beryl Forman
Once San Diego fulfilled its quest of becoming a sprawled out metropolis, narrow minded city officials questioned the purpose of future planning. To some, development is equivalent to planning, so with no more available land to build, the value of planning was in question.
Aside from accepting that our county had become a sprawling mess, good planners would argue that the objective of contemporary urban planning is to ‘Return to the Center”, to improve the life and environment our city’s dense urban neighborhoods. With a new found interest in urban living, San Diego’s city leaders and urban planners alike are proudly re-examining the purpose of planning.
To expand on this subject, panelists Bill Anderson, former director of Planning for the City of San Diego, along with Mike Stepner, former city architect, and Howard Blackson, local urban designer seen at the forefront our city’s urban issues, spoke at February’s C3 (Citizens Coordinate for Century 3) breakfast dialogue.
Bill began by acknowledging that planning has a stigma of being solely about process. In today’s practice, he emphasized that planning needs to move beyond process, and deliver outcomes. As a former department director, Bill expressed his frustration for bureaucracy. He found that an effective planning process must allow for the planning director to report directly to the mayor.
He also provided that planning for the regional level doesn’t account for the neighborhood, and vice versa, planning solely for the neighborhood neglects the larger region. He remarked that a good planning department accounts for both. Unfortunately, with the reduction of city budgets and staff, from day to day, a new subject is discussed every half hour, which makes it impossible to focus on the larger picture. Lastly, Bill believes that with longer term limits, mayors can support the efforts of long-term planning, rather than squeeze out poorly planned projects to bolster their short-term success.
Mike Stepner brought up the ghost of San Diego’s planning. Every election cycle, the subject of the airport, the downtown library, and City Hall are recycled through the system. The focus hasn’t changed much in 20 years! As a follow-up to Bill’s comments, Mike agrees that a good planning department must account for sustainability, which is based on the 3 E’s – Equity, Environment and Economy. In addition, Mike emphasized that there are two more E’s, Aesthetics, which he believes should start with an ‘E,’ and Community Engagement.
Howard Blackson recognized that community plans are being updated, which account for policies and zoning, but lacks a commitment to ‘Neighborhoods First’. He envisions a “Neighborhoods First mandate as a clear break from the past administration’s undivided attention on downtown and one-off silver bullet projects to generate economic development.” He pointed outdoors, on a sunny, 65 degree morning in February, and challenged our current administration to dare to be the greatest city of neighborhoods in the nation.
To add some perspective to the last 40 years of laissez-faire planning, the panelists identified that suburban modeling has driven the region’s outcomes. In the state of California, CEQA, or the California Environmental Quality Act enacted in 1970, includes standards that reflect suburban values, which run parallel to the our city’s General Plans. These documents require engineer’s traffic studies, (that Stepner calls myths); which are to blame for our auto-dominated landscape.
Still, the discussion managed to remain optimistic. With a newly elected mayor who desires to resurrect the City’s Planning Department with a focus on neighborhoods, sustainability, complete streets, CiclosDia, and bi-national planning, the time is now to throw out the old standards, and plan correctly.