Two recent news items on either end of the planning spectrum are worth noting:
1) Last week, Parsons Brinkerhoff dissolved the Portland OR office of PB Placemaking, the firm’s premier planning office that recently gathered prestigious awards for Tyson’s Corner presented in the video above.
2) In August, a Sarasota City Commissioner forecasted a grim budget in front of civic activists, noting rising pension costs as the deficit driver.
Both these news items involve money and planning, but actually they form a larger story on the state of planning. To understand this story, it helps to look at the various planning scales and ponder their funding sources (I realize there are other types of plans along the planning gradient; this is a rough outline).
1) Regional – Thanks to the Sustainable Community Planning Grants from HUD, there are great regional planning efforts underway. These federal grants seem to have ushered in a new era for multi-county planning around the country to turn self-defeating competition into powerful collaboration.
2) Sector (or sub-regional) – In talking to other planners around Florida, planning at this scale is happening around big infrastructure projects, such as airport expansions, interchanges and ports. Localities are leveraging federal and state dollars for local land use and transportation planning surrounding the projects.
3) Comprehensive Plan – Comprehensive Plans for cities and counties are common around the country, though vary in the level of required elements, analysis and ties to state dollars. Comprehensive plans are typically paid by localities, though can be supplemented with grants, foundation dollars and state funding.
4) Corridor/nodes – Here in Florida, FDOT has been leading corridor projects along with MPOs. Our local example is Sarasota’s Citywide Mobility Plan.
5) Small Area and Neighborhood Plans – These plans are almost exclusively left to localities. For sprawl repair, redevelopment and smart growth, this is the most important planning increment BUT one that relies on foundational work of visioning, comprehensive planning, and in some cases corridor planning.
Some thoughts on the future of funding:
- The Sustainable Community Planning Grants program had to fight for another round of annual funding. No matter who wins the next election, the pressure on budgets, especially discretionary items, will only grow.
- The downsizing of PB Placemaking should be a wake-up call to the planning profession. It’s important to note that PB also transferred 147 employees from NYC to Pennsylvania, so there are likely factors other than planning TOD involved. For transit oriented development, the truth is it feels like we are at the tail end of a golden age of TOD planning. The pipeline is thin, project planning is long, and much of the TOD work was the realization all at once in the mid 1990’s that urban and suburban stations built long ago were actually economic and land use assets.
- While much of the ballyhoo over pensions is a convenient way to swipe unions and wriggle out of contracts, as more boomers retire, pension costs will crowd out other budget items – like planning.
- When the Florida legislature reduced planning requirements last year, the urgency of data, analysis and planning dissolved. With less pressure, local budget hawks are demanding no dollars be directed to planning, since we are no longer legally bound to do so. While they may not succeed at getting zero dollars, they set up a negotiating process that bends the budget downward. I imagine this is not just a Florida phenomenon.
None of this means planning is dead. I realize there are a lot of people smarter than I am helping frame new directions but there are a couple of themes:
- Competition for infrastructure-related planning jobs will be fierce
- Although “heavy” transit projects and TOD are slowing down, the real opportunity is bus TOD. I’ve written on this before, and if you think it’s obvious to localities, it’s not.
- Planning needs to be rebranded as portfolio management. Just as families seek advice on their income, taxes, assets and allocations, communities have to do the same thing. This asserts an economic role for planning, but also provides comfort for stewards of the environment, because they are now an asset class on par with everything else. Arts lovers will also see an explicit tie since artists build their work in portfolios.
In closing, I would like to give a virtual nod to G.B. Arrington who worked with PB Placemakers. He has a way of mixing the technical, practical and artistic aspects of planning communities in an approachable way. He has made me smile on many occasions. He will no doubt re-launch soon as he is one of the best in the planning business.