Form Foils Function

How our process prevents real planning — and what we can do about it
Article
January 1, 2007

Here's how it's done in San Francisco. The Planning Department staff or the Planning Commission, or even the Board of Supervisors, decides to draw up a new plan for an area. Maybe it's because there have been too many controversies there, or because it seems like a good idea to either change or preserve the character of that neighborhood — how the buildings and streets look and are used. There is some squabbling about the boundaries, and then the process of creating a plan begins. The public is invited to give input at community meetings, given handouts, shown slides, and given a chance to ask questions or make criticisms. Six months later, the planners come back with a modified version of the original idea, pass out handouts, show the slides and ask for comments. This gets repeated for a decade.

Or perhaps somebody wants to develop a piece of property. Maybe they hold a community meeting and present the idea (which is probably pretty far along). Some people like it and drop out of the process, while opponents rally for a showdown. In the meantime, the Planning Department staff cranks up a study of all the environmental damage the project could do. Years later there's a hearing, then appeals.

Average San Franciscans are cut out of the process, nobody seems to have a clear idea of what urban planning can and cannot do, and sometimes it seems that the process itself is the product.

It's not a great system. We can do better.

Why the system doesn't work

It's hard not to notice at community meetings and public hearings that the crowd doesn't look much like San Francisco. Look around on the bus, in the streets, at clubs and at the grocery store. Are these the people engaged in the discourse about the future of our city?

There's a good chance you don't go to community meetings or hearings either. I don't blame you. But people do want to be heard and, believe it or not, we'd have a better city if they were.

It's easier to see why people don't participate than why they do:

  • Irrelevance: Unless their view or parking space is in danger, most people just don't see what city planning has to do with their lives. How would you explain to a single mom in the Tenderloin, a teenager in the projects, a couple starting to look for a place to buy, or a grocer what planning can do to make their daily life better or worse? It's too abstract.
  • Inertia: Plans are underway all over the city: Treasure Island; Mid-Market; the so-called Eastern Neighborhoods, which encompass fully 25 percent of the city; Market/Octavia; Transbay. But they seem never to end.
  • Confusion: Most people don't understand that planning sets guidelines and rules but doesn't cause or prevent growth or change, or address economic or cultural needs. We expect both too much and too little. Of course, we can't see what a plan prevents, because it doesn't happen. And we can't really identify what a plan caused, because the genesis of any change is so complex.
  • Language and cultural barriers: Not everyone is comfortable speaking out. Maybe you don't come from a culture with a tradition of community meetings and a government that wants your ideas. Thirty-nine percent of San Franciscans were born in another country —more than the number of San Franciscans born in all of California. And these immigrants came here for a reason. They found their previous countries intolerable and made a decision to leave their roots and move on. Not to organize or participate in some political system: to leave. Why expect them to now try to influence land use decisions? Maybe your English isn't so great and you are shy about public speaking — 46 percent of San Franciscans speak a foreign language at home. Is it realistic to expect that residents with different backgrounds and cultures would feel welcome at public hearings or community meetings? And plenty of San Franciscans are working hard and have kids at home — they just can't slip away for a two-hour meeting of PowerPoint presentation and comments.
  • Isolation. There is a nationwide reduction in public participation. Used to be, people participated much more in civic life — they routinely attended PTA meetings, block clubs, League of Women Voters meetings, labor union meetings, even lodge meetings. Now, even poker is a solitary activity.

Often, it's the same handful of people at every meeting, saying the same things.

San Francisco’s usual community planning process too often doesn’t gain the
input of typical residents, and frustrates those people who do participate.
photo by Pia Torelli


There is a subculture of people who attend community advisory committee meetings and hearings, just as there are subcultures of participants at poker games, sex clubs, book clubs and AA meetings. We assume that people who join the planning club are better informed about the city's issues and care more about the future of the city. But is that a fair assumption?

People come to community meetings and hearings for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it's to learn and share good ideas, but sometimes the reasons are a little more obscure. Psychological reasons. Fear of change. Issues around control. Racism. Jealousy. Anger. And love — love of the city, and sometimes another kind of love.

From the San Francisco Chronicle of April 24, 2006, a quote from the opponent of a project in Alameda: "‘I've done everything I can to keep that land open. This is my love affair,' said a retired schoolteacher and grandmother of six whose husband is a former Navy lawyer." Frequently, the item on the agenda is only tangential to the real underlying issues.

From reading the local press or attending public hearings, one would think that every proposal is controversial, and that traffic, views and nostalgia for a time perceived as simpler prevails. But how true is that? How representative are attendees at meetings? Who do leaders speak for?

The way we plan now works well for some

Planning commissioners and elected officials get to step into the vacuum and make deals. Consultants get hired as guides. The lengthy review processes help maintain the status quo. But meanwhile we have a type of "redlining by planning." Who could know what can be done in a neighborhood while the rules are up in the air?

Not only are these exercises expensive and lengthy, they also squander the goodwill that residents have toward planning, burning out participants and driving away others.

Maybe it's time to step back and ask what we expect from the public dialogue about the city. We can create a space to learn from San Franciscans about the cities they live and work in.

I write "cities" because we each experience he city differently. I have a map of Paris that illustrates this. It has no streets or landmarks, just the outline of the city and two colors labeled "J'y vais" and J'y vais pas": I go here, I don't go there.

The Vietnamese nail salon worker who lives in the Tenderloin and works in the Richmond, the widow who hasn't left the Sunset since I. Magnin closed, the student who lives at Parkmerced but spends all her time on Valencia Street, the kid from the projects who goes to Wallenberg High School, the undocumented dishwasher — each has his or her own way to use the parts of the city they use, with little overlap. And they each have a different relationship with the history of San Francisco and his or her own hopes for the city's future. We can't weave these narratives together in a meaningful way by starting at the end of the story, with the buildings and the spaces in between.

We need to look not just at the ways people use the city, but also at how they use buildings. What is an office in a city where 18 percent of the residents are self-employed and some others probably work from home? What is a café where half the customers are working on laptops?

In Rincon Hill, an area recently re-zoned to accommodate about 3,000 new residents, the planners rightly want more than a district of condos. So they mandated that new residents pay into a fund to purchase and develop a park site and to rent and rehabilitate a union hall into a community center. But what is a "community center" in a district of high rise condos? How would a park be used? Neither have an identifiable constituency.

How to involve such a heterogeneous crowd in the discourse?

The first step is to see our current practice for what it is: a tired 19th century relic, more meaningful as ritual than useful as a tool.

What can we do?

  • Don't be afraid of new voices. It's easy to fall back on the self-identified "leaders" because they're predictable and easy to find.
  • Trust that out of an open, welcoming environment some better ideas can come.
  • Trust that if these ideas come from such an environment, they'll come with a constituency of people committed to seeing them through. And even if it takes longer to get there, the civic leadership — commissioners, staff, the mayor and supervisors — might be a little more likely to take stands. Maybe there even would be fewer appeals at the back end.
  • City planning itself needs to be marketed. Show how planning can be relevant to people's real lives. Make it less cumbersome and show the value of results to city staff and officials, as well as the public.
  • Maybe land-use planning shouldn't be done in a vacuum. Maybe the discourse has to include crime, culture, jobs and education all at once.
  • Experiment with media. Maybe the dialogue would be more inclusive on the Internet, or by tapping into where people really communicate, such as beauty parlors and Laundromats. Maybe planning can be done with something like bookmobiles, moving around. Or groups of random people invited to talk about how they use the city, over dinners. Or a storefront. Maybe we should have an Office of Public Involvement helping all city departments, not just the Planning Department. Or even just hire professional facilitators to look at the goal of each planning venture and design the right process for the job.
  • Use the Internet. We plan our vacations online; keep in touch via e-mail and text messaging; share our thoughts on blogs; and buy, rent and sell on Craig's List. So why do we expect people to spend afternoons at City Hall waiting for an item to be called, only to then get just three minutes to speak? I get the Planning Commission calendars online; why not enable people to click the calendar and comment? Comments could go to commissioners directly or in digest, staff could respond, and maybe people could post responses to each other. Cases and other planning efforts could all have spots on a Planning Department Web site for people to weigh in.
  • For people to feel welcome, you've got to speak their language. And the context has to be culturally comfortable, too. How do groups make decisions in the Philippines, in Latin America or in China? It's not enough to use the same old "7 p.m. Thursday in the community center/PowerPoint/question and answer/thanks for coming/we'll get back to you" format. It doesn't translate.
  • Let's learn from how planning is done in Europe, Asia, Latin America and even other North American cities. It's mind-blowing to see what planning has achieved in Berlin, Barcelona or even Portland. This might require bridging the gaps between practice, academia and groups like SPUR.
  • Let's be frank and clear about what land-use planning can and cannot do. It doesn't by itself create buildings or good jobs. The City is trying to preserve blue-collar jobs by zoning to prevent housing (It's been characterized as "zoning for gold mines and expecting gold"). But how about linking zoning with a strategy to create these jobs?
  • Set timelines and develop the discipline to stick to them. The Giants' new ballpark had a deadline: Opening Day. It was a challenge, and we stepped up to it. It was a blessing, too. Here's a quote about the danger of going on too long, from Amit Ghosh, the head of long-range planning for the City, in a San Francisco Examiner story about the UC Extension project. speaking about the plan for an area: "What we're concerned about is the length of time it takes. By the time we finish the plan, consensus is forgotten." Or this from the Bay Guardian, about the Bayview Redevelopment Plan: "This has been a long-term process: The City has been discussing the plan for some ten years. As long as there's significant opposition in the community … it seems a mistake to rush forward."
  • Forget about consensus. We're not going to get it, and too often the planners or the Board of Supervisors delay decision-making while waiting for it. But it gets farther away. We need leadership, not consensus.
  • Be clear about what is on the table, what a plan can and can't do, and when a decision will be made. Make sure people understand the goals and the trade-offs.
  • Reconsider CEQA. We discuss projects and plans within the framework of the California Environmental Quality Act, best known by the acronym CEQA, which mandates addressing only how much damage can a proposal do to the environment, not how can it help the city meet goals or help the regional environment by concentrating growth where there's infrastructure. Here in San Francisco, we hold up even small-scale projects, such as the 17 residences and retail uses proposed at the empty lot at 19th and Valencia streets by the longtime residents and owners of a popular Mexican restaurant. Really, in a built-up city, along a transit street where just about every other spot is housing over stores, how much environmental damage could a project like this do? Because the Planning Department doesn't discern between big projects and little ones, the wait to even get a planner assigned to look at the impacts is up to nine months. Oakland has a more reasonable attitude: They don't even bother looking at the environmental impacts of 100-unit in-fill residential projects.
  • The planners should do a better job of differentiating between those projects that pose policy questions for the Planning Commission and the City and the smaller ones. As it is, single-family projects with disputes about a few feet can take up as much staff and commission energy as high-rises. Most of these disputes are what's called Discretionary Review cases. All these share one thing: they comply with the Planning Code 100 percent, but some neighbor is still unhappy. So the Planning Commission hears the case. We need a better system of triage, and we should show some more respect for the Planning Code and allow projects that comply to move forward.
  • We need other venues for working out land-use disputes and just for talking with each other. Maybe the Community Board has more of a role to play in working out disputes among neighbors. Or perhaps there is a need for a semi-social format where downtown types and Mission types and City Hall types and just regular people who care about the city can get together and have a discussion, and maybe a drink.
  • The biggest challenge is a cultural one, and culture is the hardest thing to change. The attitudes of the San Franciso planning culture:
    • Opponents are heroes.
    • We can't move forward without consensus.
    • A decade is a reasonable amount of time to produce a plan.
    • The voices we hear are sufficiently diverse.
    • We are so afraid of change that delays, appeals and meaningless environmental review are goals in themselves.
    I was struck by a description of Italy by the essayist Beppo Severgnini: "Controllers and controlled have an unspoken agreement. You don't change, we don't change, and Italy doesn't change. But we all complain that we can't go on like this."

    But we are a city of newcomers, and they will inevitably change the culture. It's time to open the process and be alert to new attitudes about the city and about change itself.

    After all, it's inevitable.END
About the Authors: 

David Prowler was a VISTA tenant organizer, San Francisco planning commissioner, community planner in Chinatown, the mayor's project manager for the Giants ballpark and Mission Bay. He now advises public agencies, non-profit, and developers on development and planning. He is president of the board of the Homeless Prenatal Program. E-mail David Prowler at david@prowler.org