Civic Planning in America

Toward a politics of place

Urbanist Article May 1, 2007

Civic planning organizations are working in every major city in the United States. These organizations have a long history, often going back a century to the Progressive-era urban reformers who fought corruption of the local government machines and the negative side effects of the industrial city. Today, these groups often are not even aware of one another's existence.

Over the years, we came to know a few of them. When the national planning press addresses new initiatives in U.S. cities, we often rely on these groups for a reality check on the effectiveness of these new proposals. But we had not looked closely at them until the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation awarded SPUR a grant to conduct a national study of civic planning organizations, giving us the chance to actually meet the leaders of other civic groups in person. Learning about these organizations also turned out to be a fascinating way to understand the state of America's cities. And it generated many ideas we can bring back home, based on what these other groups do well and what they don't do as well.

This article profiles a selection of the most interesting civic planning organizations in the nation and discusses the implications for the broader movement to build sustainable, prosperous, democratically engaged cities. Through this project, we have learned that while each organization is primarily a product of the local political culture and economic geography of its region, its ability to produce change is mostly about the quality of its board and staff, and its timing in selecting strategic priorities. SPUR stands out nationally for both our broad policy focus and also our use of diverse models to accomplish our policy goals. While this flexibility and adaptability may be one of our great strengths, we still have much to learn from the challenges and successes of the organizations profiled in this report.

Defining the groups that are most similar to SPUR
When we began our research, we set out to create a comprehensive list of groups "like SPUR," but this first step proved to be complicated. Some of the groups we originally thought would be relevant turned out to be quite different from SPUR. Other groups we had never heard of turned out to be very important in their region. But the biggest surprise was the fact that the organizations do not fit into logical typologies. Instead, what we discovered was great diversity and heterogeneity in terms of the social change strategies they employ, their geographic scope, their policy focus, their financial structure, their organization base and their source of legitimacy. Some organizations do more good-government work, while others focus more on good planning (SPUR is the only organization we found that tries to focus equally on both). Some organizations are funded mostly by foundations, others by businesses and others by individual donors. Some work at the city level while others focus on the region - and even among regional organizations, the definitions of regional boundaries are quite different.

This leaves us with the following criterion for selecting the civic planning organizations "like SPUR" on which to focus in this article: organizations that do policy work on multiple issues at the scale of the city or region.

This definition leaves out many effective single-issue groups such as Transportation Alternatives in New York and the Citizens Housing and Policy Association in Boston. It also excludes organizations that are in the business of producing planning exhibitions, tours and/or educational programs, but which do not develop policy ideas or work to make policy change. These "urban centers" include the Van Alen Institute and the Center for Architecture (both in New York) and the Chicago Architecture Foundation. But it includes a large array of organizations working in very different ways to affect the fate of America's cities.

Social change strategies: How do the organizations carry out their work?
SPUR's mission statement says that we use three methods in our work: research, education and advocacy. This is something few civic planning organizations do.

Some groups write policy papers (roughly equivalent to the "research" in SPUR's mission), but do not work on implementation. These include MassINC in Boston, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and, until recently, the City Club of Portland (the City Club in the past few years has begun to shift energy into follow-up work in an effort to have its policy papers implemented).

Some groups exist to facilitate dialogue and to educate their members. Their range of subject matter may look just like that of more policy-oriented civic groups, but they don't write papers, or do political advocacy or organizing. These include the Boston College Citizen Seminars, the Town Hall in Seattle, the Westside Urban Forum in Los Angeles and even San Francisco's own Commonwealth Club. But many groups include lectures, debates and conferences as a part of their work, particularly those with broad memberships - including SPUR, the City Club of Portland and the Municipal Art Society in New York.

The most common model for civic organizations is to work through research and also to advocate to implement the research - but to not spend a lot of energy on "education." This includes the Regional Plan Association (New York), the Metropolitan Planning Council (Chicago), Metropolis 2020 (Chicago) and the Allied Arts Society (Seattle). These organizations, which combine research and action, are the ones that look most similar to SPUR and from which SPUR can take many lessons.

The only other civic planning organization that does research, education and advocacy is the Municipal Art Society in New York. But in comparison, it has much less emphasis on research and policy development - in other words, it is less of a think tank than SPUR is.

Geographic focus: What scale do the organizations define as their purview?
SPUR does roughly 85 percent of its work on the city level, 10 percent at the regional level and 5 percent at the state level. The SPUR Board of Directors has wrestled with the question of how to be more effective at its regional work for a long time. This debate traces its origins to SPUR's history. In 1958, the San Francisco Planning and Housing Association divided itself into two parts: One became today's Greenbelt Alliance, whose job was to protect the edge of the region from sprawl; the other part, a year later, become SPUR, whose job was to channel growth into the city center. At that time, San Francisco was clearly the dominant city in the region, and this division of labor between these two planning organizations was very logical. But as the Bay Area has grown into a more complex, polycentric metropolis, and as the commute shed has leaped outside the nine counties that touch the Bay, the question of how to balance SPUR's San Francisco work with its regional planning agenda has grown more complex.

Every civic group we looked at faces this same challenge. Some have defined themselves as regional in scope, while others have defined their turf as the central city only. SPUR, perhaps more than any other group, continues to wrestle with this question.

The Regional Plan Association of New York has the most interesting definition of its area. It works on a 31-county area that includes parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut- - broadly, the metropolitan region for New York City. In addition to its headquarters in Manhattan, the RPA has branch offices in New Jersey and Connecticut. The RPA uses a very clear filter in deciding what to work on: Is the issue of regional significance? Issues of purely local significance are not prioritized.

Chicago has two very effective civic groups that work at the regional level: the Metropolitan Planning Council and Metropolis 2020. In contrast, the Allied Arts Society focuses just on Seattle. In Boston, we looked at two organizations. One, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, works on good-government issues within the City of Boston. The other, MassINC, works on the state level. We include MassINC in this study of civic planning organizations because its policy focus and approach are so similar to SPUR's. In addition, because Boston is such a large part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and because the population of Massachusetts is not much bigger than that of the extended Bay Area (and smaller than Chicago or New York's regions), the organization's scope is comparable to that of the other organizations in our study.

The City Club works primarily within the City of Portland, but it regularly brings regional and state leaders to talk at its lecture series, and it analyzes state ballot measures and state policy issues from time to time. The City Club is probably most similar to SPUR in its attempt to be both focused on the central city while remaining cognizant of regional and state issues.

There are many answers to the question of what geographic scale is the right one for urban civic groups to work on. (We are excluding from consideration the national organizations, even though some of them cover a very similar set of issues to SPUR's, including Policy Link, the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Metropolitan Program of the Brookings Institution.) Looking at the reasons for choosing a given geographic focus, we observe first that to some degree these choices are influenced by the differing metropolitan structures of American cities. Some regions are more "monocentric," meaning that they are more dominated by the historic central city. For example, New York City has 38 percent of the region's population while the City of Chicago has 32 percent of the region's population. In contrast, San Francisco has just 11 percent of the region's population and Boston has 10 percent of the region's population.

Some cities are dominant not just within their metropolitan region, but within their states as well. This is true of Seattle, Portland, Chicago, New York and Boston. Things could not be more different for San Francisco, which is only the fourth-largest city in California - and the second largest in the Bay Area.

I would postulate that it is easiest for urban civic organizations based in the historic central city to be viewed as legitimate regional planning organizations in regions where the dominance of the central city is more universally acknowledged and accepted. In the Bay Area, this is not the case. Further, there is no true regionwide good-planning or good-government civic organization for the Bay Area. Instead, there are many wonderful single-issue organizations (including Greenbelt Alliance, the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, Non-Profit Housing Association and Save the Bay) and some single-constituency organizations (like the Bay Area Council, a regional business organization). Will a regional civic organization like the Regional Plan Association in New York or the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago ever emerge in the Bay Area? Will SPUR ever move in that direction? Or will the Bay Area's progress on regional planning occur through cooperation among independent, more locally based civic organizations? All of these are open questions.


Policy focus: What issues do the organizations work on?
SPUR's work is organized into seven program areas: Community Planning, Economic Development, Environmental Sustainability, Good Government, Housing, Regional Planning and Transportation. For the purposes of this analysis, we are defining the universe of groups that are "like SPUR" as those that are multi-issue rather than single-issue in their work. But what's interesting is that in surveying all of these multi-issue urban civic groups, they each define their own set of content areas in very different ways - as is evident in the snapshots of each organization that appear with this article.

The most common subject areas are transportation, land-use planning, regional planning, economic development, urban design and governance.

The groups tend to cluster into either a good-government focus or a good-planning focus. (However, both good-government and good-planning groups frequently work on economic-development policy, the area of the greatest overlap). Once again, SPUR tries to straddle this divide, being equally focused on good government and good planning.

There are a few outliers in terms of subject areas. The Municipal Arts Society and Allied Arts Society (New York and Seattle, respectively) work on both public art and historic preservation as core issues. MassINC works on health care. Several groups work on public safety.

SPUR, like the City Club of Portland, works on what our members want to work on. And because we have a broad-based membership, members' interests are diverse. This approach, of course, has some limitations. At times we can appear less focused and less able to set strategic priorities. We hope to turn this into a strength - that by being multidisciplinary and by being interested in many urban policy issues, we are better able to do comprehensive planning, and thus better able to understand the unintended consequences and externalities of our policy decisions.

Financial support: Where does the funding come from?
Scanning the national civic planning landscape, we observe that there are, broadly speaking, two types of groups: multi-stakeholder organizations and business organizations. Most of the organizations in our study are multi-stakeholder, like SPUR. But within that broad categorization, there are significant differences in how the groups are funded. Some are mostly foundation-funded, some mostly business-funded and some mostly funded by individuals. For example, the RPA in New York receives 80 percent of its $3.4 million budget from foundations and only 3 percent from individuals. By contrast, the Metropolitan Planning Council of Chicago receives 39 percent of its $3.8 million budget from foundations and 37 percent from businesses. A few have succeeded in building truly diverse funding models.

SPUR has added one staff person a year for more than a decade, growing to five times the size it was 10 years ago. During that period of tremendous growth, we have been fortunate to receive generous support from businesses, individuals and foundations. Our current strategy moving forward emphasizes diversity in our funding base, both for the stability and because it connects us to many different constituencies in the city and region. We can learn a lot from other civic planning organizations that do a good job with any one of the components of our funding strategy.

Organizational structure: Who does the work?
The issue of who does the work is related to the question of funding. There are a variety of models among our examples. Many groups use a professional staff. This is true for the Regional Plan Association, the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

MassINC has a very interesting model: It contracts with professors at Boston-area universities and colleges to write all of its papers. The role of staff is to frame issues, raise money and work on messaging to get the papers into public circulation. There is no policy staff at this organization.

Chicago's Metropolis 2020, in addition to a professional policy staff, has a core of "senior executives" - retired people who do not get paid, but work at least half time for the organization, have their own offices and have high-level organizational responsibility. These include the former chief executive officer of Pittway, the former president of the MacArthur Foundation, the former head of Governors State University and several other equally prominent people.

SPUR employs aspects of all the above models. We have a professional staff that performs research, writes policy papers and does community organizing. We now and then contract with academics and private firms to do specific studies. And we have retired civic leaders - from the public and private sectors - who assist in our work.

But the bulk of SPUR's work is actually produced by our broad base of members. In this way we are very similar to the City Club of Portland and the Allied Arts Society, although all three organizations have varying levels of professional staff to organize, facilitate, follow up on and supplement the member-led work. For SPUR, our approach is a reflection of our organizational base: As a broad-based membership organization, we rely on our members to define the issues we will work on, provide expertise and pay for the work of SPUR. While it is essential that we continue to diversify our funding base, the core will always be individual and business members because that is our organizational model.

Source of legitimacy: What gives the organization influence and why do people care what the organization says?
There are at least three very different models at play for how an organization comes to its policy positions and the extent of influence it has in its respective city or region. Each organization provides a different source of legitimacy and a different reason why citizens should be influenced by its recommendations:

  • A convener of divergent interests, which requires that the organization be open, unbiased and trusted by everyone.
  • An evidence-based research organization, which depends on having a methodology that allows the organization to come up with better information than other organizations.
  • An organization that promotes a set of values - for example, promoting a transit-first city, creating livable neighborhoods, strengthening the economy and so on. This model does not involve neutrality in the sense required to be a true convener or evidence-based organization. Instead of neutrality, under this model the civic organization stands for a substantive vision it is trying to promote.

    Once again, we see that SPUR, at different times, relies on all of these models - something that is, strictly speaking, contradictory.

  • From our membership brochure, a description of the SPUR as convener: "In a city often divided by single-issue politics, SPUR provides a common meeting ground." And: "We bring together neighborhood leaders, government officials, business leaders, planners, architects, students and activists the full range of people who care about San Francisco to debate, learn and plan for the needs of the city as a whole." We often say, for example, that the model of the SPUR Board is for all interest groups in the city to be represented.
  • Look at our name: "Planning" and "Research" mean that SPUR is out to discover the correct answer, portraying SPUR as an evidence-based research organization. This is clearly how the media view SPUR when we are described as a think tank.
  • But then look at the descriptions of each of our program areas on our Web site: each one contains a succinct summary of what we are trying to accomplish. In this case, we wear our values on our sleeve and show SPUR as a values-based organization. We exist to promote sustainable urbanism and all of our work is designed to further this goal.

Some of these same tensions exist within other civic groups in the country. But in general, none of the civic organizations are true convening organizations the way community foundations or universities are. We all have our own values and visions we are trying to fulfill, so we are not universally viewed as having the neutrality to be real convening organizations. Conversely, none of the organizations that are true convening organizations do real social change work.

The tradeoff between being an objective, research-based organization and a values-based organization is more complicated. In both cases, civic groups believe there is a "right" answer to policy questions rather than simply competition among interest groups trying to maximize their own gains at the expense of everyone else. We all hold on to a couple of core principles:

  • First, the idea that there is a common good, rather than just the trading of interests.
  • Second, the idea that there is a "right" answer, even if it is sometimes hard to figure out.

There can be something very appealing about presenting oneself as the smartest one around, as objective and willing to use a rigorous research process. Thus, MassINC uses the tagline, "an evidence-based organization." The Citizens Research Council of Michigan (not focused on in this study, but an interesting group nonetheless) uses the motto, "The right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about."

But those who disagree with a conclusion SPUR reaches object to us presenting our ideas as objectively true rather than as values-based. And in truth, evidence and research seldom point necessarily to one single policy outcome, except when viewed through the lens of values. We want to stop sprawl. We want housing to be more affordable. We want there to be prosperity that is widely shared. We want the public realm to be wonderful. We want our citizens to be engaged with the democratic process. We want to create the most ecologically sustainable urban place that has ever existed. Perhaps it's time to grow more comfortable with using this language of values.

Lessons for SPUR
By meeting with civic-planning organizations throughout the past year, we have learned a great deal about how to do our work better. Many (not all) of the organizations are bigger and better than SPUR in at least some aspects of their work.

The City Club of Portland has the best citizen-based research methodology of any organization in the country, although this is at the price of not being able to produce a large quantity of work. The City Club's model relies on citizen non-experts who meet together for a year or more to develop policy papers. MassINC does the best policy research in terms of quality and authoritativeness, relying on a model of hiring professors at Boston universities and colleges to write 100 percent of its reports - at a great expense.

The Regional Plan Association is probably the most effective organization in terms of winning regional campaigns. This is an unabashedly elite organization that does not try to have members, educate the public or do anything other than come up with proposals and work with those in power to have them implemented. In addition, the RPA has a unique and appealing definition of regional boundaries.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation has perfected the art of giving tours so well that fully 85 percent of its budget is from earned income.

The Van Alen Institute, alone among the locally based civic planning organizations in the United States, has proven able to produce quality exhibits on planning topics on a consistent basis.

SPUR does some things better than anyone else, too. SPUR has the best regular publication with which to communicate its ideas to the broad educated public and (tied to this first point) SPUR is the most successful in terms of building a diverse membership base and facilitating active working committees with those members. And the SPUR Board, with its culture of respectful debate among 70 people with often very different perspectives, is a model for civic dialogue.

One fact emerges clearly out of all of these comparisons: SPUR tries to work in more lines of business and draw from different organizational models than any other civic planning organization in the country. It's not just that SPUR works on more issues than other groups, but SPUR utilizes more methods and tries to have more core competencies. This raises real fears about the ability to be good at all of these things simultaneously. If we are not going to eliminate any of these lines of business (which is hard to imagine), we have to be very sophisticated about how to manage the organization to achieve programmatic integration and not let it dissolve into merely a conglomerate of distinct activities related only by a common mission.

Conclusion: urbanism in America
This survey of civic planning organizations was primarily focused on how each group is structured and carries out its work. However, in looking across so many geographies, we've also gained a window into the state of the art for those who are trying to have a positive impact on America's cities. There seems, by and large, to be an emerging consensus about what "good planning" means. Every city we studied is trying to invest heavily in "place-making" by upgrading parks and plazas, reconceiving of streets as public spaces, and designing new buildings to frame public space. Every city is trying to upzone along neighborhood commercial streets, while protecting the single-family homes (although unlike San Francisco, many cities are being very aggressive in encouraging single-family homeowners to add secondary or "in-law" units). Every city is experiencing a housing boom in its downtown, trying to come to grips with how global competition will affect its economy and workforce, and grappling with the question of how much of its historically industrial land to keep for industry.

The caveat here is that the divide between the so-called "successful" and "unsuccessful" cities continues to grow. We did not visit Detroit, probably the most troubled of America's large cities, or even cities with mixed trends such as Baltimore or Philadelphia. The cities that are experiencing job loss (and hence population loss) have an entirely different set of challenges - or, as former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown once told SPUR, "San Francisco's problems are Oakland's solutions." By and large, SPUR's first round of cross-cultural exchanges was confined to the cities that have succeeded in attracting knowledge-based jobs and are experiencing high demand for people to live there.

We observed that in every city we visited, the anti-sprawl movements and anti-gentrification movements are still at odds, despite decades of conferences, writing and coalition-building. It's easy to articulate a shared agenda that benefits poor people while also radically increasing densities inside already urbanized areas, but it's much harder to make such a program work in practice. It is comforting to realize that San Francisco is not alone in facing this problem, but also discouraging to realize how far apart the priorities of these two progressive movements are.

When it comes to other half of SPUR's mission - promoting good government - there is much less consensus about what this means and how to achieve it. The classic divide remains this: Do we care most about making government more efficient or about making it more democratic? Do we care more about outcomes or about process? At SPUR, we care equally about both. We promote management reforms of all kinds intended to make government work better and be more effective at delivering high-quality public services at whatever level of taxation citizens are willing to provide. But we also promote engaged citizenship and put a huge emphasis on giving citizens the tools to be educated voters and participants in the democratic process. Still, the truth is that there are many situations in which efficiency and democracy are tradeoffs and the good-government movement has a hard time resolving which is more important in a given situation.

The good-government movement is hurt by many of the same trends all over the country. Fewer people are voting and fewer people are reading the news in any medium. With the exception of real estate and infrastructure, businesses are less tied to particular places, creating a dynamic in many cities where, rather than fight to make the government work better, they simply pull up the stakes and move when the business climate gets too bad. Organized labor is increasingly concentrated in the public sector. But in most cities, a good-government labor movement that cares as much about making government work well as it does about the rights of its members has not yet emerged. And everywhere, the anti-tax movement seems to fill the space once occupied by good-government reformers, advocating for less government instead of better government.

The change agents behind much of the positive trends in urban America are often taken for granted. But change does not happen on its own. The infrastructure that enables a high quality of urban life doesn't get built by itself. Governmental institutions, left to their own devices, can grow sclerotic and lose the public trust. Citizenship is something that has to be learned. The urban renaissance that our country is experiencing was not inevitable. Behind all of these changes is a vast network of citizen activists, community leaders and urban visionaries who have worked against great odds to make America's cities work in a country that is largely hostile to cities. These people are most often connected with one or more of the strong and growing civic organizations throughout our country.

SPUR is proud to be part of the network of urban civic organizations that have played a part in many of the most important changes. In our quest to become the most effective organization possible, we try to learn from the mistakes of the past as well as the successes. And we try to learn from the successes and the failures of groups like SPUR in other cities. We can safely say that no group is quite like SPUR - and SPUR should not try to become exactly like any of the groups we analyzed. This divergence of organizational structure and approach befits the continuing experimentation that is the heart of the American experience. Civic planning in America is alive and well.


About the Authors: 

Gabriel Metcalf is the executive director of SPUR.

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