Issue 529 to

A Threat to Planning?

The opponents of Plan Bay Area are undercutting the role of regional planning as a tool to manage long-term growth.

Urbanist Article

What happened:

Critics across the political spectrum challenged the vision put forth in the newly adopted Plan Bay Area, a 30-year regional plan that aligns transportation investments with assumptions about growth for the next two million in population.

What it means:

By contesting the fundamental notion of a shared regional responsibility, the opponents of Plan Bay Area are undercutting the role of regional planning as a tool to manage long-term growth.

In the Bay Area, there is a growing backlash to development and aspects of planning as residents struggle with rising real estate prices and changing communities. Plan Bay Area, a long-term vision meant to manage competing views on growth and development, has come under attack by politically disparate factions. The groups share a notion that the plan reflects a growth pattern and values they do not support. Tea Party-aligned groups concerned about government intrusion, on the one hand, and left-wing equity and environmental advocates, on the other, have challenged the results of Plan Bay Area, and some have sued to block its implementation.  While SPUR doesn’t agree with the opponents, we do recognize that they are tapping into a popular view that change will make matters worse. The urban-oriented vision put forth in the plan is a clear demonstration of the change they fear.

The opposition to Plan Bay Area is also set against a rising tide of populist discontent nationally and globally. In November, Bill de Blasio beat out more establishment candidates to become mayor of New York.  Social movements swept through cities like Sao Paolo and Istanbul earlier in 2013. While these examples differ from the opposition to Plan Bay Area, they reflect the growing sense that existing institutions are not effectively solving the issues of greatest concern for many people.

Planning is meant to be the vehicle to manage the powers of the marketplace toward better outcomes. Regional planning is an exercise that requires long-term thinking, a sense of shared responsibility and a trust in existing institutions. Given that the alternative to regional planning is an increasingly balkanized Bay Area incapable of confronting major economic and environmental issues, this growing populism must be addressed.  

There are two key aspects of the opposition to Plan Bay Area and regional planning that are important to consider:

1. Plan Bay Area sparked opposition on both the right and left based on a shared distrust of how the plan will be implemented.  The right challenged the plan for being the product of unelected bureaucrats attempting to impose a singular vision of urbanism. The left’s most serious critique was that the plan assumes significant growth will go to urban neighborhoods where lower-income residents risk displacement from rising costs yet the plan offers no funding mechanism for the region’s affordable housing needs.

2. There was a wide chasm in emotional energy between opponents and supporters.  The plan’s opponents and critics (particularly on the right) were able to rally people’s innate distrust for established institutions better than the plan’s proponents were able to tap into their sense of collective responsibility.  In fact, there is growing hostility from many sides toward the notion that any city or neighborhood has a regional responsibility for growth.

This is no surprise. It is easy to connect to people’s emotional energy when they fear some change about where they live — whether from market forces leading to price increases or irrational fears about the supposed destruction of single-family neighborhoods which could force people to live in a “stack and pack” environment. (A euphemism for apartments, “stack and pack” is continuously repeated as being the true goal of regional planning.)

We don’t want planning to be jettisoned because it is seen as a status quo institution that is both imposing a set of values on people and failing to address or respond to people’s needs. Plan Bay Area is an opportunity to collectively confront the major environmental, economic and social issues of the day — most importantly our clarion call is the tremendous challenge of ensuring that our regional economy doesn’t leave people stuck at the bottom. Our answer, in part, is that good planning is the way to get sufficient housing at all levels and will (over time) moderate the price surges that we’re now experiencing.  Making sure there is broad-based job growth and investment in our infrastructure is another key answer.

If regional planning can offer tangible answers to major issues and make a compelling case for our collective responsibility, it may well command more broad-based trust and redirect some of the emotional energy that’s been going into challenging the plan toward successfully implementing it.

Egon Terplan is SPUR’s regional planning director.

Imron Bhatti is a research intern at SPUR.