February 2014 – Planning Office of the Future

APA is starting a committee to look at the Planning Office of the Future. The committee includes five of the best and brightest planners I know and is headed by an outstanding planner, Joe Horwedel, who just retired as the San Jose Director. Although I am not a member of the committee, Joe and I had a long conversation brainstorming the topic and I thought it would be fun to put a few of my thoughts in writing. Maybe these can be of help to the Committee. But, more importantly, I hope that you will critique my thoughts and add your own. I would be happy to share them with our readers as well as the Committee.

I’ll confess that my thought about the future includes what the better planning departments should be doing today. Here are some ideas.

1. Planning
When Gail Goldberg became Los Angeles Planning Director she said she wanted the Department to do “Real Planning.” I liked that idea, but what does it mean?
a. It means not being afraid of the “big ideas.” I have written about this before and see most planning programs being too timid. Some of the biggest ideas in California didn’t come from the planners but by citizen initiative.
b. It means partnering with all the other city or county departments. Plans are supported across the board 100%.
c. We call it long range planning but it needs to be defined. The focus needs to be on impacting today’s decisions from the benefit of a long range view.  

2. Social Media
Much of the advertising and meeting approaches being used today will no longer be used. The social media we know today will expand ten-fold. Experiments currently being used in a few communities are a good start.

3. The Paperless Office
The Paperless Office is possible today and a few communities are getting a start but much more needs to be done. This means that all plans and permits come in electronically over the internet. Plan review is done concurrently using electronic plan review software. Performance standards are set and monitored for all steps in the process. Files are stored electronically. All plans and ordinances are in great graphic formats, color coded and with electronic search features. All field staff work on remote equipment tied to the central office.

4. Budgets
a. The processes for all permits and planning applications are 100% cost recovery including both internal and external overhead. This is already taking place in many communities for building and engineering activities and even a few in planning (although most planning is only 50%).
b. A large reserve account that cannot be drained off into the General Fund exists. I used to suggest this be equal to three months of the budget but now suggest equal to the annual budget is a better target. We just completed a study for a city division that had a 17 month reserve. Calgary had a 30 million dollar reserve and, on our recommendation, changed it to 60 million.
c. The planning activities are harder to fund but when planners get in bed with other departments the money may be easier to find. All the utilities can generate large amounts of money with very small increase in fees. The same is true for engineering and public works functions. Transportation almost always has money. A number of communities already use a percentage of the building permit to fund and set aside funds for planning activities, both the Comprehensive Plan as well as community plans. One community we consulted with, by charter, required that 25% of all monies received from the sale of licenses, issuances of all permits and income from parking meters go to a Development Fund that can only be spent with the approval of the Planning Commission.

5. Infrastructure
Planning, once again needs to re-gain its focus on infrastructure. Planning in its early days was the focal point for the CIP. However, this has been lost in most communities. In the planning office of the future, it will, and must return.

6. Economic Development
Planning has been at war with economic development for too long. Whoever said the economy was not an important planning issue? In smaller communities economic development will simply be a function of the planning office. In larger communities that may have a separate department, planning must work arm in arm with that function.

7. Organization
The way planning is organized will vary substantially from community to community. Small communities may have a variety of functions in one department that may or may not be called planning including, long range planning, current planning, economic development, housing, redevelopment, parks, etc. In larger communities many of these functions may be separate departments but planners must work closely with all of them. It is time to stop blaming all of our problems on others. For most communities I would like to have both long and short range planning, building, engineering, and transportation all in the same department. However, we have worked with merged departments that have silos and don’t work any better than those not merged. The key is finding a way for everyone to work together.

A sub-set of this is all development and planning functions being co-located, preferably, on one floor with unified intake functions. Also, although many planners want to focus on long range planning, it is essential that the current planning and building permit functions are working well. If not, it erodes the political support for the long range planning.

8. Urban Design
Urban design will return as a key function of planning. Staff will include many trained urban designers. We recently completed a study for a city of 250,000 population that has 12 urban designers on staff.

9. Social Issues
The growing diversity of communities and changing demographics will require planners to take a new look at the social issues. I am not certain where this one will lead us but do anticipate some major changes.