This week's top post from the Strong Towns Network is from Seth Zeren. Seth is a former environmental scientist, turned urban planner, become real-estate developer. By day he works to develop mixed-use infill projects. This spring, he will be teaching a course on urbanism and sustainability at Boston Architectural College in the spring. He is active in housing advocacy in the Boston area.

Seth's years in public sector planning as the zoning planner for Newton, MA, gave him a deep appreciation of the challenges and opportunities of local government. His approach to design and urban governance is informed by his background in evolutionary and ecological sciences--with an emphasis on the dynamics and processes of urban change over the designing of perfect outcomes. He lives in the People's Republic of Cambridge with his fiance and two cats. If you want to get a hold of Seth, email him at seth.zeren@gmail.com.

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A few weeks back strongtowns blog aired a three part series on how to implement rational responses—stop, inventory, prioritize. The strategy emphasized the manifold physical, fiscal, and infrastructural challenges that cities and towns are bumping up against. As a recovering municipal planner, I was struck by the sense that a similar logic could be applied to the soft things that cities do: her I am thinking about permitting, holding meetings, coordination, setting goals, etc. There’s a joke among planners: that we’re “too busy planning to plan.” The many layers of committees, meetings, permit filings, paperwork, and record keeping that cities and towns have enacted over the past century, often for admirable reasons, create a tremendous amount of work (much of it a waste of time). On top of that, in many cities there is no prioritization filter for staff, so the thing that gets worked on is the one that’s most “on fire”—the latest committee request, citizen’s petition, grant opportunity, etc. Staff time is treated as a free (well, already paid for) and infinitely deep resource.

The consequence? Big strategic projects or easily achievable small projects get swept aside trying to maintain the status quo and respond to the cacophony of voices. There’s no time for field work, for real community engagement, or research. The 20 planning department person staff of my city had about four half time equivalents working on anything resembling long-range or strategic planning (unlocking the redevelopment of an existing commercial corridor through zoning changes and infrastructure, for example, or engaging with residents at farmer’s markets and festivals on the City’s strategic vision). Often it felt like we served a city of perhaps 50 or 100 people, the “regulars” who came to meetings, wrote in community blogs, and served of Boards and Commissions. What did the other 85,000 people in the City think? Don’t worry about it. Congratulate yourself on getting 50 people to the community meeting.

So if there’s a crisis in the body of cities and towns, there’s also a crisis in the “brain.” It’s captive and overwhelmed maintaining the legacy of previous generations’ regulations, procedures, department structures, boards and committees. What could you do to effect a culture change in this system? Well, we could try:

  1. Stop—going to all the meetings, stop writing so many reports (that no one will read), and so forth. Yes, someone will have to answer the phones and respond to basic questions; building permits will have to go forward. But you need radically rebalance your staff time allocations so that they can actually think and plan and focus. And take an…
  2. Inventory—everything that the city has committed to review, process, report on, etc. How many staff hours does the City spend on special permits? On staffing committee meetings? On writing reports? On preparing for public meetings that no one attends? How many $$’s of labor is that? How many projects has the city or department taken on? I’d bet if it’s more than 10 (and it will be), you’re going to need to…
  3. Prioritize—staff time, like dollars for paving, isn’t infinite, and it isn’t free. Here’s where you ask the tough choices: what are the three priorities for the planning department, or public works, or whatever for this year? If you have more than three to five, you don’t actually have priorities. Everyone in city hall should know the cities highest priorities, so should everyone in town. That doesn’t mean they have to be huge and monumental: it could be repave Spring Street and beautify the shopping area. Project achieved, and it doesn’t take 2 years of committee meetings and outside contractors. You’ll have the resources and time to get it done in a thoughtful way, and you might even have some resources and time left over if and when an actual crisis comes up. Embrace some creativity, get your staff out from behind the computer occasionally and have them get to work in the community.

And a related thought, if your town’s vision (determined through the prioritization process) is actually to maintain the status quo, the good news is that you probably don’t need to hire expensive staff with masters degrees who are invested in changing the world (in fact, you should probably avoid that—you’ll just both end up frustrated).

 

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