A Conversation with 7 Planning Directors: Theft is a Good Thing!

planning directors san francisco city hall photo.jpg

(from left to right) Gabriel Metcalf, John Rahaim, Diane Sugimura, Amanda Burden, Brent Toderian, Bill Anderson, Barbara Sporlein & Susan Anderson.
photo via Street'sblog San Francisco's Michael Rhodes

Planning Directors from 7 forward thinking cities got together in San Francisco last week to share ideas and answer questions from an eager audience. The room was packed with 200 attendees, double the amount expected, with standing room only for many. SPUR and the San Francisco Planning Department co-hosted the panel of planning directors in town for the Urban Land Institute Expo. The directors hailed from San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, and San Diego. Planning directors oversee diverse arenas from public health to transportation, but most of the directors specifically highlighted environmental goals in their remarks. Many of the cities' planning director's expressed envy for what other cities had. Portland's Susan Anderson wished her city was more diverse. San Diego's Bill Anderson wished for better public transit. New York's Amanda Burden wished for better waterborne transit and less congestion. Seattle's Diane Sugimura wished for improved coastal and waterfront access, of the sort that cities in California often enjoy.

Some of the directors answers were candid and refreshing: Minneapolis's Barbara Sporlein wished it had better relations with the University (the largest in the country) and with Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, who is said to have a total distaste for the city. San Diego's planning director mentioned a wish that many of us in California share: that the state will do away with the 2/3's voting requirement on state ballots.

Many of the planning directors wanted to improve the planning process. San Francisco's John Rahaim said that San Francisco needs to simplify plans. "Eight hundred pages of code every year," he said, "is not sustainable. We need to build civility by brutal honesty. Say no or yes, and then move forward." Vancouver's Brent Toderian spoke of a need for planning to be "much more passionate and persuasive." Susan Anderson from Portland spoke of the need to create behavioral change. Bike lanes, for example, only work when people shift their perspective about biking being "cool".

Which city other than your own, points the way forward?"
Most of the cities answered safely, by choosing cities not present at the panel. Portland chose a mélange of European cities: "Amsterdam and Copenhagen with a drop of Paris!" Vancouver echoed that sentiment, praising Copenhagen for its impressive accomplishments in recycling, infill redevelopment, and urban agriculture.

San Diego chose Sydney--but then gave its northern sibling city a back-handed compliment by saying that even the City of Los Angeles is doing some things well. San Francisco chose a combination of Sydney and Barcelona. Seattle listed a few cities actually sitting at the table, including New York, Vancouver, and Portland, while also giving a shout out to Havana.

NYC's Amanda Burden commented that with ideas about saving the environment, "theft is a good thing". Chicago is her role model, and Mayor Daley her hero. She looks to Mayor Daley's leadership on sustainability issues as he has infused money into city parks, recaptured the waterfront, and built greenroofs long before other cities got on the bandwagon. He also shot for the moon, though (well, the Olympics) and didn't get it.

What are these cities doing to prepare for Sea Level Rise?
San Diego has been meeting with its local universities to address sea level rise as it develops along the coast, even though some sea level rise data is uncertain. Beaches are crucial to San Diego, both economically and for the cities entire sense of itself. Seattle's shoreline program is also examining sea level rise.

San Francisco has been incorporating sea level rise into plans for redevelopment in areas such as Hunters Point and Treasure Island. But the bigger challenge will be for areas already built that may be underwater in 80 years. We may need to start restricting what types of activities occur on the ground floor of buildings.

NYC, which has a lot of low lying areas in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, has an important report on sea level rise coming out in December, so stay tuned!

Vancouver is concerned that there is too much focus on adapting and dealing with the issue of sea level rise when we should still be combating climate change not resigning ourselves to it. Vancouver's planning director also mentioned that we will feel the impact of severe storms much sooner than we will see the impact of sea level rise, but grumbled that people are more captivated with sea level rise.

Minneapolis reported that they are, obviously, not working on the issue of sea level rise, but they are working hard on the issue of water quality and supply by instituting ordinances on green roofs.

San Diego lamented often being seen as "water villains," since they get their drinking water from both Northern California and from the Colorado River, and assured the audience that the city is working on water supply assessment, recycling, and conservation.

One audience member questioned the panel about how they speak truth to the powerful real estate interests within their respective cities.

San Francisco's John Rahaim, said that he has been criticized in the past by the Bay Guardian for saying this, but that "like it or not" the majority of what gets built in a city is by private sector. "As planners," he said, "all we can really do is manage growth by encouraging high density development around public transit." San Diego stressed the need for a transparent public process so that everyone knows what stakeholders' interests are. Vancouver replied that in Canada they have fewer lawyers, which helps.

So . . . if you live in one of these cities, what can you look forward to in the future?
Portland hopes to close coal plants in the Midwest that still, in part, power Portland. Portland's planning director also wants every building to become 50% more efficient than it is today. She also mentioned that Portland is working on mapping the city's publicly owned vacant land and turning these underused areas into public gardens, as well as requiring two bike parking spaces per multifamily unit in the city.

Minneapolis is turning many of its one way streets back to two way streets and not allowing new surface parking, all in order to make the city more walk-able.

San Francisco is working on a better streets plan and Green building standards. Rahaim stressed that the Transbay plan is important for the future of the city. It will become the new heart of San Francisco. The plan is to be released to the public in two weeks. Readers: Rahaim said he really wants to hear from you, so if you are not happy with the plan when it comes out, let the San Francisco Planning Department know!

Seattle is looking to change its green roof landscaping requirements to allow for more flexibility, for example, sometimes installing green walls instead of greenroofs.

NYC spoke of the desire to increase the amount of open space and public gathering areas, even if they initially seem unpopular. The Highline is a good example of this. The park has been a great success, capturing the imagination of those who visit, but at the time it was proposed, many people just thought of the structure as an abandoned railway and wanted it torn down.

In the final moments of the panel, Vancouver challenged the other cities to a "green city challenge." Also, both Seattle and Minneapolis chided San Francisco for serving bottled water at a public meeting. Both cities no longer allow bottled water. Take that SF! The gloves are off . . . the challenge has begun!

More on Green Cities and Urban Planning
The 2008 Ecocity World Summit: "Ecocity is Beautiful, Ecocity is Possible!"
City of Seattle Gives Bottled Water The Boot
San Francisco installing Solar Powered Bus Stops

A Conversation with 7 Planning Directors: Theft is a Good Thing!
Planning Directors from 7 forward thinking cities

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