The Effective Planning Commissioner

A Backward Glance … A Forward Look

October 8th, 2014

Editor's Note: It has been an honor -- and a pleasure -- to have had Elaine Cogan write for the Planning Commissioners Journal and PlannersWeb.com for some 23 years. From our very first issue back in 1991, Elaine has been sharing her knowledge and practical experience, while covering a remarkably wide range of topics of particular interest to citizen planners.

I invite you to browse through 68 past articles from her "The Effective Planning Commissioner" series (be sure to continue to "Older posts" when you get to the bottom of each page).

Same old, radically different, or somewhere in between? Those are the questions regarding planning commissions PlannersWeb editor Wayne Senville asked me to ponder for my final column.

Announcement for Now That You're on Board booklet.I have been writing articles about planning boards for 23 years since Wayne first published the Planners Commissioners Journal. As a private consultant since 1975, I have worked with and trained hundreds of citizen planning board members and written on the subject, Now that you’re on Board: How to Survive … and Thrive … as a Planning Commissioner. I remain impressed with the overall quality and dedication of the people who agree to serve on what may seem at times as thankless jobs, often with little appreciation from the decision makers or the communities they serve.

Street signs: Change Blvd and Same Old StWhat has changed in more than two decades?

On the surface, little appears to be fundamentally different. However, while planning commissions still deal with many of the same local issues as they have in the past, these issues are more likely to have a 21st century emphasis.

For example, as infill becomes more important, where to site new housing is an ongoing challenge, especially in older areas with their established neighborhoods and traffic patterns. In many communities, there is an overlay of concern for equity that was less prevalent in the past. They recognize that too often, local housing policies have perpetuated segregation or gentrification.

Today more planners are considering the societal effects of their decisions ... helping build more inclusive communities.

Today, thanks to concerned advocacy groups and enlightened public policies, more planners are considering the societal effects of their decisions and thus, helping build more inclusive communities.

Use of electronic media to disseminate and receive information is an ongoing change. Most planning departments put their reports on the Web and some invite people to ask questions or respond online. Others more ambitious produce virtual open houses where people can view maps and charts from the comfort of their living rooms and interact with the planners electronically. I am not aware of any data that indicate more people engage in this type of public discourse than come to meetings, but at least some planning departments are trying to take into account the different ways people want to receive information today.

In addition to the above, rapidly changing computer technology enables staff to present information at commission meetings in greater -- and at times more clear -- detail. The good news is that effective technologies are readily available and can help laypeople understand complicated issues. The not always good news is that technophiles may be tempted to overwhelm the lay members of the commission without adding substantially to the quality of the discussions or decisions that follow.

Transportation always will remain a local planning issue, but over time the focus has shifted in many communities from just roads and highways to also how to accommodate mass transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians. With this change in emphasis, planning commissions are likely to be confronted by advocates they may never have seen before who lobby to accommodate their perceived needs. Funding has become an important issue as federal and state governments are challenged to rely less on gasoline taxes and more on their general revenues.

Women were the first to break the barrier, often by one token female appointee with known standing in the community.

Diversity among members of the commission is another change. In the not distant past, most planning boards were comprised of white men, often friends or cronies of the mayor, who remained at their posts for a long time. This is not so in many communities today. Women were the first to break the barrier, often by one token female appointee with known standing in the community. Today, that woman is likely to be joined by others of her gender, and may even be the chair.

Although adding a few people of color or other minorities may be seen by some as the new tokenism, that diversity also is likely to increase. Eventually, the change may influence how the commission deals with sensitive issues. It may even engender acceptance by segments of the community previously hostile to planning by a group seemingly not aware of their needs.

Traditional media … daily newspapers, TV, and radio … are less inclined to cover planning events unless they appear to have sensational elements. Thus, planning staffs and commissioners need to be more creative in getting the word out about matters that should concern the public. More are becoming adept at using social media to stimulate conversations although there is a risk of engaging people with a distinct point of view, often more negative than positive.

What is basically the same?

Unfortunately, in many instances, the timing, location, and format of meetings have not changed much or at all. Most are still held in the evening in downtown public buildings at times and places not convenient for most of the public. Most also have long and complicated agendas laden with plannerese difficult for laypeople to follow. In too few instances are easy to understand handouts of the meeting protocols or matters under discussion available.

Illustration by Marc Hughes for PlannersWeb - welcoming door to planning department office.
Does your planning department's office offer a welcoming environment?

Most planning offices are still formidable and unfriendly environments to the average citizen. The counter is too high; the waiting area uncomfortable; and there may be no visible staff. A bell to summon help may be available, but it is not always answered promptly.

In other words, what has not changed appreciably is the way planning commission staff and members set the scene for encounters with the public. This may be ameliorated somewhat by friendly, helpful staff when they finally make contact, but the first impression is not helpful and merits consideration of improvements.

Nothing is more off-putting for citizens than seeing the commissioners sitting on the dais glancing down or tapping away at their electronic devices.

Meeting protocols also have not changed appreciably and many still follow a format that puts public concerns last. Staff and commissioners can address this issue with a non linear approach to the business at hand by placing issues for which there is considerable public interest early on the agenda. People are more apt to be cordial and well behaved if they do not have to sit through interminable planning matters that do not seem germane to their concerns or those of their neighbors.

Using smartphone or computer tablet during a meeting.Proliferation of the use of personal computers is an obvious change. As ubiquitous as this is, it is a mixed blessing. Nothing is more off-putting for citizens than seeing the commissioners sitting on the dais glancing down or tapping away at their electronic devices, seemingly unconcerned about holding a meaningful conversation with their colleagues, staff, or the public. Although obviously these devices will continue to proliferate, some ground rules on their use during meetings is worthy of commission attention.

In summary, this has been a heady time these last 23 years. I have appreciated the opportunity to be an observer and commentator on how planning commissions can be more effective as they go about their tasks. It has been gratifying to see them try to meet the changing needs of their local communities. There has been notable progress, but more always can be done.

photo of Elaine CoganElaine Cogan, founding principal of the Portland, Oregon planning and communications firm of Cogan Owens Cogan, has consulted for more than 36 years with communities undertaking strategic planning and visioning processes. Cogan has been honored for her work on a variety of citizen involvement projects.