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By Sheila Suess Kennedy
A colleague informs me that the military has a saying: Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance.
Well, batten down the hatches, because piss-poor performance is on its way.
Between the agonizingly slow recovery from the Great Recession and the antics of the zealots in Congress who somehow talked that institution into inflicting more damage on the fragile economy via sequestration, municipal governments across the nation are operating in an era of painful scarcity. (In my own state, Indiana, the fiscal pinch has been made infinitely more painful by a constitutional amendment that added “tax caps” to the state’s charter. Great politics; terrible policy.)
As public managers struggle to deliver essential services with less money, the great temptation is to cut costs in places where the public is least likely to notice—at least, for a while. The City of Indianapolis, for example, has just fired five of the remaining nine members of its planning staff–a staff that was already a bare-bones remnant of what it had been in the past. (And even in its most robust past it was barely adequate.)
To date, there has been absolutely no public discussion of those firings. That’s not really surprising: Most citizens don’t see the need for planning. They understand the need for public safety—police officers and firemen. They appreciate garbage collection and street paving. They know they need sewers. Planning, on the other hand, seems vaguely bureaucratic and arcane at best; at worst, to developers and folks who’ve been cited for zoning or other violations, it can seem heavy-handed and arbitrary.
Modern urban planning began in the early decades of the 20th century. It was a response to appalling sanitary, social and economic conditions in the rapidly-growing industrial cities of the time. Today, it can be described as a technical and political process that uses extensive public input to guide land use, transportation, urban design and protect the environment.
Planning is what allows us to use our ever-more-limited public resources efficiently to achieve goals that the public has identified as important.
Knowing where growth is occurring tells us where to put new roads. Planning and zoning decisions protect the value of property (you aren’t likely to spend money improving your home if a gas station can be built next door). Planning projections allow us to avoid unnecessary congestion, provide urban amenities like parks where those are most needed; focus renewal efforts on deteriorating neighborhoods; and deploy public safety officers strategically. Planning allows us to ameliorate or avoid things like urban asthma and lead poisoning, ensure that water supplies will continue to be adequate. In short, it helps us ensure that our physical and social infrastructure is serving us properly.
Planning allows city administrators to base the decisions they have to make every day on data rather than hunches. And the public availability of that data allows citizens to hold their government accountable for those decisions–to ensure that they are based on relevant criteria rather than on cronyism or responsiveness to special interests.
The thing is, planners aren’t “front and center.” They work behind the scenes, and their concerns tend to be long-term. So an administration that wants to save money can get rid of planners, knowing that the negative effects won’t be obvious until he or she is safely out of office. (As the old saying goes, “long term” to a politician is the next election.)
This sorry situation points to a long-term conundrum facing every public administrator: how do you explain the importance of non- “street level” services to the public?
It may be difficult for a mayor or City Council member to make the case for adequately supporting planning and other important “back of the house” municipal functions, but I submit that the effort to do so—and the refusal to follow a “penny wise, pound foolish” course of action—is what separates an effective leader from someone who simply managed to get elected.