Are Planners Apolitical?
The old axiom that "all politics is local" often manifests itself through the planning process. Rich Carson, a planner for 30 years and the Director of Planning for Clark County in the Greater Portland area, recently wrote a column lamenting the lack of political skill exhibited by most planners. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Rich Carson in which he elaborates on this thesis.
An interview by The Planning Report (TPR) of Richard Carson.
TPR: You recently wrote a column entitled The Art of Planning and Politics, in which you identify the unproductive disconnect between city planners and the political world in which those planners work. Is this not the essence of your thesis?
Rich: Yes, as planners, we're trained to believe that we are above politics. In other words, we believe the political process is about back room deals that are unethical and politically exclusive. So, we don't involve ourselves in politics for that reason.
The consequence of this worldview is that decisions are often being made in a vacuum, in the sense that we are not involved in the process. And, I think we should be involved. Lobbying is not a bad thing. In some cases, the lobbying can actually be considered shuttle diplomacy between special interest groups, citizens, and elected officials to come to a positive conclusion. We don't do that. We tend to sit back and let it happen.
TPR: Elaborate, if you could, on how it should work if planners better integrated their technical planning skills with politics advocacy. What should planners do differently?
Rich: We need to be more aggressive about inserting ourselves into the process-do more lobbying, more facilitation-to try to get some kind of a positive conclusion. A lot of times, these things will literally just fall apart.
TPR: You served as a planning executive with Portland's Metro (the regional government serving the metropolitan Portland area). Were the planners there more political?
Rich: Metro was very difficult in some ways. In one way, Metro is unique. Metro is the only regional government in the nation with elected officials and the power to mandate transportation and land use policy to cities and the counties in the region. That's the good news. The bad news is Metro itself was, at times, a very dysfunctional agency and the elected officials don't do a very good job communicating with local officials. So, there are a lot of hard feelings between them.
When I was at Metro, we accomplished a lot of great things. We created a Region 2040 program, which was a 50-year plan. We developed Metropolitan Green Spaces, a totally connected parks, natural areas and trails system. We built a solid waste management system with the highest recycling rate in the country. Much of that happened because I spent a lot of time working between Metro's elected officials and the local government officials so that they were not stepping on each others' toes, insulting each other and creating hard feelings.
TPR: Are planners in Clark County, where you now work, politically effective?
Rich: Clark County is not as contentious. Clark County is the fastest growing county in the state of Washington and in the Portland- Vancouver metropolitan area. So, we have a lot of growth management issues to deal with. But, the working relationships between the county commissioners and the cities are very good. I'm spending more time managing the department than managing the process.