What’s Planning Got to Do With It?


The recent release of the Regional Plan Association’s (“RPA”) Fourth Regional Plan (http://fourthplan.org/; the executive summary is at: http://library.rpa.org/pdf/RPA-4RP-Executive-Summary.pdf) (the “Plan”) got me to thinking about the relationship between placemaking and area planning. Places and pedestrians are well-integrated into the Plan: its recommendation 23 (of 61 states): “On city streets, prioritize people over cars.” Arguably recommendations number 57 (“Remake underutilized auto-dependent landscapes”) and 61 (“Expand and improve public space in the urban core.”) also have placemaking casts to them. There is even a page on the Plan’s website for “Places” (http://fourthplan.org/places). This is an a signal of how much placemaking practice has worked its way into planning culture, and there is no doubt that this is a very good thing.

But the nature of regional planning is decidedly top-down and large-scale – particularly when it comes to talking about expanding and/or upgrading the tri-sate transportation infrastructure – and it puzzled me as to how people-oriented thinking about urban revitalization fits in to creating a big scale, long-term vision for the area.

Jamaica 4th Plan

Jamaica illustration from the Fourth Regional Plan, RPA

I was pleased to have been invited by the RPA to participate as a member of the Plan program committee on economic development. It was a lively, interesting group of professionals – and the RPA staff provided detailed briefings as the Plan progressed. I was included as a member of the staff of Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (“GJDC”). Jamaica had been identified in the Second Regional Plan (1960’s) as a satellite/regional office center (http://library.rpa.org/pdf/RPA-Plan2-Jamaica-Center.pdf). GJDC was founded, in part, with the assistance of the RPA to implement that plan’s findings. The Fourth Plan again puts a focus on Jamaica – as a potential regional office center.

As I have previously written (http://www.theplacemaster.com/2017/03/27/jamaica-update-not-according-to-plan/), the efforts that went toward creating a regional office center in Jamaica, in retrospect, were probably misplaced and likely slowed its development. It certainly was logical to conclude that because of Jamaica’s unique density of transit infrastructure and its general underdevelopment, it would be an efficient and desirable site for office towers – but the private sector remained unpersuaded. The best example of this is that multiple initiatives to attract jetBlue to Jamaica were unsuccessful. While the airline is one of the largest private sector employers in Queens, it could not be convinced to move its headquarter offices to the transit hub. A major rezoning in 2007 designed to encourage office development around Jamaica Station, failed to catalyze any office development. In fact, what private investors did turn out to be interested in were the development of housing, retail space and hotel rooms. Once the perception of the Downtown was improved though successful placemaking activity, over a billion dollars were set loose in redevelopment activity after about 2013.

The failure of the Plan to change course about Jamaica’s future reflects the challenges faced by regional planners. Principally, what appears to planners to be logical and best isn’t necessarily what actual people spending/investing actual dollars (residents, business owners, developers) prefer in real-time. It has been my experience that while the market can be nudged, it can’t be forced. Projects shoehorned into an abstract plan unsupported by market forces generally fail. As Yogi Berra probably didn’t say, “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

The RPA made every effort to make the formation of the Plan as inclusive as practically possible. They engaged a wide range of stakeholder groups in an exhaustive number of events geared toward civic engagement. But when a plan like this is written, in order for it to be taken seriously by elected officials and other thought leaders, it has to take into account the political forces that are likely to constrain policy outcomes. The RPA itself has a lot invested in its history of involvement in southeast Queens. Long-time leaders in Jamaica, with decades of engagement with the RPA, continued to be committed to the vision of Jamaica as a satellite city. In the making of the Plan there was no serious countervailing force for an alternative vision of Jamaica Center – and hence the continued featuring of Jamaica as a commercial center in the Plan. I recently had a conversation about Jamaica with a long-time civic and commercial leader, who is one of the regional thinkers whom I most respect. He articulated to me that in view the development of the Jamaica station area for housing and hotels is a missed opportunity.

I, on the other hand, have concluded that the development of the Downtown as a center for affordable housing, retail and hotel rooms will produce excellent results for the region, the city and the neighborhood. Jamaica is developing into a unique mixed-use, mixed-income community of color. It will provide a wide range of lively living, shopping, dining and entertainment options. As it continues to develop, it won’t be like any other community we now know – and that is likely to be a very good thing, including for the people who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. It will become a new and exceptional kind of urban center.

So, from a place-based perspective the Plan may have gotten this one thing wrong. But after thinking about this for several weeks, I’m not sure that placemaking has much to contribute to thinking about how major infrastructural investments ought to be made over the coming decades. Certainly, community engagement in the planning process, a central tenet of placemaking is essential to thinking regionally – and the Plan excelled at that. Emphasizing transit, as well as thinking seriously about the pedestrian experience (as opposed to using automobile throughput as the only planning metric), are basic placemaking concepts. Also, the Plan’s focus on enhancing and enlarging public space is obviously important to improving places.

But what can placemaking tell us about where to put new transit lines, or about how to finance transit improvements or how the governance structure of transit agencies might be changed to lower the costs of transit infrastructure? I don’t think very much. These are difficult, complex policy and political questions – and the RPA has proven over the decades to be a serious, thoughtful analyst of such questions as well as a source of creative ideas for answers. Importantly, the RPA as both independent from government and free from the restrictions created by the borders of political jurisdictions is in a unique position to provide this kind of evaluation – with some autonomy from the interest groups that ordinarily effect government decision-making. There are both large-scale problems out there and competing interests to be reconciled in setting regional priorities and creating a regional vision. Placemaking, while it has an important role to play in informing and creating context for the conversation, is limited in what it has to contribute to that discussion.

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