Public Comment

Regional Planning: The Big Picture

By Revan Tranter
Thursday February 18, 2010 - 09:02:00 AM

Instead of arguing (Daily Planet, Jan. 28, Feb. 4 and Feb. 11) about whether or not the Association of Bay Area Governments mandates any given number of additional residents in downtown Berkeley—which I don’t think it does—I’d suggest we broaden the discussion by looking at how regional planning is conducted, and whether it could or should be done differently.  

  The picture across the United States is pretty much the same, in which regional land use, transportation and sometimes environmental planning is undertaken in all metropolitan areas by organizations of local elected officials (mayors, councilmembers, county supervisors) from each city and county. Thus you have the Denver Regional Council of Govts., the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City, Mo., the Puget Sound Regional Council in Seattle/Tacoma, the North Central Texas Council of Govts. in Dallas/Ft. Worth, The San Diego Assn. of Govts., and so on, in several hundred areas, large and small, urban and rural, across the land.  

  Funding is usually from local, state and federal governments, and some of these bodies (which are generally known as COGs, or councils of governments) receive additional income from the provision of specific services. In the Bay Area, things are a bit more complicated than elsewhere, because we have four 9-county agencies responsible in varying measure for guiding the future of our metropolitan region. Besides ABAG, which was formed at the local level, there are three state-created bodies: the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the S.F. Bay Conservation & Development Commission. One thing they have in common is that their governing bodies are composed of locally elected officials from our cities and counties. 

  Over the years, it’s become increasingly obvious to all levels of government connected to these regional activities that things need to be better coordinated. The work is complicated enough, without the handicap of preparing plans on different cycles for HUD, DOT and EPA, as well as for various state agencies. So three things have happened. First, the federal agencies have moved to integrate their cycle of plan approvals regarding housing, transportation and the environment.  

Secondly, California has followed along the same lines, and Senate Bill 375 obliges our regional agencies (especially MTC and ABAG ) to develop a “sustainable communities strategy” in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, taking into account the region’s housing needs, transportation demands, and protection of resource and farm lands. The state will allocate $6 billion a year to transportation projects that implement the SCS. And thirdly, our own four regional agencies that I mentioned have formed the Joint Policy Committee to coordinate work on climate protection and a sustainable communities strategy. The Committee meets bi-monthly (more often when required), usually in the auditorium at the MetroCenter, 101 Eighth Street, in Oakland. Agenda packets are posted on line a week in advance of scheduled meetings—which are webcast in streaming audio. 

  Steve Martinot has argued in these pages that, compared to its beginnings half a century ago, ”in which local constituencies could act politically up against the state,” ABAG has been “turned .... upside-down.” He sees it, in his words, as “anti-democratic,” a body standing “in opposition to the ideals of justice and participation from which it originated.” I would argue that, on the contrary, ABAG has reacted to the legal mandates of the state of California (on regional housing needs allocation, for example) in the most sensible, pragmatic and participatory way possible. 

Countless meetings were held throughout the region, both elected and staff people worked tirelessly, there was an appeals process, and every single step was above board and widely noticed to the public. So let’s hear about what practical alternatives might have been chosen by the region’s leadership. For example, would Mr. Martinot have preferred that the allocation be done instead by an understaffed bureaucracy in Sacramento?  

  Finally, let’s consider the “anti-democratic” point. Yes, decisions on air quality, transportation, environmental and other matters that affect most or all of our metropolitan areas in California and across the country are generally made by locally elected officials from member governments, and not by a regionally elected body. But what is the practical alternative? In smaller areas, often with just one county (Fresno, say), a regional electorate would be pointless, since it would just duplicate the county’s. And in a really large region like ours (let alone the L. A. area, with a population more than twice the Bay Area’s), how do you achieve a representative body that would be manageable in size (say 15 people) without having vast constituencies of half a million residents, and a really scary task of fund-raising to get elected?  

  Undoubtedly, it’s often difficult for cities and neighborhoods to accept a decision made in a wider context. But I for one don’t want our Bay Area to grow in the harmful, mindless way in which for so long Los Angeles has sprawled along the coast, through the valleys, over the hills and into the desert. And if, instead of planning for the good of the whole (yes, even with those dreaded top-down mandates), each city and its neighborhoods are allowed to maximize their own good as they see it, that’s what you’re going to get.   


Revan Tranter is a former Executive Director of ABAG.