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Thread: Autonomy of planning depts across the country?

  1. #1
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    Autonomy of planning depts across the country?

    Hi guys,

    I'm interested in working in government and public service after grad school, and I'm wondering about the extent to which the planning department of a city can determine the steps that it takes instead of following the orders of the Mayor or some other interest group. I'm sure this varies greatly across different cities and municipalities, but I'd like to hear what you guys think about trends or characteristics of autonomous and not-so-autonomous planning departments. I live in New York and I believe the City Charter makes every department basically a tool of the Mayor. Are there notable exceptions or interesting cases in other parts of the country?

  2. #2
    Good question! The situation you described is going to be true for most municipalities. A planning commission or city council have the final say after reviewing advisory information from professional planners. Some communities are better than others in terms of following the planning department's recommendations, but politics can be found everywhere, unfortunately. There is no escaping the influence of a mayor that wants to be meddlesome.

    You could look at independent agencies such as regional planning councils or MPOs. State or federal may be an option, but its much different planning than what takes place at the local level.
    The content contrarian

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    Sometimes planning departments have a great deal of autonomy just because no one gives a damn about what they do. These departments are often relegated to development approvals or taking on small projects because they can't take on anything significant without the blessing of the elected officials. I'd try to avoid working in a place like that though since morale tends to be terrible.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Detroit has two planning departments. One takes orders from the Mayor, the other the Council.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

  5. #5
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    The political set-up and rules of development approval makes all the difference in your daily work life in local government planning. There are so many factors the make a difference from place to place...are there state or regional planning rules? How large is your community? What is the general population like? Even the personalities of the politicians make a difference. That's why a good general understanding of planning and your place as an 'expert' is important to surviving.
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

  6. #6
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    In NYC, the planning department uses zoning as its primary tool - you're familiar with all of the rezonings that they've done across all five boroughs in the last decade or so? There's a joke that the department should be called the Department of City Zoning instead of Department of City Planning, because of how little proactive planning they actually do. In the current regime, it's actually the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) that is the go-to agency for planning projects that Bloomberg wants to push through.

    Regarding your larger question, though: it all depends on the procedures set forth in the code of the community in question. All planning work in local government is advisory and involves analyzing data in order to provide the elected officials with various decision-making options. Really, it's the elected officials that are the true 'planners', as opposed to the professional advisors who wear the title every day.

  7. #7
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    James -- can you explain a bit about what the EDC does, exactly, and how it fits alongside the Dept of City Planning? It's always been kind of confusing to me, even though they both seem to be very busy around me. (I live in Flushing, in the midst of a lot of development.) Thanks!

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