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Planning: general 🌇 Basket cases ... how do planners deal with 'em?


Dear Leader
Staff member
I've been feeling a bit guilty lately.

As a planner, I'm in a situation that many would call ideal. Sure, my working conditions are a bit primitive (i.e. no GIS, no real office furniture, no city vehicles, 1970s era phone system, etc), but I'm working with a blank slate -- a town that's starting to boom, very little commercial development but plenty of C-zoned land, and elected officials and a Planning Commission that are very, very pro-planning and supportive of my work.

I'll find myself poking jabs -- not in public, but with other area planners -- at this one town that is essentially a worst-case scenario when it comes to land use planning. The main commercial strip is a three mile stretch of low-end fast food restaurants, light industrial uses, used car dealers, shed dealers, auto body and repair shops, dollar stores, and so on. About 70% of the non-residential buildings in the town are metal pre-fab. There's little access control -- curb cuts just don't exist, and the majority of businesses have continuous access along the street. No sidewalks along commercial streets. Huge billboards and signs, temporary and permanent, everywhere. No landscaping whatsoever. They have a decent downtown -- but the majority of main floor businesses aren't traffic generators, instead being insurance offices and the like. The demographics can best be described as "mullet" -- white, working to middle class, cultural orientation south of the Mason-Dixon, with what seems like practically every resident employed in construction or the trades. (The joke among locals is that the official town bird is the Nextel i500, and you hear its chirping everywhere.)

The planners that are employed by this town are dedicated, hard-working and bright. They have vision -- but unfortunately, their talent seems wasted. Most of the residents are natives, they've known each other since time eternal, and the word "no" doesn't exist among the city leadership. The elected officials don't care how they do it in Portland or Denver ... or even Ocoee, Winter Park, Maitland or Lake Mary. It's not their fault the built environment there is ... well, horrid.

I've worked in one place with "potential," where championing good planning is risky but has its rewards, where you'll slowly see the results of your actions -- but you're still more of a figurehead than a true agent of change. What about the basket cases, though -- the places where the built environment would look and function the same without the presence of planners? How do planners deal with such environments? I give them a lot of credit and respect, though -- I don't think I could do it.