Planning Magazine

From City Planner to State Senator, Bobby Powell Prioritizes Public Participation

The Florida state senator discusses housing affordability, community engagement in the political process, and why we need more planners in politics.

Article Hero Image

Senator Bobby Powell speaks during a legislative session in Tallahassee, Florida. Photo courtesy of the office of Senator Bobby Powell.

"I believe there should be more planners in office because our focus on the built environment can cut through the Democrat/Republican gridlock we find ourselves in today," says Bobby Powell, AICP.

He made the transition from planning to politics in 2012 when he ran for state representative. Now, as senator of Florida's Thirtieth District, Democratic leader pro tempore, and a practicing planner at Urban Design Studio, Powell is working to increase housing affordability and public participation in some of the most economically diverse communities in the country.

I caught up with Senator Powell to discuss how his planning experience guides his policymaking. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SAUNDERS: Tell me about yourself.

SENATOR POWELL: I was born and raised in Riviera Beach, Florida. I attended Florida A&M University (FAMU) and received a degree in public relations there. I went on to Florida State University (FSU) and obtained a master's degree in urban planning. Later, I took on a position as a planner with the city of West Palm Beach.

I took my planning education and experience into politics when I became a legislative aide to State Representative Mack Bernard. When Representative Bernard declined to run again for the House, I chose to run for the newly created Eighty-Eighth District. After a couple of terms in the House, I ran for the Senate in 2016 for the Thirtieth District, and now, here I am. I also still practice planning at a firm called Urban Design Studio.

SAUNDERS: What's your district like?

SENATOR POWELL: My district encompasses some of the wealthiest and poorest people in the state of Florida. I represent the town of Palm Beach, where Mar-a-Lago is located, as well as some areas with increased poverty levels, like West Palm Beach, Riviera Beach, and more. My planning background has given me the skills to engage with residents, listen to what they say, and develop strategies. It allows me to cut out the noise and understand the points that residents want to make.

SAUNDERS: How did your interest in planning come about?

SENATOR POWELL: I don't drink or smoke. I grew up in Riviera Beach, where you could find a lot of liquor stores on a lot of corners. Things that are associated with negativity in the built environment end up in distressed communities. While at FAMU, I went to an urban planning interest meeting and I was shocked. I saw the connection between what they talked about — climate change, the built environment, health policy issues, social policy issues — and planning. I looked around and saw very few people who looked like me. So I found the program at Florida State University and took advantage of it.

SAUNDERS: Which came first, your interest in politics or planning?

POWELL: Planning created the push for me to get involved in politics. At FSU, I worked with a neighborhood planner who was almost like a father to me named John Baker. We interacted with city commissioners and I learned that while they're well-versed in a lot, they don't know everything.

After working as a planner, I realized the distance wasn't so great between the two. I believe there should be more planners in office because our focus on the built environment can cut through the Democrat/Republican gridlock we find ourselves in today.

SAUNDERS: Planning can involve a wide range of sub-disciplines: land use policy, housing, infrastructure, development review. Which one intersects most closely with your political role?

POWELL: I deal with land use policy, and it closely intersects with what I do politically. I also think the planning focus on community engagement and public participation helps what I do. We have to create better opportunities for residents to participate in the public process. Lots of people don't know anything about the street widening in their neighborhood until they see the steamroller. We owe it to those residents to get their voices heard at the beginning of the conversation, not the end.

SAUNDERS: What's the most pressing issue among your constituents?

POWELL: The most pressing is housing. Most people cannot afford to live here in Palm Beach County or even in the state of Florida. Rents are increasing almost exponentially. When you're living on a budget and your rent increases $500 or $700 a month on a lease renewal, it becomes very difficult to live here. I studied housing and community development at FSU and I bring that knowledge to the political process. I also see transportation as a big issue, as people struggle with ways to get around. But more than anything, it's housing, housing, housing.

SAUNDERS: How can planners help elected or appointed officials build understanding and trust in the planning process?

POWELL: It comes with a lot of communication and a lot of education. Elected officials often think they know it all, but the planning knowledge of community engagement allows us to hear other points of view. We can build understanding and consensus.

Pete D. Saunders is a practicing urban planner and a community and economic development director in suburban Chicago. He has been the editor of the urbanist blog Corner Side Yard since 2012 and is currently an urban policy columnist for Bloomberg.