Podcast: People Behind the Plans
‘Arbitrary Lines’ Author Nolan Gray on Zoning Reform and Hitting Planning’s Reset Button
As the old saying goes, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” For decades, zoning has been the hammer swung by cities at a laundry list of challenges. But this blunt tool, developed to regulate land use and density, has had profound collateral damage, planner Nolan Gray argues. Cities and planners have long been constrained by a zoning “straitjacket,” he says, preventing them from solving the problems that plague communities today: housing affordability, sprawl, segregation, environmental concerns.
How can we reverse that trend? Gray’s new book, Arbitrary Lines, looks for answers in the form of zoning reform.
“My argument in the book is, yes, zoning has failed, and we should abolish zoning. But it’s not a pure deregulation argument. It’s a ‘we’re-regulating-the-wrong-things' argument. I actually do think planners have a hugely important role to play in the impacts of new development.”
—Nolan Gray, Planner and Author of Arbitrary Lines
In this special episode of the People Behind the Plans podcast, Gray sits down with guest host Jason Jordan, APA’s director of public affairs, to examine the cities and states charting a new course for zoning reform — and offer advice for planners navigating the myriad interests impacting land use decisions.
Meghan Stromberg: (Advertisement) Learning is a lifelong voyage, and with APA as your tour guide, you’ll never get lost at sea. Set sail today with a passport subscription, and travel through a world built for planners at planning.org/Passport22.
Nolan Gray: Yeah, I think it’s a focus. It’s a shift away from zoning to planning. I think another, sort of, hidden cost to really drill this point home, is I think zoning has distracted us from a lot of the planning work that planners are very good at, that creates a lot of value for people, that really builds the type of communities that we want.
MS: Welcome to People Behind the Plans. I’m Meghan Stromberg, editor in chief of the American Planning Association. Zoning reform and housing opportunities are one of APA’s federal policy priorities, and for decades, zoning and planning were the kind of inside-baseball topics that never made the leap to dinner tables and cocktail chatter of everyday people. But ever since the pandemic brought housing shortages and affordability to the fore, popular interest in these topics has surged. This is the landscape in which community planner Nolan Gray’s book Arbitrary Lines, has caught the attention of professional planners and laypeople alike. For this episode, our guest host and APA’s director of public affairs, Jason Jordan, sat down with Nolan to talk about how zoning entered the zeitgeist, his ideas for reforming zoning—or even abolishing it—and how planners can lead these sometimes-charged debates about land use and zoning. Let’s listen.
Jason Jordan: Hello, everyone. Welcome. I’m Jason Jordan. I’m the director of public affairs at the American Planning Association. Delighted that you can join us for this conversation with the author of Arbitrary Lines, Nolan Gray. The book that has somehow become the thing that has made zoning debates popular all across the place. Never thought I would interview someone, Nolan, that could accurately be described as a zoning reform superstar influencer, but that’s where we find ourselves. And congratulations on all the acclaim that the book has received so far. I’m excited to talk with you about it today.
NG: “Zoning reform superstar.” I don’t know if that’s flattery or a very strange insult, but I’ll take it. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
JJ: Super. Well, let’s just start at the top. Why did you decide to write this book and why did you decide to write it now?
NG: Part of the reason why I really wanted to write it is that zoning really seems to be in the air, right? And I think you generously ascribe some of that to my book. But when I was working on the book, I found zoning is kind of in the limelight right now. Historically, zoning was the type of topic that you could raise if you wanted to politely, sort of, end the conversation, right? So, you raise the topic of zoning, and your conversation partner will suddenly have to use the restroom or refill their drink. Nowadays, of course, zoning is the type of thing that is in the editorial pages of major newspapers, is certainly coming up in local and state campaigns and increasingly federal campaigns—something that a lot of people are thinking about as we’re dealing with these concurrent crises of housing affordability, racial and economic equity and opportunity, and climate change and sustainability. And so zoning, of course, comes up in all of those conversations. I found that people had a real hunger for more information on the subject, but there weren’t a lot of great accessible documents on what zoning is, where it comes from, where it maybe went wrong, and what we can do to fix it. So in Arbitrary Lines, I try to do those three big things.
JJ: Yeah, I was really fascinated. In your book you lay out a very clear and compelling case for zoning, both its history and its current status, really sitting at this complicated intersection of all the things that you just went through: housing affordability, economic mobility and innovation, racial and economic justice, sprawl and climate change. Can you say more about that? Like, how did it come to be that this sort of wonky tool, it touches on so many of the issues that arguably are the most important things we could be talking about in the public realm today?
NG: It’s a great question. Part of the way I start the book is just essentially to define zoning, right? So this is part of the problem I found in some of the discussion that was happening is, folks would maybe say the right things about zoning. They knew we needed zoning reform, or they knew that zoning could be improved on some margins or that there were issues with the policy, but they didn’t really have a clear sense of what zoning was, right? You would say like, “We need to reform zoning,” and people would say, “Well, oh, you need you need building safety regulations, right? You need to regulate new apartments to make sure they’re safe.” Or you would say, “Oh, you know, like, I think we can move past zoning as a mechanism of land use planning.” And folks would say, “Oh, well, you know, we need rules to plan out new subdivisions.” Zoning, of course, is really just, as I argue in the book, two things: It’s breaking out the city into districts that segregate different land uses, right—so residential, commercial, industrial—and then place strict density rules on all of that. So the amount of floor area or the number of units that you can build on a particular lot. At once, zoning is, I think, a lot less than what people tend to think. You know, people tend to assume it’s synonymous with planning. But at once it’s so much more. I think, as you say, it’s at the root of a lot of these issues that we’re dealing with.
So of course, one of the most pressing issues right now is housing affordability. And as I highlight in the book, I think a lot of very old, in many cases half-century- or century-old, zoning rules make it harder for cities to adapt and grow over time to create that new infill housing that we need, not only to achieve our housing affordability objectives, but also to achieve our sustainability objectives. It makes it very hard to build integrated, mixed-use neighborhoods, particularly in high-opportunity metropolitan areas like, for example, where I am in Los Angeles, which makes it hard for us to make progress on some of our objectives as far as racial equity and economic opportunity. So, you know, of course, I don’t argue that zoning reform or abolition is a panacea, but I think it’s a really, really important part of the conversation. To maybe touch on your previous question, I find that these discussions were incredibly lively among planners, and they’re livelier now than ever. I think quietly many planners are saying, “Great, I’ve been working with a zoning code that doesn’t reflect, maybe, our current values or doesn’t even reflect the planning objectives in our comprehensive plan.” This is almost the standard situation that many local planners are in. And so there’s a hunger. How do I talk about this policy? What’s maybe the roadmap for where we need to go from here? What do we want out of land use, planning? And what would the next generation of land use planning rules look like?
JJ: Yeah, you know, one of the great arguments I thought in your book and really interesting and provocative and something that I don’t often hear when zoning reform is being discussed among planners is that there’s all this latent potential for unleashing planning if we could get out of some of the administrative traps that have been built around zoning and zoning enforcement. You just said planning and zoning can sometimes feel synonymous to people, but actually they’re quite distinct. Say more about that. I mean, how do you see these things connected, and what do you think about that distinction between planning and zoning?
NG: As a professional city planner, I’m a little bit biased, but I tend to think planners have an absolutely essential role to play in building affordable, equitable, sustainable communities. I think, of course, we’ve had something like planners since basically humans settled down, and there’s important planning work that needs to be done. We need plans for infrastructure growth as cities grow, we need plans for equitable distribution of green spaces and public services. We need plans to transition away from transportation technologies that don’t work as cities get denser and more diverse. There are all these incredible planning challenges. And I talked to planners, you know, in the U.S., one of the best planning civil services in the world, who want to do this type of work, who eagerly want to say, “I want to focus on, maybe, issues like nuisances or spillover effects. I want to talk about things like coordinating infrastructure with growth. I want to do this very nuts-and-bolts planning, the type of planning work that really improves the lives of people—this is an important point—that enables people to engage in their own plans for their own lives, right? Planners have this essential role to play of creating a broader framework for each—maybe riff on Jane Jacobs here—for individuals to plan for themselves. And I think that’s a very beautiful and alluring vision. But what we end up getting is a lot of our planning civil services, I would say, is misused executing on zoning rules that no longer reflect our planning values. So we have amazing planners who are counting up the number of parking spaces for strip malls. You have planners who are doing work keeping fourplexes out of suburban cul de sacs. I don’t think this is the type of thing that motivates people to go into planning, and it’s not the type of thing that motivates people to stay in planning. And so we have this incredibly high-quality, very passionate civil service that I want to see refocused on some of the nuts-and-bolts planning. We haven’t done very well over the last half century because we’ve been so focused on keeping cities locked in a zoning straitjacket.
JJ: I tend to agree with you about, sort of, what motivates people in their profession and the complex role that they’re often kind of forced to inhabit, in a way. But it’s also been my experience that there’s that old sore about, “I can say bad things about my family, but you can’t.” At times you see planning or planners be a little defensive of codes that, over a drink, they might tell you they would do them differently. What do you think about that dynamic, and how does it influence reform? Because I sometimes think that there’s an irony in all of this that a lot of people blame planning for broken zoning, and yet the answer to solving most of the housing problems is more planning, right? So it’s sort of counterintuitive, in a way, and I wonder what you think about that.
NG: Yeah, I think it’s a focus. It’s a shift away from zoning to planning. I think another, sort of, hidden cost to really drill this point home is, I think zoning has distracted us from a lot of the planning work that planners are very good at, that creates a lot of value for people, that really builds the type of communities that we want. Planners, certainly until recently, we’re in a tough situation where, you know, your job is to administer this zoning ordinance. Your job is to make sure that projects that come in are compliant. In a public-facing situation, your job is to administer the zoning code. But I think exactly right: You know, even recently you take the planner out to drinks, and they say, “Well, yeah, I know our parking requirements are far too high. And yeah, I know it’s ridiculous that this area is still zoned single-family. Or yeah, I know we need to rezone all the strip malls that are sitting half-empty.” But what I found over the last few years is that I think planners are—as the political winds are shifting and as some of this discourse starts happening among folks outside of planning—I think planners are finding a little bit more courage and saying, “Yeah, you know, we’ve been having these conversations internally for a long time.”
I’m constantly hearing about planning offices in cities where they’re not normally talked about as, sort of, the places where zoning reform is happening. You know, these are not the San Franciscos or the Minneapolises. It’s just essentially an entrepreneurial planning director or an entrepreneurial planning staffer saying, “Hey, you know, I’m going to make the case for some of these reforms. I think there’s political buy-in. These are reforms that are going to improve quality of life in our community,” and taking the lead on that and finding, actually, members of the public and elected officials are highly receptive to these ideas. You know, now we’re in a situation where local council members or local mayors are opening up The New York Times and seeing critical pieces on zoning, and they might be actually waiting for their planning staff to present some of these ideas and show them, hey, you know, this is not just the thing that’s happening in these huge cities typically associated with land use reform. This is something that actually can be led in smaller cities, right? So in the book, I highlight, for example, a city like Fayetteville, Arkansas, or a city like Ann Arbor, Michigan, where they’re actually leading on a lot of these things, and there’s a huge appetite for it. It would be a shame if these conversations happen, and planners are sitting on the sidelines. And so I think it’s really, really encouraging that there’s more and more discussion happening on the need for zoning reform within planning.
JJ: Yeah, sort of a leadership moment for the profession, I think, for sure. So let’s talk about some of the examples that you have in the book. You point to some of those efforts that are underway, sort of the low-hanging fruit of zoning reform, but that is beginning to happen in lots of different places and diverse places, diverse geographies, not just the big coastal centers. So tell us what you’re seeing around the country, and what impact do you think it’s having?
NG: There’s at least three levels of reform that are happening here. So, of course, the easiest path to zoning reform is at the local level. And you’re seeing cities all across the country engage in policies like removing onerous minimum parking requirements or adding more flexibility to areas that were historically limited to detached, single-family homes. So that’s incredibly exciting. I mean, accessory dwelling units, I think, has quietly been a huge planning reform success story. We’ve made it to where more homeowners can, of course, add additional units in their backyard or in their unused attics or unused basements here in California. Since we legalized them statewide in 2016, we’ve seen roughly 60,000 new units permitted. And these are units that just wouldn’t otherwise have existed. And those are units that, of course, are making even some of our most exclusionary, high-cost jurisdictions a little bit more affordable and a little bit more diverse and accessible. That, kind of, leads into the second frame, which is the state level. So I think part of another element of this discourse is there’s a lot of reform happening at the state level. State governments are saying, “Hey, there are certain ways that we know zoning needs to be reformed, kind of, all across the state. Let’s create certain guardrails to where some of these, maybe, dysfunctional zoning rules—or these zoning rules that are often abused for objectives that don’t comply with our broader objectives—let’s just put up guardrails or let’s provide incentives for local governments to explore reform. I think all of that work is really important. We’re doing a lot of that here in California. Of course, over the last month we passed a number of bills making it easier to build mixed-income, multi-family housing in areas zoned for commercial. So adding a little bit of use flexibility, a little bit of density flexibility. Or eliminating minimum parking requirements within a half mile of transit, right? Areas where we know that, not only should we not be mandating parking, but we actually probably want to disincentivize parking, right? We want to encourage the more walkable, transit-oriented communities that in many cases are already written in the California context in our general plan.
The third is at the federal level. I’ve been really impressed by some of these issues coming on to the federal level. I’m not going to say that the 2020 presidential election discourse around zoning was where I would like it to be. But we’re having conversations about, you know, what is the federal government’s role in this? And I think there’s a huge role for the federal government to say on the one hand, “Hey, if we’re going to disperse certain funds, we want to see some progress on zoning reform,” and also to provide money for cities to hire the technical expertise or the planning consultants that they might need to undertake this work. I encounter many jurisdictions where they adopted a zoning code 30 or 40 years ago that doesn’t allow their community to grow and adapt in the way they want it to. And they don’t have a full-time planner on staff. If they’re going to reform that zoning code, they’re going to have to contract out the work. So additional incentives and encouragements and subsidies for cities to engage in this work from the federal level, I think is really valuable.
JJ: So you mentioned California a couple of times just now. And I know that when you aren’t writing books about zoning reform, your day job is with one of the leading grassroots organizations focused on this topic, the Cal YIMBY organization. I’m curious about the politics of all this. in California. It seems like there are some unusual bedfellows on reform at the state level in California. What are you seeing? And this whole YIMBY phenomenon really has been striking: how quickly the organizing has happened and how influential they’ve become in some states. I’m just curious what you’re seeing.
NG: Yeah, well, you know, I always say California is the canary in the coal mine for a lot of these issues, right? I mean, California really started dealing with a deep housing crisis that just locked huge portions of the population out of homeownership, of course, subjected huge portions of the population to increasingly onerous rent burdens. Not accidently as a result, California lost population, and we lost a congressional seat for the first time in the state’s history because it’s just become too expensive to live here. And to the extent that we allow housing growth, much of it is happening in areas where there are other environmental reasons why we might not prefer growth to happen there. We made it very hard to build in places like metropolitan San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego. So the crisis really reached a head, I think, a little bit sooner than it did in other parts of the country. But essentially what you had is a broad coalition, folks who said, “You know what, the status quo is not working. We’re in a crisis.” If you poll Californians, they will tell you their two top issues are variations of housing: housing prices and homelessness, and we know that homelessness is downstream of housing prices.
I always like to tell this story: Imagine you’re a supposed beneficiary of California’s housing crisis. You bought your home in the Bay Area in 1970 for two magic beans, and now it’s worth $5 million, right? In one sense, you’re a beneficiary of the program, but in another sense, your adult children can’t afford to live within two or three hours of you. They’ve probably moved to another state. You’ll never get to see your grandkids. All of your friends and colleagues are cashing out and moving away, so your community is essentially collapsing. Yeah, you still have single-family zoning, but all the homes around you are being flipped into McMansions, and the character of your community, in no meaningful sense, is remaining the same. So even for the person who’s the theoretical beneficiary of this program—we’re not even talking about the professional who’s locked out of homeownership or the person who is living in a car or in a tent on the street—even for the beneficiaries, I think the crisis just hit a head.
So we have a great broad coalition here, and we’re doing a lot of things. We’re putting up guardrails around certain zoning powers that are often abused or misused, like parking requirements. We’re creating statewide legal frameworks for things like accessory dwelling units (ADU) to say, hey, anywhere in California, homeowners who check these boxes and follow these best practices can build an ADU without much extra fuss. Of course, we just did something similar with AB 2011, which is allowing multi-family in commercial zones. SB 9, passed recently, allows duplexes and fourplexes across the state. It takes time. We are in many cases going back to basics on a regulatory framework, a planning framework that we spent 50 years building and that really hasn’t gotten us the results that we wanted. But we’re making incredible progress, and there’s a lot of lessons, I think, from the California experience that can be taken to other states. It’s very important to me. I’m always talking to folks, certainly in the rest of the Mountain West—where, to a certain extent, they’re downstream of California’s crisis—some of these ideas like putting up minimal guardrails, encouraging local governments to allow more diversity, creating streamlined processes for certain housing typologies is highly exportable, and I think it’s going to be coming to more and more states.
JJ: So in reading your book, I was struck by the language. You’re essentially talking about a pretty technical topic, in many respects, but it’s very accessible. And I think people appreciate the book because they can come to it with very little deep knowledge of planning and zoning, and the arguments are pretty straightforward and compelling. And I have observed that sometimes we struggle in communicating ideas in the public realm, when it comes to planning topics. We tend to get loaded up with jargon and a little bit of navel-gazing. And as you’ve experienced reform happening on the ground, whether it be in California or some of the other places that you’ve mentioned, putting on your communicator hat for a second, what messages should we be talking about? Like, how can people engage the public and decision makers in a better conversation about this stuff?
NG: I set out to write the first zoning beach read—the first and only, potentially—so glad to hear it was successful. I appreciate that. It was absolutely a priority for me because it’s so easy to follow into the jargon. It’s so easy to follow into the abbreviations. Of course, I, like everyone, love going to a good APA conference and just using FAR and lot-size restrictions and setbacks and throwing out the jargon and just having the conversation. But most people live normal, happy lives, and they don’t think about zoning all day. When I go to a new city or a new state, one of the ways that I talk about these issues is I find—almost every city has a neighborhood like this—some beloved pre-zoning neighborhood. It’ll have a mixture of housing typologies. It’ll will have single-family homes, yes, but it’ll also have townhouses, it will have small apartment buildings. It might have a corner grocery. That corner grocery, God forbid, might not even have off-street parking. And you can point to that neighborhood, or you can point to that street that exists in almost every city in America, and say, “This is one of our most cherished communities. This is one of our most cherished neighborhoods and one of our most cherished streets in our city.” And you just point out the ways that, hey, our out-of-date zoning rules—actually adopted in many cases over 50 years ago—make it illegal to build more communities or streets like this, make it illegal to make some of our existing suburban communities more like this neighborhood and make it very difficult for this actual neighborhood to continue operating. They might constantly require variances or relief from the zoning.
And so when you put it in real terms that people understand, when you can point to that fourplex that already exists in the community and say, “Hey, would it be so bad if we had a few more of these?” Then, I think it starts to click. People start to get it. I think when you talk in terms of FAR or parking ratios, my assumption is that people immediately just start thinking of like Kowloon Walled City or Dubai, right? They have no idea what those terms mean, and so they just will create the most horrific vision that comes to them, right? But if you can say, “Hey, this is a thing that are pre-zoning patterns of development that already exist in your community, and they’re cherished and beloved in many cases. They have some of the highest housing prices in the city because they’re so desirable.” If you can do that, I think it makes it much easier for people to get onboard with reform.
JJ: So you talk in the book about a pathway toward the elimination of zoning, and that may be the best reform of all in some respects. That argument has been around. We heard that at times from, sort of, the strong advocates for deregulation in the development community or on the libertarian end of the political spectrum. What do you think about that argument, about the elimination, and why do you think that’s a better path? Or what do you think the right path in between elimination and reform could be? Obviously, Houston comes to everybody’s mind when you talk about that in the book. What are the lessons there, and what do you think the prescription is?
NG: Yeah, well, you know, I think in the near term, focusing on reform makes a lot of sense. That’s what we do at California YIMBY, and I think we’re making huge, important progress, and we’re getting a lot of the way there. We’re getting a pathway where it’s become much more affordable, much easier to build affordable, equitable, sustainable communities, right? Reform, I think, makes a lot of sense. But, for reasons I argue in the book, I worry that some of the reforms that we are advocating for will be on weak footing if we don’t deal with some of the underlying issues. Baked into zoning is this “land uses need to be segregated and separated and densities need to be restricted.” And I think that was, in the most generous interpretation, that was a proxy for dealing with other things. That was never, I think, actually what we really wanted. What we really wanted was dealing with incompatible neighbors and making sure that growth is coordinated with infrastructure. This is not—my argument in the book is, yes, zoning has failed, and we should abolish zoning, but it’s not a pure deregulation argument. It’s a we’re-regulating-the-wrong-things argument. I actually do think planners have a hugely important role to play in the impacts of new development. We do a very weak job of dealing with some of the spillover effects that zoning was trying to regulate, such as noise or light pollution or traffic generation. In many cases, we only very indirectly regulate these things, or if we regulate them, we do a very poor job of doing it. So I would like to see land use planning that focuses really on those impacts that bother people.
I would also like to see two more planning work focused on some of those nuts-and-bolts physical planning. Many U.S. cities don’t even have a streets plan. They might have a broad corridor plan, but they don’t have a streets plan like many cities historically had. I highlight in the book Bastrop, Texas, where they revived some of these really fascinating land use planning institutions and say, “Hey, we’re going to plan out a street grid. We’re going to plan out regular parks. We’re going to have an extremely flexible set of rules for what you do on private property, so you can have maybe a small little corner shop, or you can have a small multi-family structure. But for the most part, the planning is focused on being stewards of the public realm.” But I’m always emphasizing where I think planners can add the most value. I think the role of planners is to create that broader framework for growth and to say, “Okay, we’re going to deal with the places where there’s conflicts to the extent possible through rules focused on those impacts or on a case-by-case basis—You know, I think many practicing planners actually do a lot of this work and don’t really talk about it: essentially just acting as mediators among neighbors—But also to have a broader plan for growth and accepting, hey, some growth is going to happen, this is positive. Let’s make sure that it happens on terms that are fiscally and environmentally sustainable. And to do that, you need a plan.
JJ: So we know that any time these reforms get raised at the local level, that there are some vocal opponents and that the NIMBY movement is alive and well in most corners of the country and have, in many cases, a lot of political sway. I’m curious what you find when you think about that advocacy role in trying to drive some of this reform. And, particularly, there’s been some interesting conversations about how the public engagement process has or should evolve to—or adapt maybe is a better or a better way to think of it—today’s circumstances. It’s sort of been hijacked in many instances. So what are your thoughts on kind of that aspect of the politics of all this?
NG: It’s definitely difficult. These are contentious conversations about what cities should look like and what type of community people want to live in. I think a few important things: First is finding a champion, finding an elected official who, kind of, gets the issues and working with them. And I think planners have an important role to play there in education work. Explaining, “Hey, you know, this might sound like a crazy, radical idea, but here’s a city quite comparable to us that did this and what happened,” or explaining like, “Hey, here is how this rule is blocking the redevelopment of this corridor that’s not really getting where we want it to be.” So a little bit of education work. There’s an important role for advocates to play. You need champions. You need people who are going to show up at these public hearings, who are going to champion some of these reforms. That’s been absolutely crucial in California, where the YIMBY movement has basically created a political path for this. We had a few contentious votes early on over bills that supposedly were going to destroy suburbia. Everybody voted for them. Suburbia, I’m afraid to say, is still alive and well in California. And everybody realized that there actually weren’t serious political consequences of this and that, in fact, if you look past the type of person who shows up at a 10 a.m. public hearing on a Tuesday, there’s actually a pretty wide consensus of, “Yeah, let’s build more housing. Let’s do it in a smart way. Let’s set clear, workable rules and then get the housing built and get the mixed-use communities built.”
There are structural fixes that need to be done. The dependence that we have on public hearings is pretty dysfunctional. I don’t think this should be too controversial. We can do a planning audience, but public hearings are probably one of the worst ways to find out, to take the pulse of the community. We know, kind of, beyond a shadow of a doubt that these tend to be unrepresentative and tend to not foster the type of productive discourse that we need to do. I argue in the book, again in terms of shifting the priorities of what planners do, I think this is where comprehensive planning is really important. Because on a case-by-case basis where you’re having a rezoning fight or you’re having a special permit fight, the best you can really probably do is a public hearing where a bunch of people show up and yell “No,” and you don’t really learn anything. With comprehensive plans. You can do that type of true outreach. You can do scientific surveys, you can have focus groups, you can reach out to stakeholders, you can have design charettes where you say, “Hey, we’re going to have this on an evening, we’re going to provide child care,” maybe you provide refreshments. You can do genuine public outreach and really get a sense for the type of community that people want to live in. You can’t really get that under our current zoning public hearing framework that we do things today. And so I think there’s two misconceptions: The first is that this book is an argument against planning. It’s an argument against, I think, a dysfunctional subset of planning on behalf of the rest of planning, which I think is very important and underappreciated. And then also, too, this notion that, well, we should just have no rules and no public process at all. It’s an argument against the most dysfunctional forms of public process, and say, “Do more of the functional types of public process where you can have true input and you can have a true range of the community represented in some of these decisions that get made, and adopt a true long-term planning framework.” So many communities I look at, so much of their planning work is just responding to rezonings, responding to variances, having these caustic public hearings. I think myself ,that’s just not planning, that’s purely reactive. It’s muddling along, and I want to hit the reset button on all of that work, and I think a lot of planners do, too. And I think lurking below the surface in planning is this eagerness, this appetite for a fundamental rethink. What do we want land use planning to do? What’s it going to take to get us where we want to be?
JJ: So let me make it personal for a second. You reference the fact that you were trained as a planner, that you worked as a planner in New York City, and you have transitioned, in a way, into more of a political advocacy role. I believe you’re also active locally there in LA on some of these very issues. I know for a lot of planners that kind of role is uncomfortable because they’re trained in an approach that’s designed to be, kind of, objective and bringing people together in a way that is sometimes perceived as incompatible with a direct point of view, or they’re just uncomfortable being on the other side of that dais, right? So I’m curious about that journey for you and what advice you might have for planners either who are interested in a similar journey or those who aren’t but want to be the kind of leaders locally that you were just talking about?
NG: That’s a really important question, and I hear about it a lot when I talk to folks who are still in the public sector, especially. Of course, if you’re in a context where the politics don’t line up, there’s probably not a lot of opportunity there. Or if you’re in a context where if you know, you raise some of these reforms, it’s going to cause a big, unproductive fight, or it’s going to jeopardize your work, be smart about it, right? But as I, kind of, stressed earlier in this conversation, I actually think there are a lot of contexts where elected officials and maybe even activists are waiting for planners to come up with some of these ideas. I would say too, you know, I think historically there’s this notion of our ethical obligations as planners is to just be purely objective straight-shooters, just provide information, no views on anything. I would say, even if that’s your frame, part of that means talking about what other places are doing. Part of that means informing the public that you serve and the elected officials that you serve on reforms that are happening in other places and saying, “Hey, this is happening in a comparable city. In my judgment, this is potentially appropriate for us to pursue here.” But I would say more broadly, too, I think planners also have ethical obligations to call out policies that are resulting in, for example, things like homelessness or that are keeping segregation so heavily entrenched, or that are resulting in patterns of development that are unsustainable and environmentally deeply troublesome. It’s tough, right? Planning is tough. It’s a tough job. You’re kind of in the middle of a whole bunch of whales, right? A shrimp among whales. But, you know, I think being prudent about it and being forthcoming about, “Hey, here are the reform options that are happening. Here are what comparable cities, cities that we look to as peers, are doing,” and articulating some of those arguments that are being made, like, “Hey, there’s more discussion happening about how single-family zoning is tied to exclusionary or segregationist attitudes. Here is a menu of options that we could pursue in our community,” I think you don’t necessarily have to be an advocate, but you can do a lot of good within the public sector.
I would say quietly, a good planner in the public sector who will never get any attention is probably one of the most important pieces of the reform program. The person who will at the right time in the right place, write the right text amendment or help to write the right rezoning, help to stop the wrong thing from happening, is absolutely crucial to this process. I think it’s, certainly planners who go into the advocacy space, I think especially, have an obligation to say, “We know these things that don’t work about some of the planning institutions we’ve inherited.” That’s not a condemnation of planning. That’s a frank recognition of something that’s gone wrong, and articulate planning alternatives. This is, I think, what’s inspiring about this vision among many of the planners that I talked to is that we don’t have to be beholden to broken institutions that we inherited. And I think that clinging to some of these broken institutions or being overly defensive of them, risks taking down capacity for planning in some of these communities. If a community says, “Hey, you know, we’re hearing about parking requirements reform. What can you tell us?” And you just defend the code as exist today, rather than lead and say, “Yeah, we need reform. Let me help pull together what we know, what we’re hearing from our colleagues and other cities,” that’s going to be so much more effective. That’s going to situate planners, I think, to be champions for reform further on down the line.
JJ: Thank you, Nolan. That’s a very inspiring note, I think, to end the conversation on. Certainly appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about your book. I hope everybody rushes out, if they haven’t gotten a copy, grabs a copy. I think it’s incredibly important conversation that you’ve helped start, both inside planning but also across the country. So thanks very much, Nolan, for being with us today.
NG: Thanks so much. It was a pleasure.
MS: Thanks for listening to another episode of People Behind the Plans, an APA podcast. If you want to hear more great conversations with experts from across the planning landscape, subscribe to APA podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode. And if you like what you’re hearing, rate us on iTunes. You can find People Behind the Plans on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find our entire library of episodes at planning.org/podcast.