Podcast: People Behind the Plans
Taiwo Jaiyeoba on How Planners Can Lead Through Zoning Reform and by Crafting Equitable Comprehensive Plans
Addressing systemic racism and entrenched inequity has become an imperative for many institutions. Planners are in a unique position to make a big course correction on equity through comprehensive planning — if they embrace the opportunity to lead.
“Comprehensive planning is about addressing inequities through policies. … I believe the only reason history will not repeat itself is if we intervene and intentionally alter its course. So, today’s comprehensive plans should be about integrated community engagement, achieving equity, and promoting sustainability and resiliency”.
—Taiwo Jaiyeoba, City Manager, Greensboro, North Carolina
On this episode of People Behind the Plans, Jaiyeoba joins host Meghan Stromberg to talk about leading zoning reform efforts in Charlotte and Greensboro, North Carolina, both as a planning director and in his current role as city manager. He also shares his tips for winning over naysayers and his thoughts on what makes a good comprehensive plan.
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: A good comprehensive plan, I’ll say, is also a good mobility plan. A good comprehensive plan is also a good sustainability plan. A good comprehensive plan is a good housing plan. A good comprehensive plan is an equitable plan.
Meghan Stromberg: What makes a city or a town a great place to live? Amenities like schools, health care and green space are high on many lists. But what about job opportunities, mobility and safety? Planners know that great communities don’t just happen. They require a vision for how all these factors can work together in a symbiotic system.
Welcome to People Behind the Plans. I’m your host, Meghan Stromberg, editor in chief of the American Planning Association. This episode we’ll talk to Taiwo Jaiyeoba, a leading voice for livable communities — places where people of diverse means and backgrounds can live, work, play, shop and feel safe with equitable and accessible amenities. Taiwo was the former director of planning for the city of Sacramento’s transit authority. He was the assistant city manager and director of planning for the city of Charlotte, and now he’s the city manager for Greensboro, North Carolina.
Taiwo has been championing this philosophy of livability for more than two decades. Taiwo also lends his expertise to a number of planning and transportation organizations, including Mpact, an advocacy group focused on the interplay of transit, mobility and development and creating great places to live. He’s also a member of the steering committee for the Housing Supply Accelerator, a partnership between the American Planning Association and the National League of Cities.
Today, we’ll ask Taiwo about his experience leading planning departments around the U.S. and see if he has advice for planners working with elected and appointed officials to build consensus around ideas like land use, equity and accessibility. Taiwo, welcome to the podcast.
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: Thank you, Meghan. Happy to be here.
Meghan Stromberg: I read that your father encouraged you to become a planner and that you developed a passion for the field once you started studying in graduate school. What made your father suggest this role for you? How did it spark your interest?
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: Well, thank you. That’s a really good question. So I grew up in a very well-educated family. I’ll start by saying that. And I was exposed at a very early age to discussions about career choices. You have to know that my father was a university professor, so obviously being exposed to all the colleagues and people in different fields [was] of interest to me. And I had two uncles, also, who were urban geographers. One of them went on to become an adviser to the president of Nigeria on remote sensing and urban planning. My dad also made references to neighbors that he grew up with who were successful in land use mapping and surveying. And when he defined success, it always had to do with money. He expected that I would be that successful as well. And he told me that I would be successful at city planning because of the way I was wired. I’ve always been very curious, methodical and strategic. Even as a kid, I had clarity on what I wanted and where I wanted to go. I was able to analyze things quickly, and direction came naturally to me. Once I go to a place for the first time, it stuck. And growing up as a kid in Africa, landmarks were important. That big stone, that big rock, that big tree. You found a way to describe where you were going. So I had a good sense of space and places.
My dad, he said to me, specifically, “Planners shape the world by their thinking,” and he felt that I will be successful at it. Now, I wasn’t so sure about that, I’ll be honest. But I remember my very first planning class, however, and the professor quoted Shakespeare. I mean, how do you quote Shakespeare in a planning class? But it was this quote by William Shakespeare that says, “What is the city but the people?” That quote grabbed my interest. And I felt that cities were meant for people, lots of people. I want to influence how so many people interact in urban places. Meghan, you said at the beginning about the fact that cities are livable places where people reside, where they work, where they play, where they shop, go to school, where they feel safe with equitable and accessible amenities. So that’s always grabbed my interest. How do you do all of these things with so many people in an urban environment? And so when I heard that quote, images just showed up in my mind as to if you can influence those decisions that people make in the urban places, then you’re successful. And that’s kind of what grabbed my interest in the field of planning. Of course, my father was very motivating, encouraging me to study that, and that’s really why I’m here today.
Meghan Stromberg: I love that story. It sounds like planning is in your blood.
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: Feels so. I always say that, you know, it’s not just what I do, it’s how I live. Frustrates my kids sometimes.
Meghan Stromberg: Well, we all do a lot of things that frustrate our kids. They get over it.
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: They do.
Meghan Stromberg: So you moved to the United States in 1996. As you mentioned, grew up in Nigeria and worked in Botswana. When you came to the states, your first planning job was at the city of Sacramento, where you updated the city’s transit agency’s 25-year master plan. More recently in North Carolina, you helped Charlotte develop its comprehensive plan, Charlotte Future 2040. And today you’re with Greensboro. That Greensboro Comprehensive Plan, GSO2040, earned the Daniel Burnham Award from APA in 2022. So I’m just wondering, what are some of your guiding principles when you do comprehensive planning, and how has the approach to comprehensive planning changed in recent years?
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: Great question. So first of all, before answering that, I’ve got to give kudos to my planning team here in Greensboro for putting up a good show and putting out good work that led us to winning the Daniel Burnham Award from APA. I’m hopeful that Charlotte’s team will also have that distinction in the near future. So I’m proud of the team in Charlotte. I’m proud of the team in Greensboro. And I just feel that I’m a citizen of both cities when you think about it, having been able to work with those wonderful folks to help us achieve what we’ve achieved over the last few years.
When it comes to comprehensive planning, in my mind, there’s no better guiding principle than engaging people before you need them. And so when I became planning director, even before we started the comprehensive plan at all, I needed to build credibility with the community. And so going out, understanding exactly where they were, how they felt was very important. I did not just come to them because I needed their participation in the comprehensive planning process. I went to the community because I felt that engaging them was very instrumental to shaping the future of our city. So whether there was a comprehensive plan or not, it’s always important to engage your community because engaged communities are empowered communities. Comprehensive planning is about addressing inequities through policies — and not just coming up with new policies or even building on existing policies that perpetuate inequities, but really addressing those things that have to do with history.
For example, when I think about comprehensive planning in the past, I think about Harland Bartholomew. I felt that he did more damage to our cities through his plan development than anyone else. Why? Because his work and teachings were widely influential, particularly on the use of government to enforce racial segregation in land use. So I’ll take, for instance, in Saint Louis he developed the comprehensive plan. Bartholomew said an important goal was to prevent movement, quote and unquote by “colored people” into, quote and unquote, “finer residential districts.” He went on to estimate where blacks were likely to live and then went on to create restrictions to keep them out of white areas. These were deliberate. These were intentional. And yet, think about it this way, Meghan, he was responsible for developing more than 500 comprehensive plans in the United States. Unfortunately, though, today, a lot of plans continue to merely update the work that was done rather than correct those inequities and move into what should be. I believe the only reason history will not repeat itself is if we intervene and intentionally alter its course. So today’s comprehensive plans should be about integrated community engagement, achieving equity, promoting sustainability and resiliency.
There were people, when we worked on this in Charlotte, who actually asked us to remove references to equity and inequality in Charlotte’s comprehensive plan during its development. This included a handful of white elected officials, even developers, who felt that by citing the history of urban renewal and racial segregation, the plan made Charlotte quote and unquote “look bad.” But they were in the minority. And so I felt that a dynamic, comprehensive plan today has to be citywide. So it takes everyone’s views into consideration. A good comprehensive plan, I’ll say, is also a good mobility plan. A good comprehensive plan is also a good sustainability plan. A good comprehensive plan is a good housing plan. A good comprehensive plan is an equitable plan. One of the first things we did when we embarked on the comprehensive plan, which I believe every comprehensive planning process should go through, is to do what we call an equity atlas. We map the entire city, and we’re able to look at areas of inequities in different parts of the city. Once you have that foundation, it allows you then to begin to develop and shape policies that will address those inequities. That’s why I said a good comprehensive plan has to also be a good equity plan because you cannot divorce a comprehensive plan from a discussion around social justice.
Meghan Stromberg: I’m so glad to hear about the way you describe this work, and I’m so glad that we’re in a time where comprehensive plans are addressing equity. The idea of an equity atlas as a starting point is just an amazing idea. And I appreciate you bringing up the role that the comprehensive plan plays in correcting things from the past as we move towards the future.
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: Yeah, because think about it, Meghan, we’re talking about a plan that goes into your next 20, 25, maybe even 30 years. And so it’s not a plan we’re building for ourselves today. It’s a plan that we’re building for the future. So in order to be able, again, to correct history and to prevent it from repeating itself, you have to be deliberate about that. Every city has to do that mapping and look at areas of your city where people are not having access to amenities in an equitable manner. And so don’t just look at a land use plan as a land use plan, but rather using this as a tool to correct some of those inequities, whether it’s inequities in mobility or inequities in access to amenities, inequities in every area. Planners are powerful policy shapers. And so it’s very important that we do this equity atlas as you embark on your comprehensive plan process.
Meghan Stromberg: You talked about the importance of livability in comprehensive planning, and I was recently reading the six principles of livability from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and here they are: to provide more transportation choices; promote equitable, affordable housing; enhance economic competitiveness; support existing communities; coordinate policies and leverage investment; and value communities and neighborhoods. These principles, to me, seem very closely aligned with the section of Greensboro’s plan called Big Ideas. I’m curious about how you define livability, and when you’re trying to achieve it in a place like Greensboro, how much can be guided by the principles and how much has to come from the community members themselves? I think I might know the answer to it, considering how you answered the last question about how important it is to engage with the community.
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: This is a very important one to me, livability. I believe absolutely that livability should be about proximity. That’s my definition of livability. I talk more about affordable living than affordable housing. Why? Because what’s the point of having an affordable housing unit that’s far from other basic necessities of life, such as transportation or even full-service grocery stores? There are areas in my city, and in many American cities, where I drive miles and miles, and the only way you can get a gallon of milk is at a gas station. That’s not a full-service grocery store. Livability should be about proximity. When you’re proximate to amenities, you can drive less, and you can afford convenience. Affording convenience is very important. When you’re proximate to job opportunities, you spend less on gas, and you can afford decent quality of life. When you drive less, you contribute positively to environmental quality. Housing, in my mind, is more affordable if you can minimize what you spend on getting there. Whether your “there” is work or a soccer field or medical care or a full-service grocery store or a full-service bank. These ideas are big and doable, especially if they come from the community, which goes back again to engaging the community. People know what they need.
Let me give you an example. In Greensboro, one of the big ideas in Greensboro’s comprehensive plan, GSO2040, is becoming a car-optional city. That idea came from the community. Over 6,000 people were engaged in that process. Yet our downtown has about 36% of its land use dedicated to public and private parking spaces, some of them owned even by us. So when the community is telling you that, now take a good look at what is and how can we begin to turn around these parking spaces so that more people can live downtown than park their vehicles downtown. This big idea, for example, challenges the practice of having to drive everywhere. We’re going through right now a parking plan to determine how we may convert some of these downtown parking spaces into livable spaces that will bring people closer to work, to restaurants, to bars and to places where they do life, you know?
Another big idea in Greensboro’s comprehensive plan is about infill development, encouraging more missing middle housing. As a result of this, our council earlier this year adopted two policy initiatives to modify our land use zoning to accommodate “plex” units — your duplexes, your triplexes or quadplexes — in single-family-zoned areas. While we are also flexing our ability to allow more accessory dwelling units in our city. They also wanted us to look more into short-term rentals, so a few weeks ago our council amended our policy and regulations surrounding short-term rentals. Council could only take these steps because a larger segment of the community wanted this.
I will tell you, thanks to the media, it was basically the only topic of conversation in Charlotte and on social media platforms. Whether people were for it or against it, conversation around single-family zoning and ten-minute neighborhoods made people want to talk more, want to engage more. And they resulted in 10 big ideas in Charlotte’s plan, and in Greensboro, we have the five big ideas. We were able to reach over 6,000 people, like I said earlier. That engagement is really what led us to those big ideas. Again, engage, engage, engage. Communicate, communicate, communicate. And then using data points where they’re necessary, but also going to where people are, meeting them in areas. We even had an opportunity to do a drive-in-movie-theater-style engagement, and people had to tune in to a particular radio station to be able to listen to what we were sharing and ask their questions. It was beautiful. Very importantly in my mind is that livability at the end of the day should engage people to talk about proximity to what they need, what they want in their communities.
Meghan Stromberg: The idea that zoning regulations would be the topic of social media conversations all over a city has got to have planners everywhere excited.
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: Yes, I know. It’s not the easiest topic to understand.
Meghan Stromberg: But it’s tough, right? And so there must have been some backlash. How did you overcome those objections, and what lessons from that experience are you bringing to Greensboro?
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: Meghan, I don’t know if you watched the movie Gladiator.
Meghan Stromberg: Of course.
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: Okay. Alright. So you may be familiar with this quote when Proximo said to the star actor, Maximus, “Listen to me. Learn from me. I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd, and you will win your freedom.” Now, I remember that quote by heart because I’ve probably watched Gladiator a hundred times, and I could recite a number of quotes, but that one stuck with me. “Win the crowd, and you will win your freedom.” Now, while comprehensive planning in itself is not a contact sport, eliminating single-family zoning is a completely brutal sport.
Meghan Stromberg: Yes. Absolutely.
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: You get bruised, you get misunderstood. People confuse things, and sometimes we contribute to their confusion. Things become personal quickly, primarily because to every homeowner, and rightly so, your house is probably your best and most expensive and valuable investment. So it was important in Charlotte to understand that you’re talking about people’s personal investments when you’re talking about eliminating single-family zoning. People quickly think you’re saying eliminating single-family housing, but that’s not true. We are not eliminating anything outside of saying we want to be able to accommodate, in every part of the city, diversity of housing. Again, when we say cities are about choices, that’s really what democracy is about. It’s about giving people at different phases of life — whether they are, you know, 18 or 40 or 80 — different places to live in the community, choices of where they can live. There are people who do not want to live in single-family homes that are detached. They want to live in townhomes or apartments or tiny homes. And so it’s really about understanding that you’re touching people’s most valuable investment. So it was very important in Charlotte to win the crowd quickly, convincingly and continuously. I could never make assumptions that elected officials, and even some in the business community, were all going to be supportive. So we had to win them with facts, data. People will say, “Oh, that will result in more traffic congestion, you know, in my community.” But the fact is that there’s never anything proven that by having more plex units in your community, traffic all of a sudden becomes worse.
People will say to you that it means “my home value will go down,” but there’s never any proof. There’s none. It takes a lot more for your home value to go down than just putting a townhouse next to you. And, you know, historically, that’s how we’ve lived, and it’s not destroyed values of homes. And so we needed to be able to combat false narratives, sometimes even personal attacks on social media. Data and experience was your best way to overcome the objections. And when I say experience, it means lived experiences. You’ve got to get people who actually live in these townhomes to be able to tell their stories as well. We understood what was at stake, and I wasn’t really going to leave the outcome to chance. So it meant ruffling feathers and upsetting the powers that wanted things to remain the same. There was a time when we talked about the fact that most planners are introverts. You know, that planners by nature may not necessarily be extroverts, but we have to step out of our comfort zone as planners. I called myself a plan leader. So I’m not just a planner leader, right? I’m not just a planner, but also, I lead. And when you lead, you’ve got to understand that you are going to make some things uncomfortable, but you have to have your information at your disposal.
We knew we could not win everyone in Charlotte, so what we did was we focused on the ones we could win — advocates of affordable housing, mobility, sustainability, community benefits, pro-equity groups — in order to overcome objections. And we could never assume that people, especially elected officials, even some supportive stakeholders, would constantly be on your side. So you had to work hard to win them by laying bare the facts, benefits and impacts of the initiatives. And also quickly learned that one-time engagement is not enough. It’s got to be a continual engagement. So because you told me something at the beginning of the process, and I agreed with it, doesn’t mean I’m agreeing with the outcome because I did not know this is the outcome you were coming out with.
So as we embark on modifying our land use ordinance in Greensboro to increase housing options, we’re going to take the same approach. Like I said, communicate clearly and articulately — less planner-speak, more people-speak — and understanding that data can be your enemy, but you have to make it also your friend because you’ve got to believe in people’s daily experiences that sometimes data doesn’t capture very well. So we were able to overcome those objections that way in Charlotte by engaging people; winning the crowd quickly, continuously; and using information, but also engaging and turning into champions those who live those experiences on a daily basis so they can tell their own personal stories.
Meghan Stromberg: It sounds like you’re saying planners really need to get out there and engage, engage, engage and be sort of the face of the work that they do to serve their community’s vision.
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: Yes, Meghan, because it takes a planner to lead. And so regardless of our personality type and the way we’re wired, whether as introverts or extroverts or ambiverts, you’ve got to find citizen planners who can be an extension of who you are and the work you’re trying to do. And it takes a planner to lead, right? And so you lead with policies and understanding the historical facts, but then you engage the community, turn them into citizen planners.
Meghan Stromberg: You’ve gone from being a planner leader to being a leader in a different way, right?
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: Yes.
Meghan Stromberg: So you were leading the planning department in Charlotte, and now you’re leading all the departments in Greensboro. Why did you take on that broader leadership role, and what do you think is important for planners to know about working with elected and appointed government officials?
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: So I’ll say this, with all due respect to every other profession out there, it takes a planner to be the best city manager. And I’ll tell you why. Planners have vision. We kind of tend to see how things connect together. Being a planning director in one city with a focus on one department is definitely a good thing, and planners should aspire to that. It’s an influential position that shapes the city forever. So as a planning director — as I was in Charlotte, as I was in Grand Rapids, was in Sacramento — if you swing the bat hard enough on key initiatives, you can become the most powerful person in your municipality. Well, with the exception of one individual: your city manager.
He or she has a vantage point and can see how everything else in the urban space ties together. But not only that, the city manager oversees the entire city operations. He or she makes final, major decisions. As an undeniable voice, influences the departmental directions and decisions, and holds a fiduciary responsibility. This is why I decided to take on a broader role. I felt like as a planner, you are able to help create smarter, growing cities. And with our background in land use, planning and public transit, I feel that I am best suited to lead a city that’s experiencing the most significant economic development and expansion in our history. So I’m equipped to help shape policies that can have enduring impacts on our residents.
So right now in Greensboro, you can get anywhere within 15 to 20 minutes of where you are, but only if you are driving. The same cannot be said for you if you rely on public transit, because our transit system currently runs mostly every 60 minutes. My goal is to help restructure that, so it gets people where they need to go. It takes a planner to do that. I am not making the decision as a department head anymore, but as a city manager — supported, of course, by an amazing network of professionals, including the best planning director in the country and backed by our council.
So in this position I’m able to well articulate why land use planning is critical to sewer, water capacity, sustainability goals, attainable housing efforts, homelessness, policing, even fire service deliveries. So every decision is tied to smart use of land. It puts the manager in a position not only to affect policies that are beyond planning, but to implement them. So from this vantage point, I realized that planners often don’t understand, frankly speaking, the influence we hold over every single decision that’s made. Sometimes the most important issue in a council meeting night is one rezoning petition or an area plan. And elected officials are not the subject matter experts, although sometimes they can be. They depend on us. It takes a planner to unpack the details. We should understand that we need to use less of our technical lingo and communicate in a manner that helps elected officials best understand the decisions that they are making on behalf of their constituents. And one thing about planners also is this, when standing in front of the council that they are mindful that they are communicating beyond the council to the constituents. And our profession has prepared us for that. But from this vantage point, as a city manager, my planning background has really helped me to be able to connect a lot of dots. And I believe it takes a planner to do that. Again, with all due respect to other professionals out there, planners make the best city managers.
Meghan Stromberg: Well, you sound like a terrific city manager and also a terrific planner, and it has been a real pleasure talking to you, Taiwo. Thank you so much for joining us on People Behind the Plans.
Taiwo Jaiyeoba: Thank you so much for having me today. I appreciate the opportunity to engage.
Meghan Stromberg: 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.