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Sullivan says public input crucial to comprehensive plan success

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 by John Davidson

In cities across the country, comprehensive planning is all the rage these days. Although the process itself can be nebulous and cumbersome, having a comprehensive plan that’s shaped by public input has become an increasingly popular way for cities to coordinate policy in terms of transportation, land use, utilities, recreation, development, and housing.


Here in Texas, it’s the same. In recent years, Dallas and Fort Worth have drafted and adopted comprehensive plans, and this month Austin launched its own two-year comprehensive plan process with a four-hour open house designed to explain the process to the public.


Public support is the crucial thing for the success of any comprehensive plan, according to Planning Commission Chair Dave Sullivan. He points to the comprehensive planning processes of cities like Denver, Toronto, Dallas, and Vancouver as models of effective, ambitious public participation.


And although city planners will certainly delve into the substance of those cities’ comprehensive plans at some point, right now the things that Austin should emulate, Sullivan says, are the methods of mustering public participation that have been effective everywhere else.


“The citizens are going to write this plan; this is a bottom-up plan,” Sullivan said. “The function of people in the middle — like me or the city staff or the consultant — is to facilitate this, to bring in the information and help educate.”


But Sullivan is quick to add that people like him, those in the middle of the process, will also be educated; they will learn what the public wants. In fact, it’s crucial to gauge public sentiment at the outset of the process, according to Sullivan, in order to determine whether people really care about things like sustainability, arresting global warming, providing affordable housing, and conserving resources.


“A lot of these terms are kind of feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy terms,” he said. “And where the rubber meets the road is when we say, ‘Yes, we will put affordable housing in this part of town,’ or ‘Yes, we will have vertical mixed-use because it promotes pedestrian activity.’”


And Sullivan, a citizen planner with decades of experience and history in the area, believes that the people, if they have all the information, will make the right choice: “I trust that Austin citizens, when they are shown the data about our population growth, our water limitations, our air quality, our affordable-housing needs, that good people will step up and say, ‘Hey, we need to do things that limit our use of water, that change our modes of transportation, that change our energy distribution schemes, that increase options for how people live and where they live.’”


Part of the emphasis on public involvement is that it wasn’t always seen as integral to the comprehensive planning process. The 1979 Austin Tomorrow plan involved the participation of about 3,500 people over the course of six years, whereas in the current effort, Sullivan is hoping the city can engage tens of thousands of Austinites in just two years.


To reach that goal, the city will need to show its residents precisely why a comprehensive plan is necessary, especially when many sections of the city already have specific neighborhood plans in place, not to mention all the earlier so-called comprehensive plans like the previously mentioned Austin Tomorrow plan.


Sullivan and others argue that neighborhood plans only cover about half the population of the city and that despite previous plans, there has been a failure to implement and properly update them.


Proponents of creating a new comprehensive plan claim that the newer plans are not covering what they should and the older plans are being forgotten.


“We have a broad area to the east, which the adopted Austin Tomorrow plan says should be preserved for agricultural reasons, but instead a toll-way has been built through that area,” Sullivan said. “As a result, a lot of urbanization is happening there. … Plans have to be updated or they become stale and forgotten.”


Indeed, according to a change in the city’s charter in the mid-1980s, any new comprehensive plan was to be updated every five years. But that hasn’t been the case. The first update to the 1979 Austin Tomorrow plan was in 2007, when city planners edited it to include everything that had happened in the previous 28 years.


What’s more, all the various plans in the region will have to be integrated. The city’s comprehensive plan must take into account school districts, the University of Texas, and Travis County. A comprehensive planning process, so the reasoning goes, provides an opportunity for all concerned parties to coordinate.


And although Sullivan hopes this next plan — which features better tools for measuring air quality, water quality, and demographics — will be one that promotes environmental protection, social equity, and a sustainable future, he is cautious about raising expectations too high.


“We can’t write a plan that will solve all of our problems,” he said. “What I’m telling people is that we need to write a plan that addresses all of our problems so we can steer the city toward dealing with them in the future.”

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