Warnings of impending thrombosis are increasing in our body politic. Public confusion about the proper fate of our police chief seems unrelated to the alarming audit that found our planning department doing very little city planning, but both signal that the civic health of Los Angeles is under attack. In the first instance, our politicians seemed confused and unable to manage a powerful bureaucrat insulated by the civil service system. In the second, we find an entire agency of government powerless to fulfill its primary mission. What kind of political contraption have we built, so unsuitable to the challenges we face as a community, that our police power is untouchable while our power to plan does not exist?
Unfortunately, we are getting what we want instead of what we deserve. As an expression of political will, structure is policy. Southern California has always preferred the appetite of the parts to the integrity of the whole. Opportunity (and opportunism) has flourished in this environment, with impressive but by now increasingly mixed results.
For some time, it seemed good government to separate public administration from public politics. But this attachment to the principle of insularity encouraged the proliferation of political jurisdictions and administrative bureaucracies, until we now have the most complex, costly, overlapping, redundant, fragmented, Balkanized, ineffective crazy-quilt of governance and politics of any region in the nation.
Politically, this system is most responsive to local interests and least responsive to issues that transcend political jurisdictions: the environment, transportation, economic development, affordable housing, water--the very stuff of planning.
Administratively, our single-purpose imperial bureaucracies promote the interest of their insulated missions at the expense of their impact on the missions of other agencies. Transportation promotes movement at the expense of land use. Air quality promotes purity at the expense of economic development. Redevelopment promotes commerce at the expense of housing and planning. And planning does nothing at all.
For much of the history of this young region, it seemed that little could limit our growth and the opportunities associated with growing. Now we face changed circumstances in which constraints are feeding back into the system. These constraints, arising from population growth and change, are the sort that threaten community well-being and discourage the exercise of private initiative; they are beyond the grasp of our political system; they require integrated planning.
The insularity that once contributed to our pride of opportunity and self-determination has left us helpless before the changes that threaten the continuity of those values. And our fears increase when public servants cannot be held accountable in a system so complex that there is no place for the buck to stop.
The natural consequence of fear is a conservative politics that resists all change, even those healthy adjustments of the system that are required if the whole body is to survive. When a council member threatens to cut the planning budget as punishment for a proposal that may benefit the city at the expense of an anxious local constituency, the agency has little incentive to plan.
The present system was designed to make elected officials especially sensitive to local issues, and that is what it does. Planning is perceived as a threat to local interests, and that is why the council undercuts, perhaps is even compelled to undercut, the planning function. That is why we get what we want as a city, instead of what we as a city deserve.
But planning, while it affects local interests, is especially about those related issues of transportation, the environment, economic development and housing that transcend the local. The complex behavior of these larger constraints have immediate community impacts that can be mitigated only when the larger system is understood and managed. At the same time, the enrichment of the public realm cannot be accomplished without the same larger vision. Example: The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission will soon be coordinating close to $4 billion a year of spending on transit improvements, driven largely by congestion management criteria rather than by consideration of the land-use issues that have an impact on every aspect of our lives and are absolutely fundamental to the future well-being of the whole region. If uninformed by a holistic vision, these expenditures will constitute a planning failure of colossal magnitude.
Alternatively, the proper expenditure of those funds can have a beneficial influence on the environment, recreation space, greater access to cultural facilities, economic development and affordable housing.