Rick Cole’s new role: Updating urbanism for the 21st Century

Note: This interview was recently published in The Planning Report: Insider’s Guide to Planning and Infrastructure. Questions posed by TPR are in bold.

After more than three decades of leadership in government and public policy in Southern California, you’re stepping into a national role heading the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). How will those experiences shape your approach to the new job?

Rick Cole: Thirty years ago, the Congress was a lonely voice advocating against placeless suburban sprawl and calling for a return to building cities around people instead of cars. As Mayor of Pasadena I was deeply influenced by the visionary urban designers at the forefront of that movement. New urbanist ideas helped shape Pasadena’s General Plan revision. Like others in the early days of CNU, I had seen the catastrophic impact of turning our back on timeless ways of building to impose the dominance of the car. Nearly 10,000 Pasadena residents, mostly low-income and people of color, had been uprooted to make way for the 210 Freeway; thousands more were bulldozed out of their homes by redevelopment. I was raised to value Pasadena’s distinctive neighborhood and architectural fabric – which was being eviscerated. So, I embraced new urbanism as both a renewal and an update of traditional urbanism for the 21st Century. 

Rick Cole

Given the crises we’re seeing in Southern California today, the principles of new urbanism have even greater relevance and urgency today. Rampant homelessness has exposed the social costs of income inequality and residential segregation. Skyrocketing housing costs have imposed severe rent burdens on working individuals and families; displaced long-term, low-income residents; and pushed home ownership out of reach for younger generations. None of that is sustainable.

As is true in many of America’s metropolitan regions, Southern California’s dominant narrative poses a false choice: keeping everything the way it is now or rebuilding everything to look like Manhattan (or sometimes Hong Kong.)  Throughout Pasadena, Los Angeles, Long Beach and other neighborhoods that predate World War II, there are myriad examples of what Jerry Brown called “elegant density” when he was Mayor of Oakland.  Bungalow courts, duplexes, quadruplexes built a century ago are still cherished—and so are the four and even ten story apartment buildings along major streets like Rossmore and Normandie. Design matters—and quality design and smart planning can provide both more and better housing – and engender walkable neighborhoods. That improves neighborhood quality of life—and reduces carbon emissions. Unfortunately our existing zoning and building codes forbid walkable urbanism.  CNU aims to build a national movement to #LegalizeWalkableUrbanism.

Smart planning and quality design can overcome the dialogue of the deaf we’re enduring between those who vehemently oppose any infill development and those who are fixated on increasing density without calibrating it to the urban context. New urbanism is about making—and enhancing—great places for people—all people—to live and thrive. 

Smart planning does seem to be lost in the tug of war between Sacramento increasingly mandating “one size fits all solutions” and local government who are howling about the loss of local control.

We wouldn’t be having this conflict in California if cities had accommodated adequate infill housing development over the past thirty years. We’ve largely curbed outward sprawl in Southern California – long overdue. But cities failed to match that with new housing closer to jobs. Take Beverly Hills, a city with 17,000 jobs, many of them low-wage service jobs. In the last Regional Housing Needs Assessment, Beverly Hills set a target of building just three affordable units over eight years. Three! So I understand why Sacramento is pushing for change. The responsibility is really on the cities to show they can produce housing for all incomes. They have to reform their zoning codes to allow more housing—and ensure it actually creates a less car-dependent urban fabric. That planning really should be done at the local level—but until cities actually do that, the State will continue their relentless top-down push.

Is it realistic to expect cities to update their plans in the current polarized political environment? The glacial pace of revising Community Plans in Los Angeles and the anti-development blowback in cities like Santa Monica don’t bode well for community consensus.

No, they don’t, which is why we have to embark on far more extensive public engagement on these issues that affect everyone—and why planning has to break out of the stale status quo.

How does that work?

There’s a fundamental difference between debating a problem and solving a problem. One of my favorite insights came from the former Mayor of Missoula, Montana, Dan Kemmis who said: “public hearings are places where no one listens.” Precisely. We’ve become accustomed to the shrill voices dominating local planning discourse and halting progress in its tracks.

New urbanists pioneered the practice of “charrettes”—the intensive public process that provides busy citizens a meaningful role in shaping plans for their communities. When I was City Manager of Ventura, we spent two months gearing up for a charrette to recode the Downtown for housing development. The charrette was a whole week of work. By day the professionals did the work of translating what they heard in the well-attended public meetings each evening.  By the time we wrapped on Friday we had brought consensus among preservationists, nearby residents, developers, social justice advocates, citizen commissioners and the wider public. Two months later the code was before the Planning Commission and the City Council for unanimous adoption. If that’s magic, it’s what the public opinion expert Daniel Yankelovich called “the magic of dialogue.” People are much more productive when they work together to solve a problem than when they are taking out their frustrations on the government. 

If it works, why aren’t these tools more widely adopted?

Too often we think short term and invest more in responding to problems than preventing them. Homelessness is a perfect example—in the long run, it is far cheaper to keep someone housed than it is to deal with their health and safety out on the streets—not to mention the wider public health and safety. Citizens and elected leaders need to adopt the long view. Right now, what passes for “planning” is more often simply reacting to developer plans—and community opposition to them. Instead of wasting everyone’s time in battles over individual projects that drag on for years, cities need to invest the time and effort to do what former LA City Planning Director Gail Goldberg called “real planning.”

From your new national perspective, who is doing it right?

Clearly zoning reform is making progress in major cities like Minneapolis, Miami, Sacramento and Portland. CNU’s annual Congress takes place next year in Oklahoma City. Angelenos may roll their eyes, but OKC is a remarkable success story of a holistic approach to community revitalization that combines the integration of infrastructure investment and intentional planning with widespread community engagement. I’d also point to the gradual spread of “participatory budgeting” that gives citizens both power and responsibility for decision-making. LA could learn from New York and Chicago in applying a similar model to our neighborhood councils. 

Are you optimistic about Southern California embracing fresh approaches?

Pope Francis says there is seldom a reason to be optimistic, but always a reason to be hopeful. There are certainly some hopeful signs – the expansion of rail transit underway, the success of the Transit-Oriented Communities program to produce mixed-income housing, the breakthrough from State legislation on accessory dwelling units, the reduction of bloated parking requirements for infill development. But overall, LA missed an opportunity during the Garcetti Administration to do transformative planning, despite his success in securing the Olympics, now just seven years away. Will the next LA Mayor take inspiration from the example of Long Beach’s Mayor Robert Garcia—who I think has galvanized a town that has long underperformed? One can certainly hope.

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