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A Year Like No Other

Josh Stephens on
Dec 15, 2020

CP&DR’s top stories list for 2020 looks much different than those in years past.

2020 unexpectedly generated more writing about urban planning in the mainstream media than any other year in recent memory. And not for pleasant reasons. The COVID-19 pandemic brought urban life to a halt, inspiring news articles and photo essays about newly desolate streets, strained finances, and imperiled businesses.

Fact-based pieces, though, were overwhelmed by commentary — let’s call it speculation — about the future of cities, from writers of all walks of life. Would the threat of contagion make density seem deadly? Would urbanites flee to the suburbs? Is the office dead? Where will the hipsters find brunch? 

CP&DR covered the COVID-19 crisis in many ways, particularly its immediate impact on the planning profession. Our coverage of race, the other major story of 2020, revolved around commentary. Inequities in cities, from explicit policies like redlining, to the de facto racial exclusivity of suburbs, to everyday realities of Black and Brown poverty were not breaking news. But 2020 brought a heightened awareness of them and newfound willingness to discuss them, and we tried to do our part. And, of course, there was plenty of “regular” planning news to go around.

The pandemic and race get their own categories among our top stories this year, presented according to readership statistics, within several categories of CP&DR coverage. 

Planning & The Pandemic

For professionals accustomed to working on and in the built environment, COVID-19 took a major toll. CP&DR’s most-read story of the year was about how planners, planning departments, and planning commissions adapted — rapidly — to the constraints of quarantine. 

The virus arrived at a moment when California’s housing crisis had already reached devastating proportions. A slowdown in construction and economic worries among lenders and developers stands to make it worse. Whatever developers’ worries are, they are nothing compared to those of city managers and planning directors, whose budgets are devastated by the economic slowdown — especially in retail, which provides California cities with a significant share of their budgets. We took the moment to remind everyone to be wary of predictions and armchair planning. 

Finally, we investigated what could be a long-term, and positive, effect of the pandemic: staid “community meetings” could give way to more innovative forms of electronic outreach and greater public participation in hearings—if planning departments get the technology right. 

Race & Equity 

The death of George Floyd and the ensuing national discussion about race touches nearly every element of American life. Urban planning is one of them. George Floyd could have been killed in any American city. Minneapolis could have been Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Fresno, or any of the other places in California where diversity and inequity intersect. For these reasons, Bill Fulton established CP&DR’s role and obligations to promote equitable cities and racial sensitivity in planning.

For our new podcast series, we convened a roundtable of Black planners who spoke frankly about their experiences as professionals and the role planners can play in achieving equity. A crucial complement to racial equity is that of gender equity (and intersectionality), which Leslie Kern discusses in her book Feminist City. The call for equity is already influencing policy. Rex Richardson, a Long Beach City Council member and new president of the Southern California Association of Governments, put race at the forefront of the agency’s agenda. One the purely bureaucratic front, there is progress: Senate Bill 1000, which mandates that general plans account for environmental justice, is finally being implemented.

Regular News 

Beyond the year’s mega-stories, planning in California proceeded apace, as planners at the state, regional, and local levels all tried to figure out how exactly they would contribute to meeting California’s multimillion-unit housing need.

Metropolitan planning organizations in San Diego County and Southern California adopted new regional transportation plans and Sustainable Communities Strategies (the third generation thereof) in order to integrate land use planning with transportation planning. A story at the local level symbolized statewide battles over housing, as an infamous proposed development in Lafayette finally got the green light, at full size, after years of dispute and litigation. 

New state laws have compelled cities to rethink their design standards, as many types of design considerations will no longer be considered legitimate grounds for denying the approval of housing. One of the most eagerly awaited laws has finally been implemented, requiring cities to analyze new developments’ transportation impacts according to vehicle miles travelled metrics. Yet another pro-housing law was put to the test against slow-growth forces over a major development in Santa Clara — and it seems to have worked as designed. 

Commentary & Blogs 

We had a few opinions. 

Sen. Scott Weiner’s Senate Bill 50, which would have promoted denser development statewide, imploded early in the legislative year. It may not matter, though, because a host of other laws, plus the demands of the Regional Housing Needs Allocations, will compel many jurisdictions to enact the principles of SB 50 anyway. Plans are great, but planning is inherently visual. It helps to see what progressive urbanism can look like — it’s just a shame when it’s a fictional Los Angeles neighborhood built on a studio lot. Ever since the ’49ers made landfall in San Francisco, California has been growing. Is the state’s 170-year run finally at an end? 

Even before the pandemic, the types of independent stores that enrich their cities in ways chains stores and web-based emporia never could were already hurting. If fictional cities are helpful, semi-fictional cities—like Solvang--are semi-helpful. The California Environmental Quality Act turned 50 this year; some planners celebrated and others did not. Bill Fulton breaks down the past, present, and future of California’s signature law. 

Legal Digest & Analysis 

CP&DR’s top legal story was not about CEQA or Senate Bill 35. It was, instead, about national jurisprudence and the glimpses that past rulings (one ruling, to be exact) offer into now Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s perspective on land use. In a precursor to his piece on CEQA’s 50th anniversary, Bill Fulton put his finger on the current era of CEQA application (and evasion): the era of exemptions, largely in the service of infill projects.

Back to the national scene, Bill noted a series of decidedly conservative decisions by judges appointed by President Trump to the historically liberal Ninth Circuit. Meanwhile, two cases out of the San Diego region attracted readers. In the first, the court ruled that the City of San Diego was entitled to approve a lower-density infill development than zoning allowed if geological situations warranted doing so. In the second, the court shot down elements of the county’s much-debated climate action plan.

Podcasts 

We at CP&DR were delighted to inaugurate our podcast this year, featuring banter and interviews with prominent figures in planning. In addition to our Black Planners Roundtable, which was our most popular episode, listeners tuned in to Josh and Bill discussing COVID’s impact on the planning profession and into Josh’s interview with Diana Lind, author of Brave New Home, about the history and future of housing. And we just posted a sure crowd-pleaser: a rundown of the top planning books of the year, as designated by our friends at Planetizen. 

Thanks to everyone for following CP&DR during an intense, interesting year. We look forward to an eventful 2021. 


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