I'm sort of ashamed to admit it, but once upon a time I was a professional planner. I was an executive service manager with the State Health Planning and Development Agency (SHPDA) back in the 70s and 80s.
Looking back, what I'm not proud of is how I and other SHPDA staff elevated technical criteria over human values without giving much thought to why we did this.
I bring this up because I'm worried that the City of Salem effort to update the Salem Area Comprehensive Plan will make the same mistake: expect citizens to conform to the values of professional planners, rather than the other way around.
Yes, it's important to have measurable indicators as part of a planning process. But these should flow out of an overall vision that's founded in what people value in life, which for sure isn't quantitative criteria like, in health planning, the number of CT scanning machines per 1,000 population within a certain geographic area.
Which is the sort of criteria planners love.
When it'd come time to approve or deny a hospital's application for a new CT scanner, us SHPDA staff would receive heartfelt letters from people who, say, had to drive a hundred or more miles in eastern Oregon in bad weather when a doctor ordered a CT scan for some serious medical condition.
How much weight did those letters play in our decision? Zero, basically. We health planners had developed numeric criteria that had been rubber-stamped by a compliant advisory council. How patients felt about access to a CT scanner was irrelevant.
Now, I don't know much about the Salem Area Comprehensive Plan update process. No one does, at this point, other than City of Salem staff. The process already has come in for some well-deserved criticism, as described in a blog post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, and a Salem Reporter story, "Residents challenge early plans for Salem's future."
Here's my main concern.
Planners typically are addicted to the familiar notion of Goals, Objectives, Actions, and such. But there's a simpler way to look at this, which I remember from my two years in Portland State University's Systems Science Ph.D. program (I completed the coursework, but then dropped out after I got my health planning job in Salem).
"Why?" and "How?" are the only questions that need to be asked. Why is an upper-level question. How explains what's needed to attain the Why. Why's and How's alternate as needed for a particular situation.
For example, why does Salem exist? This is a top-level question that I've never heard asked, much less adequately answered. It, or a question very much like it, should be part of the Comprehensive Plan update. Here's some answers that I think ordinary people would offer up:
To help people who live here be happy
To be an economic center with good jobs
To preserve Oregon farm and forest land by limiting urban sprawl
There are many other possible answers, of course. My point is just that unless simple high-level vision questions are asked and answered first, a planning process is prone to veer off into bureaucratic objective/criteria setting that isn't grounded in fundamental human values.
Last week I has a pleasant conversation with Mark Wigg, who I believe used to be a transportation planner, and now is an ardent advocate for dedicated bike paths and multi-use trails in Salem. Wigg shared with me his ideas for additional paths/trails in various parts of Salem, which he hopes will be included in the Comprehensive Plan update.
In 2016 I wrote a blog post in which I shared a video of Wigg's testimony at a City Council meeting where he talked about his vision for a multi-use trail from Salemtowne to downtown. I loved how Wigg described his goal as "create beauty and spread joy."
Beautiful! This is the sort of language that ordinary people relate to. (Note: naturally professional planners can act like ordinary people when they're not planning.)
This is part of the current Salem Comprehensive Plan map. I didn't include the legend, but I can tell you that none of the colored areas, or uncolored areas, represent locations that "create beauty and spread joy."
In fact, as someone who has lived in the Salem area for 41 years, I can confidently say that many areas in this town seem deliberately planned to do exactly the opposite -- create ugliness and spread unhappiness.
Now, I'm not saying that the ultimate goal of the updated Salem Comprehensive Plan is to create beauty and spread joy. I'm just suggesting that the high-level vision of the Comprehensive Plan should include "Why?" statements that are similarly simple and reflect an aspiration that most people want Salem to strive for.
To offer up one example: I grew up in a time and place (small foothills town in central California during the 1950s and 60s) when children could ride their bikes just about everywhere they needed to go. Now, I'm bemused by lines of cars at elementary schools filled with parents waiting to pick up students.
It sure seems like a goal of the Salem Comprehensive Plan should say something like, "People of all ages should be able to ride a bicycle safely and without fear everywhere in Salem." Currently painted bike path lines on busy streets are mostly what Salem offers.
This is nowhere near good enough, in my view. And I'm pretty sure a good share of people in Salem, a majority, likely, agree with me. Yet Salem's transportation budget continues to be slanted heavily in the direction of what has been called "hydraulic autoism."
Meaning, a mechanical, habitual bias toward making vehicles move as quickly as possible, even if this is unsafe, unwise, and at odds with the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to preserve our planet's habitability for humans.
If the Salem Comprehensive Plan doesn't have a high-level goal about the need to lessen our city's reliance on fossil fuels, that plan won't be worth the paper it is printed on.