If you have to capture “urban planning” using just two or three words, what would you say? I distinctly remember being asked this question while I was a graduate student. The words that immediately jumped to my mind were foresight, hope, and coordination. While many of my classmates also came up with the first two words, just a few of us mentioned coordination. I suppose that this is not surprising considering that coordination is not really a sexy word or something that generates much excitement. Some may even think of it as simply a word that bureaucrats use to justify all of the different meetings they initiate, attend, and/or participate in. The words “coordinate” and “coordination” do not even appear in the American Planning Association (APA)’s page on “What is Planning?” or the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP)’s Code of Ethics. The Code of Ethics does, however, indicate that planners should “have special concern for the long-range consequences of present actions” and “pay special attention to the interrelatedness of decisions,” both of which inherently require coordination.
Having worked as a planner for a large jurisdiction for over a decade, it did not take me long to reach the conclusion that coordination is very important and absolutely necessary. While we may all have some idea of what it means to coordinate, I want to get us on the same page by sharing this definition (which you will find listed first when you google “coordinate”):
“bring the different elements of (a complex activity or organization) into a relationship that will ensure efficiency or harmony”
I like this definition because it really captures what coordination is meant to do: to bring various elements of a complex organization together and to ensure efficiency or harmony. I believe that one of my primary responsibilities as a planner is to coordinate or bring the appropriate players to the table and facilitate, negotiate, or broker solutions to problems. I agree with Booher and Innes (2002) when they argued that planners should be “a key part of a self-organizing process that brings together agents, enables information to flow, builds trust and reciprocity, represents interests, connects networks, and mobilizes action… They play a part in convening stakeholders and in making sure that processes can meet the conditions of network collaboration” (p. 232). Similarly, Berke (2002) sees planners as “communicators, consensus builders, mediators, and intermediaries among stakeholders” (p. 24).
I have previously written about the importance of coordination for the joint use of school facilities, creation of portable parks, and temporary closure of streets for recreation purposes. The joint use of schools as recreational facilities has been successful in many communities in California. I have argued that local jurisdictions and school districts should work together to pursue joint use projects that meet both the educational and recreational needs of underserved communities, especially those lacking parks and other amenities. To do so, they must first talk to each other, overcome challenges, and truly plan together. After all, planning is all about vision, foresight, and coordination. Similarly, creating and accommodating portable parks require different stakeholders to work together. They may include public artists, urban farmers, florists, operators of shopping malls, the local parks departments, and organizers of farmers markets. Effective collaboration and coordination are necessary given how diverse the group of stakeholders is. Also, holding events like CicLAvias requires many organizations to collaborate. This is challenging considering that the stakeholders vary widely, ranging from passionate event organizers and activists to more rigid agencies handling road closures and public safety. However, the success of past CicLAvias proves that a high level of collaboration/coordination can be achieved.
As a County of Los Angeles planner, I have experienced or seen firsthand how important multi-departmental coordination is. Specifically, I have been a part of the County’s Healthy Design Workgroup and Subdivision Committee, which are great examples of effective and necessary coordination.
Healthy Design Workgroup
The Healthy Design Workgroup (HDW) brings together representatives from the County departments of Public Health (DPH), Public Works (DPW), Parks and Recreation (DPR), Regional Planning (DRP), Fire, Community Development Commission (CDC), Chief Information Office (CIO), Beaches and Harbors (DBH), Arts Commission, Chief Executive Office (CEO), and the Internal Services Department (ISD) Office of Sustainability. DPH leads and coordinates the activities of the HDW and its subcommittees on policy, healthy design guidelines, geographic information system (GIS), interdepartmental coordination, and funding. The HDW meets on a regular basis to discuss, develop, and implement strategies for designing and building healthy environments. The interdepartmental nature of this effort is consistent with the County’s strategic planning efforts and the goals of the Board of Supervisors which support collaboration across County departments.
The HDW identified a need for greater coordination when multiple departments are engaged in projects in the same unincorporated community. Specifically, the lack of coordination creates inefficiencies for the County, and confusion and “planning fatigue” for community members. (Planning fatigue is exactly as it sounds: basically, community residents get tired of planning efforts that do not necessarily result in action or noticeable changes in the short term.) The Interdepartmental Coordination Subcommittee decided to select a community where various departments have current ongoing projects as a way to improve coordination. The unincorporated community of Willowbrook was chosen because five departments, including my own, have been conducting planning and outreach efforts in the area. In July 2013, these departments and various community organizations participated in a joint outreach event in Willowbrook hosted by DPR at a local park. Each department/organization staffed a table and provided information about the projects they were working on and the services they offered. While the primary goal of the community fair was to gather public input for the Willowbrook Community Parks and Recreation Plan I have been managing, the event also gave attendees the opportunity to interact with staff from various County departments, hear and ask questions about the projects summarized on this webpage, and learn how all of the projects are interconnected.
The HDW has also been an excellent forum for the sharing of information and instrumental in securing funding grants for the County. For example, I have given regular updates to the workgroup on the Community Parks and Recreation Plans being prepared by my department, and have received valuable feedback and assistance. Also, representatives from various departments have worked diligently and effectively together in completing grant applications and ultimately secured funding for important projects. I am particularly pleased to report that the community input we gathered through the our park planning process have aided and strengthened some of these grant applications by providing valuable supporting data.
To ensure a collaborative and integrated review of proposed subdivisions, the Board of Supervisors established the Subdivision Committee which acts in an advisory capacity and provides technical review and expertise regarding proposed subdivision projects. Subdivisions are among the most complex land use projects that the County reviews and processes. Many policies and regulations affect subdivisions and numerous public agencies, including several County departments, are involved in the review process. Furthermore, the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County comprise a large, diverse, and geographically dispersed region. The Subdivision Committee consists of representatives from the County departments of Regional Planning, Public Works, Fire, Parks and Recreation, and Public Health. I have served as my department’s representative for about five years.
The Subdivision Committee meets nearly every week of the year (depending on caseload) to discuss pending tentative and parcel maps and other subdivision applications. As Chair of the Subdivision Committee, the Department of Regional Planning is responsible for setting the agenda. Each map reviewed by the Committee depicts the design of the proposed subdivision lots, including: associated easements; streets and street cross-sections; existing drainage patterns; topography; amenities such as parks and recreational facilities; and standard notes including the scope of project, water and sewage method/sources, and utilities. Once a subdivider submits a new application or revisions to a tentative map, the materials are circulated to the Subdivision Committee for review. At Subdivision Committee meetings, subdividers and/or their representatives discuss comments from the different County departments, including requests for clarification and additional information, corrections (“holds”), and general recommendations regarding the project. When all additional information is provided and “holds” are cleared, the Subdivision Committee’s recommended conditions of map approval are forwarded to the decision-making body which may be the Hearing Officer or the Regional Planning Commission. The decision-making body only approves a project if it is supported by certain findings as well as conditions recommended by the Subdivision Committee.
As a member of the Subdivision Committee, I have seen how the coordination and review process have improved the design of subdivision projects. For example, through the committee, I work closely with my colleagues in the departments of Regional Planning and Public Works in the siting and design of proposed parks and recreational amenities in subdivisions, especially the larger ones which contain hundreds or even thousands of housing units. Recently, I have also participated in “one-stop” meetings which involve the same representatives of the Subdivision Committee and provide an opportunity for applicants to receive early input on their projects before they formally submit their applications and maps for review and processing.
Good planning requires effective collaboration and coordination. This is especially true for larger jurisdictions when addressing multi-faceted planning issues such as healthy design, and subdivision review, as I explained above. Examples of other issues that different departments are working together to address include climate change, nuisance abatement, and the use of hauled water in rural areas. Recognizing the importance and complexity of the challenges it faces, the County of Los Angeles has made great strides in its cross-departmental coordination and planning efforts. As a County planner, I have had the opportunity to participate in some of these efforts, and seen firsthand how better coordination has improved the operations of the County and its ability to meet the needs of our constituents.
Note: Photos of Willowbrook Community Fair by author.
Booher, D. E. and Innes, J. (2002). Network power in collaborative planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 21, 221-236.
Berke, P. R. (2002). Does sustainable development offer a new direction for planning? Challenges for the twenty-first century. Journal of Planning Literature, 17, 21-36.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the official views or positions of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.