Generations of Planning Commissioners

Planning and zoning commissions need to be diverse to make sure the broad range of issues and concerns are considered. That requires commissioners who are from different parts of town, different walks of life, different ethnic backgrounds, and now, different age groups.
Photo: Wayne Senville

Each of us brings our own knowledge and perspectives to our service on a planning commission or zoning board.

At the same time, I think it's fair to say, each of us has blinders on when it comes to at least some of the issues in our own community. That's only natural. There's only so much we can know and be aware of, especially if it's not an issue or concern that directly affects us.

Planning commissions often aim for geographic diversity for that very reason, to increase the odds that issues particularly important to one part of the city, town, or county, won't be ignored or lost sight of.

Similarly, commissions are wise to have a balance of points of view represented. Usually, we think of these in terms of professions or issues -- realtor; environmentalist; attorney; community activist; and so on. But many commissions also take steps to have representation that reflects gender and ethnic diversity.

In the Spring issue of the Planning Commissioners Journal one of the articles we're running -- written by Kit Hodge, director of The Neighbors Project -- looks at ways of involving Gen Xers and Millenials in the local planning process.

Hodge notes that "Plugging in younger residents can be easier said than done. Younger Americans are notorious for being addicted to the Internet and shy to meet in person. So if you're used to reaching people through print newsletters and public meetings, you'll need to adjust your approach." As she explains: "younger residents want to stay in the loop and provide feedback, but the traditional public forum setting often makes no sense to them."

Among the ideas Hodge suggests:

  • Put all of your content and proceedings online.
  • Create opportunities to provide feedback on planning commission issues through your web site, blog, or e-mail list.
  • Meet with the individuals behind the blogs about life in your town, especially if they're in their 20s or 30s.
  • Designate a point person or subcommittee of your commission to create a plan for attracting and engaging younger residents.

Hodge also stresses the need to go out and meet with younger people. Good contacts, she says, include college alumni offices, sports leagues, and even dog owners. "Dog runs [are] a good place to meet many younger residents who have dogs, but may not have kids."

We also sought feedback from our readers and others about what it takes to attract members of these generations to planning commission service.

Some of the ideas we heard:

  • Pay planning commissioners for their service, as this will help attract people with kids, family, and jobs.
  • Publicize what the planning commission is, what it does, and why it is relevant.
  • Consider shorter appointment terms, as individuals in their 20s and 30s may be reluctant to make lengthy time commitments.
  • Have an eligibility list for the commission based on stated criteria, not a process where elected officials can pick their friends.

A number of the comments we received were in response to questions I posed on the Cyburbia land use forum.

I'd welcome hearing from you. What are you doing to get a range of ages on your planning commission? What works, and what doesn't? And last, but not least, do you believe different generations bring different perspectives to planning and development issues?


Wayne Senville is Editor of the Planning Commissioners Journal, a national quarterly for citizen planners now in its 17th year. Senville served for nine years as a member of the Burlington, Vermont, Planning Commission, including three years as its Chair.

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