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Leadership in Urban Planning, After Two Successful Stints as a Planning Director

Peter Park is the director of Peter J. Park, LLC and a former planning director of Denver and Milwaukee. In this interview, Park shares insights from a career of leadership in though and action in the field of urban planning.
October 17, 2019, 9am PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Peter J. Park, LLC
Peter Park delivering a lecture in Sydney, Australia.

Peter Park embodies a special kind of eloquent and focused leadership, having served as planning director of two American cities at critical times in their planning and development history, before entering the private sector as a consultant and continuing to serve the field while teaching urban design and planning at the University of Colorado Denver.  

In this interview, Park shares insights about planning and urban design, like "zoning is not planning and vice versa," that should be shared widely to share the message of the potential, and limitations, of urban planning to a wider audience.

The interview is excerpted in full from the 6th Edition of the Planetizen Guide to Graduate Urban Planning Programs, published on September 3, 2019.

What kind of work do you do as the head of your own planning company?

I’m a sole practitioner, so my work occurs in two ways.

Sometimes I team with other firms and, as a sub-consultant, serve as a strategic advisor to the consulting team and the client. In this capacity, I’ve worked on projects ranging from citywide code updates in Los Angeles, Austin, and Oklahoma City to urban design and development strategies for Denver International Airport. I’ve been fortunate to partner with some of the best firms around in tackling really challenging projects.

The other type of consulting I do is work directly with executive-levels of government, non-government organizations, institutions, or private businesses. In these cases, I work directly for the administrative or political management of cities (such as planning directors and mayors’ offices); thought leaders and advocacy groups (such as business or nonprofit organizations); and private developers on planning, design, and development-related matters. This type of work has included assisting the city of Houston (famous for not having zoning regulations) initiate its first Comprehensive Plan; assisting the city of Memphis to create a new planning department and initiate the first update of its comprehensive plan in 40 years; assisting the city of Denver to prepare the first update of Blueprint Denver and conceptualize a new Neighborhood Planning Initiative; and assisting the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center to prepare its first Master Plan. I’ve also worked with various groups to advance local knowledge and expertise in transit-oriented development (TOD) and zoning and transportation reform both in the United States and abroad, including in India and Mexico.

Recently, I’ve been working with private developers on “suburban retrofits” to create walkable urban places in areas that originally developed primarily around the automobile. These projects include design of a new mixed-use center in a suburban office park in Madison, WI and redevelopment of a large office site along a six-lane arterial in Denver, CO that has been designated as a future bus-rapid transit corridor. I’ve been very fortunate to work on game-changing initiatives in great cities with innovative leadership and talent.

Can you describe to a layperson where zoning codes fit into the professional field of planning? How does zoning become a niche professional practice for some planners?

Zoning regulations control how land is developed. Simply, they are tools for implementing adopted plans. Zoning is not planning and vice versa. It’s important to distinguish between the two because in practice, they’re often conflated. When that happens, a fundamental planning discipline is lost.

Planning is the process of broadly, meaningfully, and effectively engaging communities to define their collective vision and aspirations for their future. This process culminates in the adoption of plans and policies for future development as the basis for regulatory changes and capital infrastructure investments. Planning and establishing a future vision should precede zoning changes.

I’ve found that communities that have lost the basic planning discipline often experience controversies over zoning. Because they have not kept their plans up to date with clear, broadly supported policy guidance on what to do, proposed zoning changes can force communities into a very reactive position. In other cases, there may be clear policy guidance but the codes have not been updated comprehensively. Due to mismatches between what communities want and the rules that control development, zoning often becomes onerous, especially in fast-growing cities. People often first hear about the topic of zoning because of a controversial project that requires a zoning change or a variance. In these situations, a lot of time can be spent negotiating on an individual, site-by-site basis. If this goes on for a long time (and becomes the norm), the zoning system can get really complicated and messed up. This is one reason why zoning becomes a niche practice.

Fixing these situations is not easy because it is a big effort to update a zoning code citywide. It’s political and technical, so there’s a lot to it. Instead of fixing the base zoning system, many cities have defaulted to a complex array of workarounds, unique procedures, new zoning techniques, overlays, and other tools to deliver the vision they’re trying to achieve. But the cumulative effect of these customized approaches often creates a base zoning system that doesn’t work (as it becomes more obsolete) and a greater dependence on an ever-expanding and often inconsistent mess of one-off regulations and processes. The problem is, over time, planners, elected officials, developers, the community and their representatives operate in a dysfunctional regulatory system. Once you’ve learned it, it’s hard to imagine it could be any different and often even harder to find the political will to change it. This is a challenge many cities are dealing with today. In my experience, effectively addressing broken zoning systems starts with getting back to the fundamental discipline of distinguishing between planning and zoning and improving the capacity to plan first. This takes strong leadership from elected officials and was key to getting unanimous city council support for the citywide code updates I led while planning director in Milwaukee and Denver.

The other concept that jumps out from your bio is the phrase “urban design.” You’ve taught courses in urban design and have an architecture background. Can you describe the emerging and continuing growth of design concepts in the practice of planning?

Planning is about people, first and foremost. People generally know what they want and like, but they sometimes find it difficult to describe in words and even more difficult to draw. The thing about design is that it’s a visual exercise. Today, planners and urban designers are fortunate to have many tools for engaging communities around design and placemaking. Increasingly, because of technology and the way that conversations about planning have evolved, a growing emphasis on the quality of built environment—the experiential aspects of communities—has emerged in big ways. This is a good thing.

Urban design is about the public realm, and as we’ve seen the “return to the city” and urbanism strengthen communities, form-based codes have greatly contributed to making better places through better design. Unlike conventional use-based zoning, form-based codes focus on the space between buildings, the relationship between buildings and the street, and how buildings shape and animate the experience of the public realm at a human scale. While form-based techniques are proven and have been around for some time, there’s still a lot to do in terms of evolving conventional zoning practice in support of better design outcomes.

Another way design is evolving beyond the practices of the 20th century is in the reconfiguration and use of public rights-of-way. This change is resulting from many factors, such as growing public transit options, scooter and bike sharing, ride hailing, and autonomous vehicles. Fundamentally, the shift has been toward reprioritizing public space for people and walking rather than just accommodating automobiles. As the technological evolution of transportation continues, the critical thing to remember is that cities are for people. The lessons from our past teach us that we must always first design to the human scale.

This is very exciting because my interests have always been at the intersection of design, policy, and community engagement. By definition, urban design integrates multiple disciplines. In my experience, an emphasis on design quality has always been essential to desirable results, whether working in the realm of form-based codes, replacing highways in cities with rich street networks, or retrofitting auto-dependent areas to become walkable urban places. Design matters and especially so in shaping the public realm.

How do you describe the distinctions in working as a planner in the public sector as compared to the private sector?

It’s interesting, because when I was in graduate school and early in my career, I never imagined myself working in the public sector. However, when I was asked to be the Planning Director of Milwaukee (less than five years out of graduate school!), I knew it was an incredible opportunity, and I jumped in. It made me realize and truly appreciate what a privilege it is to serve in the public sector. I’ve been fortunate to work with some really amazing people who are deeply committed to their city and many who have devoted their entire career to public service. I will say these people are too often under-appreciated for the amount of effort and commitment they put into their work every single day.

Denver continues to be an urban planning and design success story. Peter Park served as planning director of the growing city from 2004 to 2011. (Image by Arina P Habich via Shutterstock) 

My private practice today is a bit unique because when I’m on a team or working directly with a client, often what I bring to the team or client is a public sector perspective based on insights I gained as a planning director of two large but very different U.S. cities. These experiences taught me a lot, for example, a deep understanding of the political nature of planning (just because you’re correct doesn’t mean you’re right); the importance of not coming to conclusions too quickly; being deliberate about how we talk and who we talk to; doing due diligence to fully understand the issues; not defining problems with solutions (defining the problem first and then developing solution options); and identifying and working within a shared value system developed from deep community collaboration.

Planning issues can sometimes be controversial and uncomfortable for city planning staff. Working in the private sector, you’re not immune to controversy, but often times, as a consultant, you can provide a bridge and a sort of “third-party” perspective to help resolve difficult issues. A role I’ve played as a consultant has been bringing additional awareness and strategic perspective on how we can, through greater collaboration, be more effective for our clients and the communities we serve.

What advice would you give to a young planner with ambition to ascend into a leadership role in a planning department or within a city’s bureaucracy? Are there lessons they should be taking from their graduate studies, or pathways they should be pursuing as they begin their career?

Broaden your experiences as much as you can. If you know you want a career in the public sector, get some private sector experience so you understand your future customers’ needs and motivations. If your school has architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, real estate development, or transportation engineering programs, get to know students in those programs and take courses with them if possible. Attend their public guest lectures and design studio crits to hear and learn what they’re talking about and how they’re talking about planning and design issues. Also, pursue as many public speaking opportunities and present your opinions in public forums as much as you can. Attend public hearings and listen to people and study the most effective effective ways to communicate ideas.

When I started my planning career in Milwaukee, the work there, and in most cities at the time, was about attracting investment and people back to the city. Today, the return to the city is strong, but we shouldn’t take that for granted. The return to the city has brought investment and new populations of people back, which is a good thing—better than abandoning the city—but it has also created another set of concerns, including displacement, gentrification, affordability, and traffic. I would like young planners to really understand the origins of planning practice, and especially the two camps of thinking from which the profession grew. One focused on physical design and the other focused on social concerns. It’s also important for young planners to understand the evolution of planning practice from a very top-down, bureaucratic system (and the impositions, divisions, and inequities that model created) to the more engaged and community-based approaches in place today.

An understanding of the fundamental aspects of market economics is also essential. One of the challenges that we have in our market economy is that when it comes to real estate, it’s not easy to find the right balance between accommodating growth, maintaining neighborhoods, and helping people become successful in their own community. Unfortunately, in places where growth is happening very quickly, there are increasing feelings of division—that any growth is equal to gentrification and displacement, and therefore it’s all bad. We need to find ways to address these concerns to lessen the polarizing effects (and perceptions) of urban growth and evolution. As cities become stronger central places where people want to work, live, learn, and play, a better understanding of the relationship between how market economies work (and evolve) and the appropriate role of government is needed to ensure we create just, sustainable, and equitable cities in the future.

What are your ambitions in the next five to ten years, having already accomplished so much in your career?

As planners, our work often takes a long time and there’s a lot more to do that I look forward to being part of. For now, I’m enjoying my work as a consultant and focusing on ways to grow my practice. Since starting my firm, I’ve been very fortunate to work on really interesting projects with truly remarkable people. At some point, I might consider a public sector position again. I’ve worked for great mayors in great cities, so it’d definitely have to be the right situation, but I think serving in the public sector is one of the noble things one can do. It’s a great privilege to serve one’s community.

For more from Peter Park, see also an interview published by Planetizen in 2014.

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