P.J. O'Rourke once referred to the United States government as a "vast, rampant cuttlefish," writhing and squirting ink all over the place to no useful effect. I think D.C.'s tubluence has far exceeded even that metaphor, but taking its place lately are California's municipal general plans.

In one of the most chipper of this week's sessions at the American Planning Association California Chapter's Annual Conference, we heard some compelling ideas about how cities can rein in their general plans and reconfigure them for the 21st century, even while the rest of the world is going to pieces. 

Looking on the Bright Side

Elaine Costello, chair of the California Planning Roundtable, pointed the audience to reinventingthegeneralplan.org, which chronicles the Planning Roundtable's efforts. She presented ten principles for reinvention that the working group has settled on: 

1. Create a broad vision that involves the community

2. Manage change by allowing a community to have the information that allows them to make choices and adapt to unforeseen changes. 

3.  General plans should "make life better."

4.  Build community identity; express people's pride in what their community is. 

5.  Promoting social equity and economic prosperity, with a variety of businesses. 

6.  Care for and enhance the environment. 

7.  Engage the whole community, reducing the number of elements as needed in order to make it more accessible. 

8.  Look beyond local boundaries. 

9.  Prioritize action; drive public investment, operational decisions, and even day-to-day actions. 

10. Be universally attainable.  

Of course, planners could probably interpret these guidelines into ghastly documents. But as a vision for general plans, they appear far more reasonable than much of the minutiae that planners often drown in on the way to producing a politically palatable document.

I have to take issue, though, with the forth point. Community identity is important, and cities should differ from each other. Too many places have too little identity. But the obverse of identity is exclusion: a place that asserts a strong identity necessarily repels people who do not fit that identity. Planners must, therefore, tread lightly when they envision what a city should be "like" so that they emphasize identities that can be chosen and not those that are dictated by ethnicity or class. 

Signs of the Times

Planning consultant Barry Miller was not quite so sanguine about the prospect of reinventing the general plan. His presentation focused, without mincing words, on ten forces that have influenced general plans -- for better and worse -- since 1984, with the seven basic elements were established. 

1.  Big Data. Planners must be wary of the explosion of data available to them, raging from Google Street View to the piles of studies that a single EIR can generate.   

2.  Subject Creep. The 1000-page is not a good thing, especially when it opines on everything under the sun. Miller even suggested that discussions of public health and obesity do not belong in general plans. "We need to put our general plans on a diet as well," as well. He even mentioned plans in other states that address criminal justice.  

3. Ever-changing plan map. Miller noted that the GP map is supposed to be general, and yet GIS allows maps to get too detailed. GP maps should not be a zoning map. He and Costello both suggested that general plan maps show how parts of a cities will "change" (if at all). 

4.  Telescoping geography. Breaking the city down from vision to citywide policies to areawide policies to community plans. 

5. Adapting to fiscal distress. General updates are not cheap. Therefore, cities have been deferring updates, doing only basic housekeeping, employing city/consultant hybrids, and resorting to creative funding. All of these, he said, make for weaker general plans. 

6.  CEQA. Miller insisted that fear of legal challenge should not drive generals. 

7. Ascendency of the Housing Element. Miller invoked "the Dreaded letter" from Housing and Community Development that could upend a plan. He said that cities rely on "smoke and mirrors solutions" in order to comply rather than pursuing "creative, context-sensitive planning." 

8.  Measurement. Miller lamented the tendency to try to make everything measurable. He noted that the pursuit of sustainability has prompted planners to try to boil down everything to numbers like GHG emissions and vehicle miles traveled.  

9. New Transportation Paradigm. Miller celebrated the "death of level-of-service" ratings for roads and the shift away from mode-specific silos. 

10. New Face of Public Input. With electronic and social media, Miller said that the good outweighs the bad. He encouraged cities to put up videos and maintain Facebook pages for their general plan updates. 

Brave New World

Pasadena planning director Vince Bertoni offered a new paradigm, borne out by the latest census data: general plans need to start accounting for population change, not population growth. With the aging of the baby boomers, Bertoni said that cities will have to rethink how they plan and for whom they are planning. 

At the same time that the population is aging, Bertoni called on cities to embrace the new. Bertoni offered not the obvious advice for cities to employ new technologies. Rather, he cautioned planners to be mindful of the rate of technological change and the impacts that those changes can have on the built environment. He pointed to the trend in "open" offices that almost no one was planning for even ten years ago. His point was that general plans need to be flexible enough to adapt to technological changes that have not yet occurred, especially when general plans often take more than five years to produce -- "if you're lucky," said Bertoni. 

In other words, once iPhones are old hat, we may want different sorts of places in which to chat on our cyborg phones. Even in "Old Town" Pasadena.