Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Does the best planning happen in a recession?

I have thoroughly enjoyed guest-blogging on Land Use Prof Blog this past month.  As my final post in this stint, I thought I’d throw out a “truism” an august member of the California land use community once told me, which was that “the best planning happens in recessions.”  This attorney’s argument was that, given the cyclical nature of the real estate market, when things are going hot and heavy, there is no time for local governments to think—they are simply trying to keep up with the permits that are coming across their desks.  It is also hard for local governments to change course in peak of a market because so many private-side decisions have been made based upon existing policies, and so it become politically difficult in a lot of jurisdictions to make changes that would jeopardize those large projects.

The recessionary part of the cycle, on the other hand, gives a chance for local governments to think about big ideas, and try to find ways to make their long-term goals emerge once the market returns.  This also makes sense for the private sector, because once the market heats up, they know the rules created in the recessionary phase, have stability in the growth phase, and that certainly helps in conversations with lenders.

My question to the group is:  is this “truism” true?  Does the best planning happen in a recession?  And if so, is the community where you live doing the most right now to make sure that, when the market returns, the growth that happens will fulfill the community’s vision and also be predictable for developers and investors?  My sense is that most communities in this recession are still looking backwards, trying to clean up the foreclosure mess and trying to solve the jobs issue.  I’d like to encourage each of us to think about how we can get communities looking forward on land use issues and planning for the future, even when there is so much to clean up from the Great Recession.  My gut instinct is that the best planning does happen in recessions, and communities that look forward now will be those prospering most in the decades ahead.

Stephen Miller


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