Small Cities Face Large Challenges With Public - Private Partnerships
by Martin Flores, ASLA

While large-scale cities have grabbed the headlines regarding the rebirth of their downtowns, many small cities (those with populations of less than 60,000) have been undergoing profound and fundamental changes that redefine their focus, purpose, and importance in the regional context. With the recent economy downturn, rising price of gas, housing costs, and decreased tolerance for long commutes, these small cities face issues unimagined only a few years ago. In this age of telecommuting, home offices, and more sophisticated and demanding populations, many small cities are facing the demand for a more complete range of land uses, services, and life choices. Affordable housing has often been neglected as a focus, and workforce housing can be seen to disappear as the allure of “small town living” draws in city dwellers, with a resulting increase in home prices.

Few small cities have set aside or zoned land within the downtown to allow a mixture of housing types or amended their General Plans or zoning regulations to allow for higher densities. Aging infrastructure is stressed because higher densities increase capacities overloading and make existing infrastructure obsolete. In some cases, advocates representing populations that want to live in a “small town” and retain a “rural” non-urban character sometimes dominate the political structure. There has been a troubling pattern of opposition to growth, and failure of cities to levy funding for future infrastructure requests, as slow growth or no growth advocacy arises. It has become difficult to increase the tax structure, and proposals to increase the tax base by approving more taxable uses have also come under attack. Local movements opposed to large homes on small parcels are gaining momentum, and seek to lower floor-area-ratio and reduce allowed house sizes. The situation has become all the more difficult because many cities have minimum staffs that have been strained by trying to address the complexities and ripple effects of new challenges. As a result many cities are turning to the formulation of short-term public/private planning partnerships to address their new realities.

As these cities mature, they find the need to address housing within the price range of their workforce; the need to find acreage parcels for new school campuses; the demand for more parks; and increased stress on the public safety network. The result is a staff under stress, trying to cope with a broad range of planning and development issues of increasing complexity, and struggling to educate the public and the decision-makers as to the inevitabilities of population growth and economic complexities.

Adding staff has become more difficult, so some small cities have started to turn to “extensions to staff” by contracting with private planning firms to focus on complex project applications, amendments to the General Plan, the development of Specific Plans, or re-writing the zoning code. The advantage of this approach is to allow the core city staff, who have a complete and in-grained knowledge of their local zoning and subdivision regulations, written and unwritten policies, history of certain entitlement applications, and the political landscape, to focus on their core strengths: the protection and enhancement of community character through the review and processing of entitlement and building applications.

Private planning and landscape architectural firms—working shoulder-to-shoulder with city staff—have brought their own skill sets of varied and wide-ranging expertise to bear in addressing large projects, or broad planning challenges such as updated General Plans, Specific Plans, and revisions to the zoning regulations. With this public/private teamwork, the city benefits by having intense focus concentrated on one large issue of grave importance, free of the distractions of day-to-day operations—a luxury that city staff cannot typically afford. In addition, once the private planners and landscape architects have completed their contractual obligations, the city bears no long-term commitment to the health benefits, salary, and pensions that would remain in place had the city simply added new employees.  In effect, the city can then expand and contract its defacto “staff” to suit the challenges it faces. The answers, then, for some small cities with small staffs, has been to form periodic and selected affiliations with private planners.

Public/private collaboration has been shown to work in small cities throughout California and Arizona. The relationship between public and private practitioners in smaller cities tends to be more long-lasting due to the size of the smaller city’s staff and their personal experiences with each project. Landscape architects and planners bring a mix of skill sets that enhance public/private collaboration in these complex and burdening times.

Martin Flores, ASLA, is a member of Rick Engineering Company, Inc. in San Diego and is chair of the Landscape-Land Use Planning PPN. He can be reached at 

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