Discussing "An Unquiet Land Use Revolution": An Interview with Professor Sy Adler

A professor of urban planning at Portland State University since 1982, Sy Adler has released  a new book, Oregon Plans: The Making of an Unquiet Land Use Revolution. The book, a result of several years of archival research and interviews, weaves an impressively detailed narrative of the roots and early days of Oregon’s statewide planning program, highlighting the key actors and negotiations that played a crucial role in the program’s design and implementation.

Professor Adler presented on his book at Portland State University on Wednesday morning, May 8, and later sat down for an interview with 1000 Friends. The edited transcript below includes Adler’s comments from both events.

1000 Friends is pleased to host Professor Sy Adler as a speaker in our 2012 McCall Society Speaker Series, on Thursday evening, June 7, at Willlamette University in Salem. RSVPs are required. Click here to learn more and RSVP.

Why did you decide to write this book about the roots of Oregon planning?

I was responding to a concern, which became strong after the anti-planning ballot measures of the early 2000s, that many Oregonians today don’t know about the roots of the land use program. I thought it would be interesting and potentially useful to revisit and write about the way the land use program’s creation actually played out. There’s a lot written about the Oregon planning program—but much of it is older, and wasn’t based on archival material. It was based on interviews. It seemed to me that a lot remained to be said.

I also wanted to write for a general audience. I wanted the book to be interesting and accessible to everyone—activists of different sorts, elected officials, businesspeople, Realtors. It is almost everybody who has some interest and stake in land use. Land use is your daily life.

What can we learn by looking at the roots of Oregon planning in such depth?

There were an awful lot of conflicts in the early days, and we are still fighting over a lot of these same issues. So it’s relevant to see how these were framed earlier on, and how they were addressed. The question that I’m always asking is, “What’s similar and different about our own time to how it was then?” And if we’re still fighting about many of the same things, then are the strategies that people managed to end up agreeing with early on still the right ways to think about how to deal with similar issues in our own time?

And how did the planning program’s creators, opponents and implementers come to resolution of those issues at the time?

We have to realize that almost always they were temporary resolutions: “This is the common ground we’ve been able to reach at this point, and we know the world’s going to change, and we will of necessity keep talking about these sorts of things.”

What emerged early on was a community of planners, not just the card-carrying planners, but everyone with a piece of the action. They saw themselves as members of a community and they tried to work through these issues, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so successfully. But they saw themselves a community that evolves. There were a lot of smart people, and they studied what was happening elsewhere. They were borrowing but also tinkering so that it made sense in this context.

The most common stories about the planning program’s creation focus on several individuals, including Governor Tom McCall; legislators like Hector Macpherson, Ted Hallock and Nancie Fadeley; and 1000 Friends co-founder Henry Richmond. What major players do you think are too often left out of the story?

For one, there are the local planners themselves, at the state level and the local level, who helped shape the program’s design and its implementation. The program could never have succeeded without them.

Also there was the business community. John Gray was a central actor, as was Glenn Jackson.

And the role of Governor Bob Straub should be more widely appreciated, because he came up with the money to fund the program even when the Oregon economy wasn’t doing well. If local governments hadn’t received that money they probably wouldn’t have finished their plans.

After SB 100 was passed, the new Department of Land Conservation and Development went about creating statewide planning goals that would guide the system’s implementation. They famously held many workshops around the state and spoke with thousands of Oregonians. How did public engagement help shape the planning program?

After SB 100 was passed, Goals ended up being a pretty comprehensive list. It’s interesting to look at their development, and see the set of distinct periods. In the early period after SB 100, DLCD staff were out all over the state, trying to do a bottom-up process.

When [first DLCD Director] Arnold Cogan was in eastern Oregon, he would ask them, ‘What should we do over on the coast?’ In Southern Oregon, they would ask people, ‘What about the Gorge?’” He didn’t just say, ‘Tell me about your own backyard.’ He said, ‘Think as an Oregonian.’

They consciously tried to nurture a statewide point of view as they went around the state while also trying to get people’s opinions about what was happening locally.

Public participation also reflected a growing feminist movement in Oregon, including voices like Dorothy Anderson of the League of Women Voters, who was one of the first LCDC commissioners, and Joyce Cohen, a resident of Lake Oswego who later became a legislator.

Was this statewide mindset already something Oregonians were accustomed to?

Yes. It was still a situation when a lot of city people had direct experience with farms. A lot of people who lived in Portland, for example, originated in rural areas. Many, many people had personal experience of both urban and small town life. It wasn’t a stretch to try to hold together those diverse sets of concerns.

People in rural areas also had a son or daughter who went into a city. Many urban business leaders originated in small towns. People like John Gray, or Glenn Jackson, came from tiny little towns, rose to prominence, became city people—but they still had that connection. It was a product of the times, and people felt it was changing.

How do you think that cross-Oregon connection can be maintained today?

I think there’s more awareness of trying to bridge that divide now than there was a few years ago. The people in rural areas are more linked to metropolitan areas than they were previously. I’m hopeful that the divide can be bridged.

Universities should bring people together, non-profit organizations, and people who have a background in both worlds should play a role in bridging the gap.

There’s a lot of diversity in rural areas, too. We have to get beyond the general terms and recognize that urban and rural Oregon both have a great deal of diversity.

Why was 1000 Friends important to the early days of the Oregon land use planning program?

1000 Friends’ staff were as politically astute and technically sophisticated as anybody. And they liked both. They were really smart, but they also knew the importance of political activity, and they were great at both. That’s a powerful combination. They didn’t have a ton of money to throw around. So they had to be persuasive, and knowing that they had to persuade politically as well as technically, was critically important. And it was an absolutely key contribution to the survival of the program during its early years.

Another thing that was always interesting to me as a planner was that 1000 Friends folks were more ‘plannerly’ than many planners: in the insistence of getting the facts, doing inventories, being explicit about how you get from where we are to where we want to be, being explicit about the choices one is making, and building a record that explicitly presents the situation, the alternatives, the analysis, the decision. They insisted upon that, and I think that did a great deal for planning practice.

1000 Friends understood early on, and has continued, to work both sides of the street—conservation and development. Henry Richmond believed in a land use organization, not an environmental one per se. And so building alliances under that heading, utilizing that framework, was critically important.

What message do you think younger Oregonians need to hear today about land use planning, nearly forty years after the program’s creation?

In a class I’m teaching right now, I’ve been using the recently adopted Portland Plan as the text. I’m telling my freshman students:

“This is about your life.  Everything in here relates to your daily life, and so you’ve got to see yourself as an active participant, because it’s about you. It’s not rocket science. It’s daily life. The choices we have to make are about all of us. We are all in this together.”

Hear more about the roots of Oregon planning, and what they say about our future, at our 2012 McCall Society Speaker Series event with Professor Adler, in Salem on Thursday evening, June 7. Learn more here.