Professor David Brower at the University of North Carolina once told my planning law class that we could learn a lot about planning simply by following the news. I decided to test Professor Brower’s advice with the past Sunday’s Washington Post. It did not take long to find several articles with planning implications. Here are some of the highlights from three stories.

States turning to their young to assist elderly,” by Reid Wilson

Vermont Governor Maggie Hassan is just one of many governors dealing with rapidly aging populations.
Vermont Governor Maggie Hassan is just one of many governors dealing with rapidly aging populations.

The nation’s ticking demographic time bomb is well chronicled. This article focuses on the implications for state and local economies and public budgets. Not surprisingly, Florida had the nation’s highest median age in 1990 at 36.2. By 2010 the nation’s median age was an entire year higher at 37.2 and several states topped out above 40, including Maine at 42.7.



The rapid growth in the number of older residents will surely place stress on local and state budgets. Local governments are competing for younger workers as they seek to balance their age profile and increase tax revenues. Some states are focusing on job creation through tax incentives, some are promoting education and encouraging young innovators to stay home to launch companies, and others are focusing on quality of life. New Hampshire is taking the third route through a new program called “Stay, Work, Play New Hampshire.”

So, what does this radical change in demographics mean for planning?

  • First, many aspects of our built environment are poorly suited for a graying population. The standard tools of planning – comprehensive plans, capital improvement programs, zoning, and design guidelines – must address the issue. On the flip side, we should also be thinking of how to create places that welcome and meet the unique needs of younger residents and immigrants. Smart growth approaches to development can meet the needs of all three groups.
  • Second, we should be prepared for a future in which a smaller portion of the population is in the workforce. The implications for tax revenues and public expenditures may be profound at all levels of government.

Living wage loses to Wal-Mart’s low prices,” by Aaron C. Davis

This story is somewhat related to the last one. Many large cities are growing for the first time in decades as young people move in search of jobs while others are interested in a more urban lifestyle. No one can be sure if this is a long-term trend, but corporate America seems to be catching on. Wal-Mart has made its name through large big box suburban stores. But the retailer is now looking to America’s urban cores to grow its revenue. Their move into urban environments has created tension in cities that welcome economic development and low prices, but worry about low wages and the loss of unique local shops.

Washington, DC Mayor Vincent Gray recently vetoed a bill aimed at Walmart.
Washington, DC Mayor Vincent Gray recently vetoed a bill aimed at Walmart.

In response, the D.C. Council passed a bill that would require retailers with sales of more than $1 billion per year operating stores of 75,000 square feet or more to pay at least $12.50 per hour in wages and benefits (the minimum wage in D.C. is $8.25 per hour). Wal-Mart hinted that they would pull the plug on three of their six planned D.C. stores if the bill became law. Last week Mayor Vincent Gray decided to veto the bill, arguing that residents’ access to affordable groceries, clothes, household items, and other goods outweighs the downsides.

So what does this story tell us about planning?

  • First, big box retail is an economic development conundrum for city officials. Proponents of the D.C. bill argue that higher wages are a social justice issue and will support economic development. The bill’s opponents also use economic development to support their arguments while claiming that it is unrealistic to demand higher than minimum wages from larger retailers that can move across the city line. The wage issue may be settled for now in D.C, but we are sure to see similar debates as large retailers move into other major cities.
  • Given this trend, how will cities respond to the implications for the built environment? Clearly Wal-Mart, Target, and other large retailers want to be in cities. Planners will play an important role working with these retailers to adjust their model to fit within an urban, walkable city.

Purple line would leave more than tracks in areas,” by Katherine Shaver

This article captures some of the timeless NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) issues faced by planners everywhere. Maryland is planning a light rail line that will cut across the northern D.C. suburbs. The project is generating a lot of buzz from neighbors as it goes through the environment review process. Many residents support better rail access, but are concerned about the effects of the supporting equipment such as 20 power substations, 14 signal bungalows, and a 9-story ventilation tower. One Montgomery County Councilmember said “It’s starting to get serious now. Now it’s really getting down to the nitty gritty…” The article ends with the ominous warning that many issues regarding eminent domain and project impacts may be heading for the courts.

The Maryland Transit Association is proposing to build a Purple Line substation on this grassy patch in Montgomery County, MD.
The Maryland Transit Association is proposing to build a Purple Line substation on this grassy patch in Montgomery County, MD.

So, what does this third planning article tell us about modern planning?

  • First, environmental review is one of the longest and most difficult stages of any major infrastructure project. But this is a crucial stage that allows officials to make fully informed decisions and identify mitigation options while giving residents an opportunity to share their ideas and concerns. Congress has shown interest in streamlining environmental review, and took some steps in that direction through the recent surface transportation law, but it remains an arduous process.
  • Second, despite our best efforts to involve the public early in the planning process, most people only become involved as the project moves closer to reality and their direct interests are at stake. Fortunately there are new tools, such as MindMixer websites, that make it easier for people to get involved at early stages of a project.

While these are somewhat random musings about planning in the news, I think they are connected by politics. Planning is inherently connected to the political process. We must pay attention to the trends and issues of the day in order to do our jobs as planners well. I’m reminded of Professor Brower’s sage advice every Sunday morning as I catch up on the news over a cup of coffee.

-- Mike Callahan, Cities that Work Blog