Interview with John Fregonese

As a regional government, Metro pioneered in very long-term planning in the US at regional level with the formulation of the 2040 Growth Concept regional vision. The plan, formulated as early as 1995, is a landmark in long-term planning using the innovative approach of scenario planning whereby alternative concepts of growth were explored before finalising the vision’s growth concept. The 2040 Growth Concept was developed to guide planning in the region over a 50-year horizon and plays a crucial role in complementing the urban growth boundary concept to create dense, walkable and livable cities in the region. Developed through a series of public engagement processes, the plan is both popular and pragmatic.

The long-range plan identifies ten urban design types, namely, city centres, main streets, regional centres, town centres, station communities around light-rail, industrial areas and freight terminals, green corridors, and rural reserves/open spaces. The set of strategies are targeted at ensuring safe and stable neighbourhoods for families, compact development, a healthy economy that generates jobs and business opportunities, protection of farms and natural areas, a balanced transportation system for people and goods, and housing for people of all incomes in every community.

John Fregonese, President, Fregonese Associates

The primary author of the 2040 Growth Concept is John Fregonese, who joined Metro as planning director and worked for five years before starting his own planning firm Fregonese Associates in 1997. Rich in experience, John Fregonese has since then undertaken similar planning exercises for many other cities including Denver and Dallas, and regions including Utah and Chicago. In an interview with The Urban Vision, John Fregonese generously shares his insights and provides lessons for Indian planners.

Read on to understand why and how successful long-term planning is undertaken.

John Fregonese, President, Fregonese Associates

You were involved with formulating the 2040 Growth Concept for the Portland metropolitan region. How was the concept initiated? Why was such a long planning horizon chosen by Metro, as this was not common practice at the time?

Oregon adopted its Statewide Planning System in 1973 at the Conference of Planning, so there already was a tradition of preparing 20-year plans here. Each city had to do comprehensive city planning and land-use planning for a 20 year forecast of population. In part, this required calculating the required urban growth boundary (UGB) and urban land for the next 20 years. So, as early as the 70s and 80s, cities were figuring out the capacity of their plans – how many people will it hold if the plan is built out – over a long-term. With the primary concern being limiting the expansion and sprawl of cities, the calculations involved became fairly rigorous and were observed and critiqued by the state government through the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD). The DLCD closely scrutinized the comprehensive city plan calculations, commenting on issues such as sprawl, excessive and unjustified land allocations, low densities, etc. The most closely scrutinized aspect of the plans was the land required to grow, especially if it involved an expansion of the UGB.

Hence, we ended up with a state-wide coordinated planning system that basically evolved into a system of coordinated population forecasts done at the county level. Based on these forecasts, each city was allocated its share, for which it would then prepare a comprehensive development plan in compliance with state goals the way it deemed fit. While all other cities in the state had their own individual UGBs, the Portland metropolitan region (comprising 25 cities and three counties) was the only region to have a single coordinated UGB because the cities were all growing together. The only function of Metro, the regional agency, at this time was to monitor this coordinated UGB, basically like a referee calling off-sides. There was no regional planning agency.

In the late 80s, it was realised that maintaining a UGB was not improving what was happening within it. A period of rapid growth had started, creating dissatisfaction with the existing urban form, and congestion. Consequently, the state established urban reserves based on a 50-year outlook, beyond the traditional 20 year outlook. The urban reserves were identified by determining where the land is that could be required over a very long term (50 years). Simultaneously, there was a serious look at transportation and land-use alternatives (such as public transit) to building roads for adding transportation capacity for reducing the vehicle miles travelled (VMT). Hence, the region moved along the track of driving less, using less land and trying to be more sustainable.

Further on, in 1992 Metro adopted a home rule charter. This meant that Metro no longer needed to go to the state government to get permission for doing things. It could go to local voters. Hence, a form of government was established that is very close to voters. So in Oregon, they created a new kind of government, which is the regional government, having the same basic authority to create laws as a city or county. There are very few such governments in the whole world, making Metro kind of unique. In fact, Metro is the only regional government in the US that is elected and has a Home Rule Charter.

According to the Home Rule Charter, the number one purpose of Metro was planning. It required Metro to prepare a vision by 1995 and have a functional plan that implements this vision by 1997. And that is basically how the 50-year plan came about.

At this point in time, I was hired by Metro for preparing the plan. While others were apprehensive of taking the job, for me it was a great opportunity to take a big risk and move way up in my category. Before that, I was a planner for Ashland, Oregon which is a city of 50,000; all of a sudden I was planning for a region of 1.5 million. So the scope of planning increased for me by a factor of a 100.

The approach we took was of scenario planning, where we would ask what happens if we follow one path and what happens if we follow another path and then compare those alternatives. From that comparison, we would figure out a strategy that would work and was politically feasible. This is where long term planning and vision for the region came from. We adopted a 50-year outlook —50 years of land needs, a long term transportation plan, etc. — because it really does take that long a period to observe substantial differences between alternatives, which are an integral part of the scenario planning work that we did.

The 2040 growth concept has been implemented for the Portland metropolitan region since 1995 (officially since 1997). Since then a lot of other communities have done the same— maybe not for 50 years, but 20, 30 or even 40 years. It is not uncommon anymore to find 2040 and 2050 regional plans in the US. I just came back from Chicago and they have a plan for the region that goes till 2040. San Diego in California has a plan that goes till 2050. These are examples of long-term regional plans that coordinate local planning.

Why is it important to plan at the regional level rather than allow cities to plan as autonomous units?

The region is the functional organising unit; the region is the level at which cities in a metropolitan area actually work. There is clearly a big role for cities to play in doing the planning. However, coordinating it regionally leads to tremendous efficiencies, much better land use, better coordination between their plans, and less destructive fighting between cities. Moreover, transportation must be coordinated at a regional level; this has been known for a long time now. We have seen regional transportation plans since the 1950s. The innovation that the Portland metropolitan region has demonstrated, which has also been widely adopted now, is integrating transportation and land-use. Since local governments want to manage their land-use locally, we have to work out programmes such that it is in their benefit to cooperate with the regional government. For selling a plan to local governments, one must determine their goals and find overlaps with regional goals, and then promote those areas where the interests overlap.

Ideally, regional plans should precede city plans; this is never the case in the real world. Usually, city plans already exist when developing the regional plan. So one must look at existing plans and coordinate them. I do think that local governments are open to changing their city plans if you can make them better. So just because a city plan exists, it does not have to mean that other alternatives cannot be explored.

The 50-year plan for the Portland metropolitan region is halfway through its implementation. Have you seen any significant changes due to the long-term planning process being in place?

There have definitely been significant changes. Firstly, the open spaces plan of Metro came out of the 2040 Vision. The open spaces plan has now become quite advanced and very successful. It is just taken for granted today, but a look at the initial concept plan will show that the green strips were crucial elements, which set the context for the urban area. We found in all the public involvement exercises while formulating the vision that open spaces were really important to people. If you plan to have dense urban areas, you’d better have a lot of open spaces and natural areas that are well preserved.

The other significant outcome certainly was designing the kind of transportation that we have today, including elements of public transit, biking and walking. This multi-modal transportation system also came out of the 2040 Vision. The system has been very successful compared to almost any other place in the US and even many places in the world. It has actually made a substantial measurable shift away from cars towards transit, walking and biking.

Thirdly, the focus on development of centres and corridors is significant, although it has not been implemented all the way as yet. Progress has been made in many centres and corridors certainly in the City of Portland – you have Hawthorne and Belmont and these revitalized areas in East Portland, you have the Pearl District, and the South Waterfront. Beyond Portland, all the downtown centres in Portland, Beaverton, Gresham, Troutdale and other cities came out of this concept of planning.

Currently, I think the implementation of corridors and centres is in its second phase. The concern now is that while all historic downtowns are doing well, how one gets a place built during the auto-oriented area to shift to a more multi- modal situation when it was designed exclusively for people driving.  That is a bigger challenge but I think we are making some progress.

This multi-modal transportation system also came out of the 2040 Vision

How does one plan with built form of a particular kind already in place (with focus on Indian cities)?

Most of the built form is always there, for all the cities that I have planned in. There is a lot of inertia going in a certain direction. So I wouldn’t find that unusual or especially challenging for Indian cities either. The fact is that cities are always evolving; so if you start changing, it will change in that direction. That is the advantage of working over a 50-year period; you can make substantial changes if you keep applying pressure year after year. Look how distinctive Portland is today from the average American city while in 1975, it was exactly like every other American city.

In addition to believing that things can change in the long-term, it also became politically popular to undertake these changes in Portland. People understood, supported and expected them. It was an issue that was debated in local elections, and people supported the direction in which the region was moving. Because of that political support, I think people were able to change the way money was spent, and really divert resources into implementing the plan. That is one of the key requisites; if you are going to implement a long-term plan, you better be serious about following it. You cannot say one thing but keep doing things the old way. In Portland, for example, the processes of land-use decision making, transportation planning and utilities have been considerably changed compared to a lot of other places.

Based on your experiences with regional planning, what do you think are the key features that any long-term plan should include?

We have a big tradition in Oregon of participatory democracy. I do not think this is very strong in India; people are not explicitly asked for their opinion. I think that even if you were to do a stakeholder process in Indian cities that would involve a larger number of stakeholders, it would have significant impact even if you cannot go down to every person. We did a process in Chicago that was not entirely grassroots; it is called grass tops, but involved a lot of people at the grass tops. I could imagine doing something like that in India. Moreover, there must be a strategy that brings diverse people together.

In addition, the planning process needs to be transparent. You do not start with an outcome; you start with an open mind and an inventory of values that you want to achieve. You then examine alternatives that are objectively drawn and scientifically measured together. Nothing is hidden and you deal with unexpected consequences.

Among the various services offered by Fregonese Associates, I found public involvement and scenario planning services of key interest from the Indian context. Could you describe how you go about the public engagement process, particularly in the transportation context?

I recently wrote a chapter in the latest book published by the Urban Land Institute of Oregon, which has our secret. It is essential to understand that not everybody wants to participate to the depth in which they attend all public meetings. We represent the varying levels of interest in a pyramid, where the very top represents the people who would go to meetings. For this segment, you need to organise interesting workshops, and bring interesting people to talk. However, you must also find a way to listen to the people so that there is a conversation, not a lecture. A number of methods such as hands-on workshops can be used to engage this segment of people and get their ideas. We then use those ideas to begin creating the plan. The basic idea involved is that the stakeholders have more expertise about their area than you would, because they live in the area and know about their towns/cities. Hence, using their ideas can allow you to make a plan that is not only more effective but also popular, because when people feel that they have been listened to, they tend to get a lot more supportive.

At the second level of the pyramid are people who would follow the process but get engaged only if you ask them questions. To reach this segment, we conduct online polls, and send out newsletters. At the bottom level, you have people who will not get engaged but listen if they find it interesting. To attract this segment, we have very much used popular media, such as social media, websites and a lot of videos, so that the people who will give us only 5-10 minutes will nonetheless get information and start forming opinions. This way they know about what is going on and can react properly when, for instance, someone running for office says he/she supports or does not support an issue.

Could you also describe the other key area that you work in, namely, scenario planning?

Scenario planning is great. Today it is called scenario planning, but when we started with the 2040 growth plan, it was called Concepts of Growth. The more I learned about it, and I really learned the formal aspects in Chicago, I realized it was more like word problems and thought problems. The innovation that Fregonese Associates did was harnessing computer modelling to build scenarios as if you were building a model of the future. So you take some plausible designs and design it to the level of detail you can, and then model it in the computer objectively and find out results.

You are always surprised by the results; that is why you do modeling! Sometimes there are ideas that you think will be great but do not actually work. In these cases, you look at the model and ask if it is a model effect or will the idea really not work. There is always a human desire to continue believing in what you believe in, not paying attention to objective data. The scientific method is so unnatural to us; that is why it had to be invented! Humans interpret data based on their prejudices. When it comes to scenarios though, you really have to look at it with an open mind.

Sometimes the idea is not as good as you thought. At other times, things might be going better than you thought, such as in the Pearl district of Portland city. When we did 2040 Concepts of Growth, there was no streetcar for the Pearl district. It was definitely a strategy under the 2040 vision, but the specific designs of the streetcar had not even been conceived then. But it clearly helped the whole development and was something we could embrace.

Generally, by comparing scenarios and having conversations about them, you can understand the dynamics and the strategies that work behind the scenarios. Scenarios are meant to discover various strategies, which are then the policies you follow. While in Oregon people have come to accept picking a preferred scenario as the plan, actually what we advocate is to just pick a vision for the future, which is where you want to go. It does not have to be detailed or scientific. Then you should pick strategies that will move you to the vision and always monitor where you are going so that you can adjust because frankly, we cannot predict the future. We can study what might happen and we can devise some strategies ahead of time, but you have to think on your feet and be ready for change when things are not occurring the way you thought. Testing strategies and adjusting the strategies when things are not turning out the way you wanted is therefore important.

Could you tell us about your role in the Climate Smart Scenario planning work that Metro is currently undertaking?

We are building the tool to be able to model the scenarios. How people are going to pick the preferred scenario is not known yet. I think though, from polling and just our sense of it that people are going to pick climate change scenarios and a set of strategies if there are other co-benefits. If you can say that I have two plans – one of them reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent but will make you poorer and your region not as competitive; while the other will reduce your greenhouse gases by 25 percent, but you will be prosperous and have a good quality of life – clearly, people are going to pick the second alternative.

This is how we sold the 2040 Vision as well; highlighting that there would be a good quality of life, availability of transit etc. People basically like walkable communities; it is a very popular thing to have and many people select that. This is a reward in itself and the fact that it would also reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions is great. So there are things like these that we can do.

Given the current situation, where do you see the region going? What are the weaknesses that must be addressed and current strengths that should be built on?

The weakness is the economy, which is not as dynamic and vibrant as it used to be. We have got to figure out a way to be more competitive. I think this is true for much if the US, and not just because of the recession. It has been coming for a while. There was very little productivity in the 2000s and little increase in real wealth in the society. People went into debt to spend more money but there was nothing really there. The recession really indicates that people are drawing back and saving more and spending less, which is drawing a big chunk out of the economy. You go from a zero savings rate to a 5 per cent savings rate, leading to a trillion dollars drawn out of the economy.  But this has to be done and we must adjust to that. So basically, Oregon needs to be better at business and really continue to push for a better economy.

There wasn’t a very strong economic element in the 2040 Concepts of Growth, because in the 90s when we did the planning, a good economy was just taken for granted since we were in the midst of a big boom. Creating jobs was the last thing on people’s minds. What was important was how to manage growth. But if I were to do it again, I would have incorporated a very strong economic element and then developed a job creation strategy.

Meanwhile, the current strength really is the political stability of this basic strategy. People here expect it, are happy with it and most local governments are committed to it. It is a nice balanced approach; not too radical or unaffordable, and has given us a good quality of life. It is not perfect, but is certainly better than where we would have been otherwise. I think that means that people are going to continue to tweak and modify it but not make any radical changes to it. It is kind of the way things are around here.

Overall, it has done a number of things that have had a positive impact on people’s lives here.

The planning process has also led to widely accessible housing across the region. Pretty much if you have 800 dollars a month, you can rent an apartment in any part of the region. It is partly because if this that you have diversity spread across the region. Although this is not region with a lot of minorities, but at least now there are no areas without minorities. They are spread around with no concentrations in a particular area, which is a nice thing. Certainly, the concentration of the African-American population in North Portland is a result of explicit segregation. In the 1950s and 60s, they could not live anywhere else. In the 70s while they could legally live anywhere else, people made them very uncomfortable. But now it is much less of a big deal, which is nice.

Overall, you can definitely see that the plan is having its desired impact and is on-track. It is probably not perfect in every way, but certainly had its impact on changing the way the region works. It certainly coordinated plans better, has limited sprawl, improved transit, lowered VMT, improved walking and biking, and preserved open spaces. Overall, it has done a number of things that have had a positive impact on people’s lives here.

My takeways:

  1. A few weeks after meeting with John Fregonese for the interview, I was fortunate to hear him presenting the proposal for the proposed civic plan for improving downtown Beaverton to the Metro Council. He was presenting in the capacity of planning consultant for City of Beaverton. Evidently, public engagement and scenario planning were key components of the final civic plan. The plan is particularly impressive and is in line with the Community Investment Strategy and Metro’s goal of ‘Making a Better Place’. The presentation threw into sharp focus the key points that John Fregonese makes in the interview above – public engagement and exploring various alternatives with an open mind and free of prejudices is essential to create a workable plan for urban redevelopment.
  2. Long-range planning is an effective tool in working around the obstacles of existing built form in urban areas that are auto oriented. This however requires commitment to the plan and following strategies through.
  3. The approach of scenario planning for long-range planning involves comparing the results of following one path/alternative/scenario to those of following another. Use of computer modeling and public inputs as well as sound judgment and data allows planners to create a detailed and close-to-accurate picture of the future, based on which strategies for the present can be chosen that could put the city/region on a sustainable growth path.
  4. However, it is also important to update continuously based on new information and changes in assumptions. This requires transparency in the process as well as freedom from bias.
  5. Long-range planning at the metropolitan region level allows for tremendous efficiencies, much better land use, better coordination between their plans, and less destructive fighting between cities.
  6. Open spaces such as parks, natural areas, wildlife refuges and trails are crucial for pushing through dense urban areas, which are acceptable publicly. In addition, development of urban centres and corridors (served by public transit) enable dense development.

An effective public involvement process recognizes that people have varying levels of interest in participation, and campaigns and workshops and events need to be organized that would cater to these varying levels of interest. In addition, involving everyone might not be possible

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