This initial post provides some personal context for the upcoming series of posts. Five years ago I made a commitment to learn how the City of Menlo Park made decisions about new investments in city infrastructure, e.g. parking, bike facilities, parks and plazas. This was a natural decision for me, as my family loves living here, I wanted to determine how I could effectively participate in city planning, and I believed the best planning practices I learned in my 35-year business career were valuable and transferable to Menlo Park. As a community activist I have participated in the planning for changing bike and vehicle facilities on El Camino, for adding bike lanes on Oak Grove and University, for selecting a grade separation strategy, for building a Middle-to-Alma track crossing for bicyclists and pedestrians, and recently adding bike lanes on the west end of Middle. I have spent hundreds of hours each year studying project proposals and shared my views, research, analyses and recommendations through the Re-imagine Menlo Park website, guest opinions in The Almanac, this blog and countless discussions with residents, city staff and city council members.
Here are some of my primary impressions. I will describe these and others in greater detail in future posts.
• Menlo Park has many opportunities to make its existing planning process one that consumes less city resources and is more responsive to community needs. Our city could also complete individual civic projects sooner and generate broader community support for them.
• Our city project planning process does a poor job of serving our community in large part because Menlo Park does not proactively and aggressively engage its “customers” (us) in it. Also, the city lacks effective ways to benefit from unsolicited community input and feedback.
• Council members, city staff, volunteer commissioners, local businesses and residents all want to improve our city but they are either hampered or penalized by the big shortcomings in our planning process. Fundamental changes could lead to higher quality decisions, less stress and frustration, more satisfaction and greater effectiveness and efficiencies and all would benefit.
• While Menlo Park is a Silicon Valley city it has NOT adopted the planning philosophies, practices, methodologies and tools that are common in successful local businesses. Sadly, the city’s outdated “project planning system” has a life of its own, and it appears no one feels responsible for it.
• The city should change how it uses staff and community resources in planing large civic projects. Today the staff is primarily technical, too little attention is paid to real-word impacts on people, and the city council rarely receives sound non-technical advice. The city needs both program management and community engagement talent and would benefit from using project-specific advisory committees consisting of a small number of qualified residents and business owners. The city manager should also have a larger role and more overall planning management responsibilities.
I hope my upcoming series of posts generates greater community awareness of the need for major planning reforms, stimulates constructive discussions and leads to city council actions. Tinkering with the existing planning system is not sufficient so I encourage the city council to leverage the expertise of professionals who can help our city recommend major improvements. The potential long-term benefits are huge and our city government and community cannot afford to ignore them. I welcome community ideas and feedback on all my posts.