All That Urban Planning Jargon No One Understands, Translated

All That Urban Planning Jargon No One Understands, Translated

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Voice of San Diego's "Neighborhood Development - What Can We Actually Do?" panel discussion at Snowflake Bakery in East Village.

In a year spent writing about land use in the city, I’ve learned the only people who use more jargon than the military are urban planners.

The field is filled with so many acronyms, Orwellian euphemisms and largely meaningless buzzwords, I’ve even broken into audible laughter at public meetings out of the sheer (and seemingly intentional) incomprehensibility of the discussion.

But you’ve gotta learn the language, as they say, and I’ve started to become fluent in planner.

There are far too many terms, blurbs and newspeak to list in one story, so we’re trying out an occasional installment where I provide a few terms, their meanings and links to relevant examples in San Diego. If people like it, we’ll keep it up and flesh it out going forward. (Add requests in the comments for terms you’ve heard at public meetings/always thought were ludicrous, and maybe we’ll include them in a future post.)

California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA: Passed in 1970, CEQA is maybe the state’s most influential planning law. To provide decision-makers information on the environmental effects of a project, it requires developers and planners to specify “significant” environmental effects and how they can be avoided. It also requires decision-makers to disclose to the public why they ignored those issues if they ultimately approve a project anyhow.

It’s sometimes referred to, jokingly, as the Consultants Employment Quality Act, as its presence has provided much demand for land use consultants on large projects. (See also: Environmental Impact Report, or EIR)

Community Plan: The city is broken into 52 “community planning areas.” City planners, working with groups representing these areas, write long-range planning documents for each area that outline things like density, traffic, parking, design standards and open space conservation. They also outline the community’s public infrastructure needs (parks, libraries, fire stations), and set the fees that developers will pay when they build new projects that’ll be used toward that infrastructure wish list. It’s how the citywide general plan gets implemented. Most of San Diego’s community plans are decades old, and need to be replaced, though doing so costs a few million bucks.

The City Council recently updated Barrio Logan’s, but the shipbuilding industry located there doesn’t like it, so it’s trying to overturn it. (See also: General Plan)

Discretionary Approval: When a legislative body— like the City Council—makes a subjective decision on whether a project or plan can go forward. In San Diego, the City Council, Planning Commission and an appointed “hearing officer” have the power to make discretionary decisions, generally on projects that either conflict with an area’s community plan, or that pass a threshold identified in the community plan that requires the lengthier (and thus more expensive) review process. (See also: ministerial review)

Environmental Impact Report, or EIR: This is the document where developers and planners explain environmental effects, as required by CEQA. They’re long and mostly incomprehensible. First, a draft EIR (or DEIR!) is released, followed by a public comment period. Those public comments are then compiled and responded to in a final EIR. (See also, California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA)

General Plan: A broad, guiding document for land use policies. A statement of priorities for a city, county or region on land-use principles. San Diego’s, updated in 2008, is often referred to as a “City of Villages,” for its call to develop a diverse network of pedestrian- and transit-friendly neighborhoods. The other side to that: Since the villages are meant to be diverse, they’re also meant to have some autonomy, so Carmel Valley is allowed to be different from North Park. (See also: community plan)

Ministerial Review: Process by which permits are granted — automatically — if certain conditions are met. Basically, the local government has no discretionary say over the matter, so the property owner just has to prove that his plans are consistent with existing restrictions. These actions are handled by city staff. (See also: discretionary review)

NIMBY: An acronym for “Not in my back yard.” Derogatory term for local opposition to a project, usually used to suggest selfishness.

New Urbanism: A trend of thinking among architects and planning types to emphasize pedestrian- and bike-friendliness, access to transit, along with automobile accessibility in neighborhoods by putting residential and commercial spaces close together, rather than separating them in bedroom communities, office parks and malls.

Specific Plan: Special development regulations for a given land area. Often used for large suburban projects on many undeveloped acres, but also possible within an already-developed community to encourage development in a certain direction. This is what Civic San Diego would like to put in place in the Encanto community, near the trolley stop at Market Creek Plaza. Can come with a blanket EIR that captures potential projects consistent with the specific vision, and gives guidance on design standards.

Zoning: Cutting a city up into various districts, with regulations on what type of development is allowed, and what sort of amenities must be provided, within each district. There are primary, citywide zones that carry throughout each neighborhood, but neighborhood-specific zoning can be implemented as well.

Note: These definitions rely heavily on descriptions from “Guide to California Planning,” a state planning textbook written by San Diego planning director Bill Fulton and Paul Shigley.

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Andrew Keatts

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

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1 comments
LocalBoy
LocalBoy

Interesting take, Andrew. At least the terms are in English and they could be understood by anyone desiring to learn them and understand the process established over the years by our esteemed elected leaders and the bureaucrats they hire. Our land use terms and processes are certainly much more complicated than those found in other cities (maybe Houston, TX or Baton Rouge, LA). Unfortunately, most of these terms simply signify that a property owner who wants to develop his or her own property has to jump through more hoops that the Aztec Basketball team.

It's not the terms that people have problems with, it's the number of terms (aka regulations). They add to cost and negatively impact the quality of life (via $ spent) regarding housing for the average San Diegan.