Spotlight: Private Planner

Dick Bjornseth


An environmental organization opposed to governmental controls? A group of planners who shun "urban planning"? A professional society that encompasses at least a dozen professions?

These attributes all apply to an actual organization—the Association for Rational Environmental Alternatives. AREA is a "national organization of professionals dedicated to the investigation, development, and advancement of private and non-governmental alternatives for the planning and use of the urban and rural environment."

The organization had a humble beginning: it grew out of a classified ad in the September 1974 issue of REASON. The ad was placed by Dick Bjornseth, until several months before a staff member of the Houston City Planning Department. In four years as a professional urban planner, he had become increasingly frustrated with the government-control mentality of the planning profession. Rather than play a continuously negative role within the American Institute of Planners, American Society of Planning Officials, and other planning organizations, Bjornseth decided to start a totally new group.

"I felt there must be at least a few individuals around the country with similar ideas and frustrations," he recalls. His REASON classified produced "only a handful" of others, but they included geotechnical engineer Paul Bilzi, who had been thinking along the same lines. Together they set up a steering committee and went to work. In short order they had developed a network of contacts from coast to coast and a mailing list of prospects.

Initial organizing completed, the next step was to make the organization known. An attractive newsletter, a membership brochure, and some favorable PR in several magazines recruited several dozen founding members—people from a number of professions with a serious interest in urban, environmental, and land-use problems, but unhappy with looking to government for solutions. Today, less than four years after Bjornseth's classified ad, there are more than a hundred members across the country. And a seven-member advisory board including energy expert Petr Beckmann, transportation economist George Hilton, and land-use consultant John McClaughry.

AREA has already begun to have a noticeable impact. Its biggest publicity triumph to date occurred in May of last year. Bjornseth and his fellow members in Houston organized an AREA conference called "Practical Perspectives on Recycling the City: the Entrepreneur as Hero." Held in Houston's Greenway Plaza (a major private redevelopment complex), the conference brought together a variety of speakers involved in rebuilding and recycling run-down areas without government help. Besides lectures, panels, and slide shows, the conference featured a bus tour of Houston's Montrose area—a prime example of private inner-city redevelopment.

One of those attending the conference was Neal Peirce, contributing editor of National Journal and a syndicated columnist on urban affairs. Peirce was clearly impressed by what he heard, and even more by what he saw taking place in Houston's neighborhoods in the absence of zoning. His subsequent column, "Is Urban Zoning the Dinosaur of the 1970's?" brought the case for nonzoning to millions of readers across the country.

Bjornseth's career has involved a steady evolution away from conventional notions of planning. Fresh out of Iowa State University in 1970 with a BS in urban planning, he went to work for the Des Moines multi-county regional planning commission. After organizing the largest "citizen participation" effort in the commission's history, and seeing his efforts to promote private funding for bikeways swept aside by a highly political federal grant, Bjornseth began to question the planning process.

In retrospect, he can see no value in the citizen participation efforts he organized—except to promote regionalism. "And regional planning," he has concluded, "is perhaps the most worthless level of bureaucracy ever imposed on the public."

By the time these thoughts had crystallized, Bjornseth had already moved on to his second job—as a planner for the City of Houston. His first task there was to head a 15-person staff carrying out a federally funded Neighborhood Improvement Planning Program. This experience was also to prove instructive.

One of the major thrusts of the program was to identify the good points of each neighborhood and the strengths of its residents. "All planners have been trained and programmed to look for problems and weaknesses," he recounts. "We didn't know a strength or good feature if it walked up and introduced itself. In fact, the planner's natural tendency was to paint the picture as gloomy as possible, thereby suggesting greater 'need' and justifying greater government aid." Though he and his staff tried to counter this tendency, their views were never really accepted by the city administration.

In fact, when a new mayor (Fred Hofheinz) was elected in 1974, the emphasis on getting federal funds increased to the point where Bjornseth felt too uncomfortable to stay. He left the public sector and joined Bovay Engineers—a consulting firm doing land-use planning for a variety of clients. Among his projects at Bovay have been numerous airport master plans, shopping center site layouts, office/industrial park designs, and population forecasts for water and wastewater systems.

As he has moved from regional government to city government to private consulting, Bjornseth's professional efforts have grown more in harmony with his evolving philosophy of government and society. From first-hand experience, he has seen the harm government controls can do and gained new respect for the workings of the marketplace.

"I find it ironic that various professional organizations are still debating whether the government should control land use at the federal, state, or local level," he says. "I question whether the government should control land use at all. Reliance on the private marketplace for real estate decisions doesn't mean a haphazard conglomeration of land uses. Quite the opposite. The marketplace is actually a highly structured, complex, predictable, and efficient allocator of land use development."

In developing AREA, Bjornseth had in mind a new type of urban professional—in sharp contrast to the conventional urban planner. "Planners' jargon—so rich in words like conformity, coordinated, mandatory, regulatory, guidelines, and of course plans—accurately reflects their self-assumed omniscient wisdom and their control-oriented simplistic mentality." In sharp contrast, "AREA stresses autonomy, diversity, and freedom of choice and seeks solutions to urban and environmental problems within the context of individual initiative and responsibility."

Will AREA shake up AIP, AIA, and ASPO? Will it one day grow to rival these established societies? No one can be sure. But in just a few short years AREA has already led to thousands of mutually beneficial interactions—professional contacts, exchanges of information, the collection and dissemination of new knowledge. Much of the credit must go to Houston's increasingly private planner, Dick Bjornseth.

(Readers wishing further information on AREA should write to the Membership Coordinator, 1023 E. Shawn, Pasadena TX 77506.)