Shifting Agendas: Private Consultants and Public Planning Policy

By Orly Linovski (University of Manitoba)

Urban planning is often thought of as a public sector activity, despite the increasing role and influence of private-sector consultants. Consultants are involved in many stages of the planning process, including undertaking policy reviews; creating long-range plans and strategies; and, designing and implementing public engagement strategies. Planning consultants often straddle the private and public spheres, working for both government and private clients. This raises questions about how private-sector planners balance competing goals, as well as the democratic legitimacy and accountability of the planning processes they undertake. While consultants have been involved in planning since the early days of the profession, the reduced capacity that many municipalities currently face makes it critical to examine the impacts that outsourcing and privatization may have on planning processes. For local governments that have traditionally seen planning as a public-sector activity, these changes can undermine both the public interest and the relationship between citizens and decision-makers.

My recent research examines the interactions between public-sector planners and consultants through a case study of the planning process for Downsview Park, a former military base in Toronto, Canada. Announced as Canada’s first “National Urban Park” by the federal government, no funds were committed to the park, instead relying on the sale of development parcels for financing. With the requirement that private-sector development occur, the agency entrusted with the park’s implementation – Parc Downsview Park (PDP) – along with a large group of planning consultants, began the complex process of turning former military and industrial lands into sites for development. I find that in the context of reduced municipal staff capacity, there were several strategies that demonstrate a blurred boundary between public and private-sector planning processes and point to a strong role for consultants in shaping policy agendas.

In an era of constrained fiscal resources, the way that planning studies and regulatory frameworks are prioritized and undertaken has important implications for how development proceeds. Due to Downsview’s industrial history, substantial regulatory changes would be required for new development to occur. With reduced municipal staff capacity, this would take a significant amount of time. Land interests were able to accelerate the creation of planning and urban design policies by funding consultants, under the management of municipal staff, to undertake the required studies. In addition to the consultant work, PDP also paid for three City staff to be taken “off-line” and work exclusively on plans for the area.

The motivation for landowners to fund either outside consultants or public sector staff to work on specific planning policies was seen as necessary for capitalizing on building cycles. This argument came not only come from private-sector interests, but public employees and elected officials as well. Despite Toronto having a strong and stable real estate market, the desire to speed up regulatory processes was used to permit landowners to determine the prioritization of public planning policy-making. This “paying for priority” system, combined with a lack of municipal resources to undertake studies and policies, can be seen as a strategy for re-orienting public-sector planning processes to reflect the needs of the development community.

Within this framework of privately funded planning policy, steps were taken to dispel the idea that the process would be skewed towards landowner interests. Management of the consultants by municipal staff was intended to mitigate any ambiguity in terms of who was the client. Despite this, conflicts emerged in controlling the work of the consultants, with actors disagreeing about the potential influence of the funder. There were dissenting views across the range of actors – city staff, private consultants, and the landowners – as to the degree of involvement of the funders in this process. While consultants insisted that they were responsible to only their municipal contacts, others acknowledged the difficulty in maintaining this relationship. City staff described having to actively mediate between the funder of the study and the consultants hired to work on the policies.

Both public and private-sector staff were cognizant of the possible conflicts that could arise from landowner groups funding policy studies. However, the conflict was seen as the potential to have direct influence on the policy-making process rather than as a way of shifting of public priorities. Whether the motivation for landowner-funded policy is discussed as a way of reducing bureaucratic hurdles, accelerating planning timelines or dealing with limited public sector staff resources, this scenario not only prioritized the goals of specific landowners but also, from a broader city-wide perspective, shifted policy frameworks to areas with high development potential, as demonstrated by landowners willing to pay for prioritized planning processes.

The influence of consultants also must be situated in the context of significant budget cuts to the planning department and the loss of experienced staff, despite a major development boom. With the competing pressures of reduced public sector resources and a purported need for accelerated planning processes, private-sector consultants were key in developing, reviewing and responding to policies. Despite the tendency to portray outside expertise as neutral, consultants played a critical role in changing the vision for the area, especially in the prioritization of residential over employment uses. There was also a high degree of fluidity between sectors. The same firms shifted between public and private-sector clients at different stages of the development, as well as employees moving between the municipality and consulting firms. This movement of professionals between the public and private sectors offers consultants opportunities to create strong networks between policymakers and developers, despite the conflicts of interest that would arise from these. The fluidity between the two sectors often meant that private consultants, acting on behalf of either public or private clients, had strong relationships with municipal staff and put forth the idea that they had the same interests as public employees.

In the case of Downsview Park, permitting landowners to pay for an accelerated planning process represents the ability to set the agenda for planning priorities, largely based on the development potential of areas of the city. These processes could not occur without the presence of a shadow agency of consultant planners – seen as ‘friendly’ firms and often headed by former city staff – moving fluidly between public and private-sector contracts. This research raises implications for local governments beyond the Toronto example. A close network between public and private-sector professionals obscured the differing interests that they represented and limited the realm of possibilities considered. The end result was of a seeming convergence of development and public interests, mobilized through the work of professional consultants. These changes for professional planners have the potential to make a new space of practice that changes traditional understanding of defining and working in the public interest. For those making decisions about changes in land use, there is the danger that planning becomes a process available only to those with the most resources or development potential, with even less concern about equity and fairness. For local governments, these arrangements can be seen as a way to undertake important planning processes despite financial constraints. However, how local governments maintain transparency and accountability when planning functions are largely outsourced – and trusted to market processes – remains a significant question.

Read the article here.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Author Biography

Orly Linovski is an assistant professor in the Department of City Planning at the University of Manitoba. Her research focuses on professional practices, politics of the built form, and issues of equity in planning and design.

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