Who will celebrate the Planning Board?

Who will celebrate the Planning Board?

Published on April 10, 2023 / Leer en español

Deepak portrait
Research Director

It seems rather strange that a few months ago, in May of last year to be precise, the Puerto Rico Planning Board (PB) celebrated its 80th anniversary and little or almost nothing was said about this event in a country accustomed to celebrating and recognizing anything that our public officials can think of. For decades, the PB was considered one of the crown jewels of Puerto Rico’s government institutions. According to what some veterans of the Manos a la Obra era told me, working at the PB, Fomento or the Government Development Bank was like reaching the pinnacle of the public technocratic corps. Certainly, a lot has happened during these decades, but it is worth asking how such a revered agency fell from grace and into oblivion.

Conceived and founded in 1942 by Rexford Guy Tugwell, the last U.S. governor to be chosen by presidential appointment, the PB was envisioned as a “fourth power” that would facilitate Puerto Rico’s socioeconomic transformation. According to Tugwell, to accomplish this, foresight, good judgment, the identification of available resources and a great deal of coordination were needed: “If there was to be growth, it ought to be orderly growth, not a proliferation of miscellaneous efforts many of which might cancel out others.” The creation of the PB and the implementation of its various programs caused amazement and fascination in different parts of the world. In great part, because social and economic planning on a national scale was a relatively new and uncommon practice in capitalist countries.

Seen from our chaotic and bewildering present, there is definitely a need for a public entity that develops long-term plans, sets accurate budgets and makes public policy recommendations based on data and detailed research, among other things—as the PB did years ago. And perhaps by examining the political dimension of the PB’s history, we will understand why we currently long for that idealized version of the agency.

From its inception, the PB was seen as a key agency for advancing a colonial development project. For Tugwell and other federal officials, Puerto Rico was a social laboratory where they could pilot programs and projects that were politically unpalatable or inappropriate for the states of the Union (such as efforts to control population growth, the massive elimination of “slums” and the creation of state owned enterprises), but that could be useful in other countries where they sought to impose the worldview of the United States during the Cold War. In this context, the PB served as a factory of ideas that served to internationalize U.S. hegemony.

The PB was not exempt from the tug of war of local politics. Tugwell was not a fan of the inefficiencies and cunning of the municipalities and their mayors, and the large landowners opposed his proposals to define land uses throughout the island. The agency also failed to achieve a place atop the hierarchy of governmental powers that its proponents dreamed of. Eight years after its creation, it came under the control of the executive branch. No matter how hard its employees worked to produce the best plans and analyses, its proposals and designs were subordinated to the partisan chess game.

As time passed, the PB lost key responsibilities and the country neglected and ignored its most sensible ideas. The economic advances of the 1950s and 1960s were accompanied by large and numerous construction projects, which went against the guiding idea of orderly growth. The growing urban population needed houses, schools, parks and other amenities. As Lucilla Marvel explains in her book “Listen to What They Say: Planning and Community Development in Puerto Rico,” in 1961, the PB attempted to curb urban sprawl by halting the approval of new permits for residential development in the San Juan metropolitan area until a sensible plan was developed. Predictably, developers, landowners, and construction trade associations were up in arms, and decided to put the screws on the PB. The result was the adoption of new policies that did little to control the advance of sprawling housing developments and shopping malls. The message was clear: the best proposals and intentions of the urban planners could not compete with the powerful developmentalist interests and partisan pressures.

In 1975, the PB lost the power to granting building permits and, in the 1990s, with the Autonomous Municipalities Law, even more responsibilities were transferred to the municipalities. The planning discipline was also significantly and positively transformed,  during these decades. The idea that the organization and transformation of space was gestated solely by specialized technicians, behind closed doors and without consulting the public, was replaced by a more participatory vision that valued the input and proposals of local communities. Despite this paradigm shift, which transformed the practice and education of planners in different parts of the world, here, the PB’s methodology remained trapped, for too many years, in the outdated and misleading practice of the omniscient planner.

Taking these facts into account, it is not surprising then that the octogenarian PB finds itself today, once again, in the midst of a controversy over how to plan and manage our land uses, and that in the past seven years the courts have thrown out three different versions of the Joint Regulations—a hefty tome that the PB prepares to assist in the issuance of permits in Puerto Rico—for procedural errors. The agency’s institutional decay has been constant, and this has enabled its capture by various interest groups, contributed to the demoralization of its best employees and turned the PB into a mere facilitator of the whims of whoever is in power. Perhaps that is why, on its anniversary, there was no pomp and circumstance, because, in reality, there is nothing to celebrate.

The Spanish version of this column was originally published in El Nuevo Día on April 10, 2023.