Tales from a Texas Planning Legend: I've seen this before...

I’m sure some of you will think this title is just begging for the response “OK, Boomer”.  Because obviously none of us have seen a fast-acting pandemic like COVID-19 during our lifetimes.  But actually, there’s more to the title than you might think. So bear with me.


In the movie classic “Being There”, Chance the Gardener (masterfully played by Peter Sellers) becomes an overnight sensation, a media star and an advisor to the President.  This happens because he approaches things and people from his own unique perspective, which is completely different from what they expect, and thus they interpret his straight-forward statements as deeply nuanced analyses.  (To really appreciate this effect, I highly recommend the movie.) When he says “I’ve seen this before” early in the movie, what he actually means is that what he’s experiencing in the real world seems like something he has seen before on television, which – as far as he’s concerned – is also real life.

So here are some of those snippets I’ve seen before, maybe in a movie on TV but maybe it was actually real life …


San Francisco, looking south from Union Square, around the time of this movie.

The Twinkie Defense.  A 1978 whodunit.  San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk are shot and killed in San Francisco City Hall.  Coming soon after the Jonestown murder/suicides, it seemed at first that perhaps a cult was at work.  But then it turned out they were murdered by their former colleague, Dan White, who had recently resigned as a Supervisor and was frustrated he couldn’t get reinstated.  At the City Hall where I worked, down the peninsula in San Jose, the City Council offices were on the first floor and they all looked out on a lovely enclosed courtyard where we lower-level employees could go to eat lunch.  After the shootings, the courtyard was locked off permanently. 

Dan White’s trial had lots of strange twists and turns.  One claim was that he wasn’t responsible for his actions because he’d been eating too much sugar-laden junk food – thus, the Twinkie defense.  At the end of the trial, the verdict was voluntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder.  Since Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in California, White’s conviction on the lesser charge was infuriating to San Francisco’s gay community.  I happened to be in San Francisco the night the verdict came down.  I was surprised by the verdict itself and even more shocked by the vehement response from the gay community, which had previously seemed pretty quiet and easy-going.  Clearly, this decision impacted that community in a very different way than it did the Bay Area in general.


Austin in the time of Camelot

Camelot. A 1987 romcom with a twist. In the early ‘80’s, Texas was booming and it was one of the next big things in planning.  I’d been recruited there in 1985 by Jim Duncan and Norm Standerfer to head up Austin’s long-range planning.  The City of Austin had lots of resources and was recruiting the best and brightest from all over the country for jobs in all the departments.  There were lots of creative opportunities and lots of people with whom to share new beginnings. We all said it was like being in Camelot.

At the time, Texas developers and investors were caught up in a market frenzy (along with some shady dealings) that assumed property values would always continue to rise astronomically and there would always be buyers eager to double or triple your investment whenever you got ready to sell.  In Austin, some developers had an easy time selling these ‘can’t lose’ real estate investments to some members of the Texas legislature. 

In the Planning and Growth Management Department, we started an extremely ambitious effort to create a new plan for the City of Austin and its extra-territorial jurisdiction.  You can see how ambitious it was by the fact that there were 97 citizens on the steering committee, plus another 14 topical task forces and 22 geographic area planning groups, operating all at once to create this plan.  And since you probably know that Austin is famously contentious about almost everything, you can imagine that there were many conflicts and rivalries among all these folks.

When we began this effort, the developer who co-chaired the Land Use Task Force (along with a neighborhood rep) offered to host our task force meetings.  For the first meeting, his firm provided a full buffet spread with chilled shrimp, pate’ and really amazing BBQ.

Then came Black Monday on October 19, 1987, when the stock market fell 23% in one day.  There are various financial explanations about why this happened, and why it was so sharp and relatively sudden (the market had been at an all-time high on August 25th but had fallen sharply beginning on Oct. 14th). Suddenly, all the expectations we’d had for rapid growth, and the pressure to manage growth so it didn’t take away the “Austin character”, started to evaporate.

All of a sudden, tax revenues were down.  People were concerned about keeping their jobs.  Growth management became far less important to residents worried about their mortgages.  The developers who had promised great returns on investments were nowhere to be found.  The promised market demand – in one case, a projection that there would definitely be enough demand for over 100% of the market to be captured on each of the four corners of a major intersection in the Hill Country – disappeared.  Our co-chair had to resign from the committee because his company had declared bankruptcy and he had been laid off. And somehow, the message to legislator-investors became “you’re losing money because of the City of Austin’s strict development regulations”.

The City had hiring freezes (though no layoffs in planning that I recall).  Plans and policies that slowed growth were opposed since they didn’t add to the property tax base.  My staff for the long-range plan, Austinplan, continued to work full days and also valiantly staffed many night meetings even as some people moved on and our funds to cover overtime vanished.  We managed to deliver a complete plan to the City Council with a surprisingly high level of community consensus, but the atmosphere and values were completely changed from when we began.


Dallas at the time of 9/11 (view from Oak Cliff)

Attack on the Twin Towers. A 2001 thriller.  On September 11, 2001, I was driving to Dallas City Hall and my job as the Executive Director of The Dallas Plan, a non-profit that was funded by the private sector but directed by the Dallas City Council.  The Chair of our Board of Directors, Win Skiles, had recently died.  So I had a meeting that morning with Mayor Ron Kirk to talk about his replacement.  As I was heading towards I-30, I heard a news report that some sort of plane had run into one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; they thought perhaps it was a small plane whose pilot had a heart attack.

By the time I reached Dallas City Hall, it was clear there was more to it than that.  My office was next to the City’s Director of Building Services.  We were all aware of the immediate questions and concerns … was this a larger attack?  Were other cities going to be next?  What was happening in New York?  What should Dallas be doing to protect itself? We spent a lot of the day in our shared conference room watching the news reports as unbelievable events unfolded.  It felt like we had all become family, standing together against an unknown assailant and an uncertain future.

Needless to say, Mayor Kirk was occupied with much more challenging matters that morning and our meeting was postponed until later.  By the end of the day, the City had sent staff home until it was clearer what was happening.  I sent The Dallas Plan staff home too, and we spent the next several days watching news reports on TV and wondering who was behind this, why they’d done it, and what would happen next.  It took quite a while to learn the answers to these questions.


Location for the Ebola Story

Ebola Close to Home.  A 2014 medical mystery.  We’d been hearing reports about a new and very dangerous disease in Africa beginning in 2013.  It sounded like it began with a virus transmitted through the bush meat trade – an unfortunate practice where wild animals, including endangered species, are captured and sold for their meat or body parts.  That trade is closely linked to the illegal international trade in endangered species.

It felt remote to me, though, since I hadn’t visited that part of Africa and had no plans to do so.  Then there was really surprising news – someone at one of the main hospitals here in Dallas had been diagnosed with Ebola!

As the story unfolded, medical professionals at Presbyterian Hospital made valiant and compassionate efforts to care for this patient and, later, the two nurses who became infected because they took care of him.  People in the larger community became worried about getting infected, and there were stories that people who’d been close to the patient had problems finding food and shelter afterwards.  Also, since this patient was visiting from Africa, and had stayed in a neighborhood with lower-income and immigrant families, there was ostracism of these people and this area.

I’ve seen this before?

Each of these ‘movies’ has something in common with a part of our coronavirus experience.  But each one is similar to a specific and limited part of our current situation.  And splicing these all together would still not produce a picture that completely reflects the unexpected and unimaginable change that has happened in the past few weeks.  For just one obvious example, none of these situations resulted in ‘shelter in place’ orders.  So no, none of us has seen exactly this before.

When Chance the Gardener (now transformed into Chauncey Gardiner) says “I’ve seen this before” near the end of “Being There”, he’s referring to an experience that he – and we – know has actually happened in his real life.  And by now you can see that these snippets are things that actually happened in my real life.  But why am I telling you about them now? 

Old Lessons as New Starting Points

Here are eight lessons I think planners and our communities can use today from these stories of the past.

  1. Our world – the people and the environment – is connected globally.  We certainly saw this in the attack on the Twin Towers.  Attitudes and beliefs about the U.S. that were held by people in other parts of the world certainly affected what happened to people and businesses here at home.
  2. Underlying imbalances can have a big impact on how a person, or a community, recovers from a crisis.  When the economy crashed in 1987, it hurt people living in Austin’s lower-income neighborhoods, those who had recently moved to Austin for a new beginning and those who’d invested in the ‘sure thing’ that Hill Country real estate was supposed to be.  And while the real estate investors probably took the most visible hit, it was the long-term residents who were least resilient.  They experienced the job losses, declining home prices and other economic impacts for much longer.
  3. Each community experiences crises differently – and communities within the same city may have completely different perceptions and impacts of these realities.  At the time Harvey Milk was killed, many people in the region did not realize how different a gay person’s life experience was and how important it had been to have a champion like Milk.  One result of this crisis was a stronger LGBTQ movement and another has been a heightened awareness and acceptance of this community within the larger San Francisco Bay Area region.
  4. Some people will look for something or someone to blame, and will scapegoat those who are different from themselves.  Anyone in Dallas could have had a relative become ill while visiting.  The contagious and unfamiliar Ebola virus frightened many people and some of them saw it as a reason to object to the immigrants living in a Dallas neighborhood that was already struggling with other challenges of poor housing, low incomes, health problems and unemployment. The people who lived in the neighborhood where this man stayed would have benefitted by assistance and support from the broader community, rather than blame.
  5. Realistic data and analysis should be the foundation for action.  Better market analysis would have reduced the negative impacts of the market frenzy on investors in Austin’s Hill Country.  A stronger factual assessment of the causes behind the economic meltdown might have avoided the conclusion, reached by some Texas legislators, that managing growth and development has negative consequences for the state’s economy.
  6. Many people will step up and make remarkable contributions if they’re doing something they believe is important or they’re working with people who are important to them. The nurses, doctors and others who treated Ebola patients did so despite great risk to themselves.  Some of the people in the Dallas community who found new homes and support for neighborhood residents did this because they had connections to the families; others did it because they believed it was important for these communities of immigrants to be welcome here.
  7. The balance between privacy and safety can shift suddenly.  Before 9/11, anyone could walk into a City Hall without showing identification, let alone going through a metal detector.  Afterwards, the loss in privacy resulting from these new security checks seemed reasonable to protect public safety.  New restrictions or requirements, intended to address heightened concerns about safety, can also make it more daunting for community members to gain access to decision-making processes or to participate in shaping government priorities and spending.  As the balance shifts, it remains important to ensure equitable access and involvement.
  8. The new demands thrust on people by a crisis may well change the roles they play in the future. When San Francisco Mayor Moscone was killed, Dianne Feinstein was a member of the Board of Supervisors.  She was selected to fill his position.  Without that experience, she might not have gone on to election as a U.S. Senator or to become one of the longest-serving women in the Senate.

I believe these lessons can inform the choices we make now, and I believe they’re particularly meaningful to us as planners because they reinforce some key aspects of our profession and values.  Our work requires us to understand the big picture, using both quantitative analysis and qualitative community input to make connections between interrelated and complex issues.  We value inclusion and diversity, so it’s natural that action to implement plans would include different types of support for communities with different needs.  Since we need to consider the long-term future implications of our planning policies, we have a framework already in place to strengthen our resilience in the face of crises, expected or not.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” That is certainly true now.  Our rivers worldwide – and our global neighborhoods, communities and regions – will not be the same after COVID-19 as they were before.  We humans won’t be the same either.  But perhaps we can build on these lessons from the past so when we say “I’ve seen this before” in the future, the movie we recall from this time of COVID-19 tells a story of positive connection, support and resilience.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with me by email:  karen@planforaction.com, on Facebook: @StrategicCommunitySolutions; or on LinkedIn:  linkedin.com/company/strategic-community-solutions


Karen at The Dallas Plan

Karen S. Walz FAICP is the Principal of Strategic Community Solutions LLC.  She is the first Baby Boomer recognized by APA Texas as a “Texas Planning Legend”.