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Boise’s new planning director: ‘Let go of flawed ideas that shaped cities for the last generation’

A photo on the left shows trees and buildings and mountains in the background. On the right, a man wearing a suit jacket and tie.
Tim Keane, City of Boise Facebook
Time Keane is the City of Boise Director of Planning and Development Services

The City of Boise’s new director of Planning and Development Services says wasting time on designing dysfunctional highways is “time that’s misplaced because it hasn’t worked in any city, anywhere in the world.”

Tim Keane has seen it firsthand, in Atlanta where he was that city’s planning commissioner before taking the job in Boise.

“I can say with great confidence, since I just came from Atlanta which has the most beautifully designed interchanges you’ve ever seen that are chocked in traffic.”

Keane visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about his hopes for his department and the importance of asking, “How can we do it better? How can we do it the best?”

“Let go of those flawed ideas that shaped cities for the last generation. Just let them go. It's okay. Just let them go. And let's take up a new collection of ideas.”

“I think we do ourselves a disservice if we jump to an argument around density before having answered the question, ‘What city are we seeking to build?’”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Some of our most emotional conversations lately have been about housing and growth, and how we best find a way to grow together. For something so personal, the foundation for all of that comes in something quite professional; and that is how we plan. Tim Keane is here. He has served as the chief planning executive in Davidson, North Carolina, Charleston, South Carolina. And in Atlanta, he has been that city's planning commissioner. And now he is the City of Boise's new Director of Planning and Development Services. Mr. Keane, good morning.

TIM KEANE: Good morning, George.

PRENTICE: I am curious about your process in making this decision in coming to Boise and taking this job. I'm intrigued by big questions; and I'm curious about some of the questions that you heard from people here in the city in that interview process, and maybe some questions of your own. My guess is for someone like you, it is usually about “the big question.”

KEANE: That's a good place to start. George, I had never in my life lived west of Atlanta, Georgia, until now. And so, this was a significant move for me. The decision came down to a few things; and I might start with a tiny bit of history on me and going back to Charleston, South Carolina, which is a city of similar scale to Boise, also in a place of great natural beauty. So, the issues related to the development of the city were at the forefront of what people were concerned about, because of the urbanity of the city, but also equally as important, the preciousness of nature. I spent many years there working on that. I left only because my boss, who was the mayor, Joe Riley, was retiring. And I decided to go to an utterly different place: Atlanta, Georgia, which is in the “Hall of Fame,” as you know, for sprawling cities, and a place that I really went there because I'd always been so shocked by it. I'd only really been there for baseball games in my life before I moved there. And every time I'd gone, I thought, “What in the world happened to this place?”  So, it was intriguing to me to go there and try to repair all this damage that had been done in particular to both the public realm of the city. The city had become one of highways, almost entirely, and it was so dehumanizing that I really was intrigued by going and trying to address that kind of enormity of a city that needed help. So, I spent seven years doing that, and I worked for three mayors. And I felt like I had to take that that conversation and that work as far as I could. So, I knew I needed to leave Atlanta… and coming here to Boise the first time - I came January 10th of this year - and talking with the city staff and with the community and observing this place, I was drawn to it for reasons I think you were drawn to it. And it certainly had to do with the fact that it's a growing city that seemingly will continue to grow, but yet, as one that has not been irreparably harmed. It's not like Atlanta. You're not repairing the damage. You're still working with a place in its formative period. And so, I really came here to seek to address these issues with the community in ways that really no American city has. If you look at American cities in the way they've grown over the past 50 or 60 years, the pattern is very similar. The scale is different. But in Boise, the question that intrigues me is, “Can we in Boise address these very challenging issues in ways that are better than any American city?” And that's what interested me in coming here. And in observing the place and talking to people here, I felt like there was a community of people that have this relationship to the place where great things are possible. So that's why I'm here.

PRENTICE: As different as Boise and Charleston are, my sense is what we do have in common is a deep desire to grow and protect.

KEANE: Without question. And that's why I start with Charleston, just because the cities share those aspirations. As you say, very different in terms of their environments, but but also very similar in terms of the commitment to those things. The issue is, as you know, George, that this is not simple. What we're describing….we're having a chat about it, and that's fine. But if this was simple, then it would have been done, because we care about this city so much. We have to be open-minded as to what we have to consider as people, in order to satisfactorily deal with what other cities haven't been able to.

PRENTICE: Let's talk a little bit about density. And I think most people grasp it as a concept. But I have to assume that, through the years you have some idea of what cities do right and what cities have done wrong when it comes to appropriate density.

KEANE: You know, all these issues are so interwoven. And I feel strongly that the practices that have been used by the planning profession are very ineffective. And essentially, they're really good at facilitating disagreement. And we have to move past that. And when it comes to density, you think of a city as it relates to density, and everybody thinks of that differently, because if you're in a great city and you're enjoying that place, you're probably not thinking much about how dense it is. The time where you tend to think about density is when you're in a place that abhors you; and you just want to get out of it, right? So, it's like, “Hey, the times I think about density are the times that I'm really unhappy and I'm looking at things that make me sad” So, to answer the question, I think the issue related to density is, “How does it directly and specifically relate to the city that you're trying to make?” Because the application of density should be towards solving the goals that we have for the city and the context of the physical place that we have. I mean, we want density to be where density is helpful and creates a lively, beautiful place. It's not density for density sake. It's how do we use that as we use other things to address issues like housing affordability and mobility and just happiness with the place that we share? And as we discuss this, I want to put it in the right context, because it comes down to density, what do we zone property and what does that allow? What are we asking of people developing property? But I think we do ourselves a disservice if we jump to an argument around density before having answered the question, “What city are we seeking to build?” Because that's the most important question to answer before you get into any of these specifics.

PRENTICE: And the great cities of the world - and a few in this country - but many of them outside of this country, do have that vision.

KEANE: Well, it's funny you say that, because I almost introduced it a moment ago. This idea, if you think of great cities in this world, there are certain ingredients probably that make them. And honestly, density is one of them. We've come to think of density as this thing to be deployed using the legal instruments at our behalf, zoning, rather than a part of what makes it properly utilized a beautiful place. And so, I think that's an important lesson for this particular city as it relates to where we're going now. Boise is a city of, what, 230- 240,000 people currently? If we are to become a city if, optimally that would be a city of …I'm just saying say it's 400,000. How does the physical place accommodate that in ways that people will be very proud of and will help address these issues that that so few have been able to?

PRENTICE: You brought up mobility, and that has to be a part of this recipe….as partnership with our transit authority… and when we're talking about density and smart density, mobility and access to transportation… and public transportation has to be key.

KEANE: It has to be key. It is key. All aspects of mobility are central to the challenges that people tend to address in ways that end up disrupting the potential of the place. What I mean is that some people here since I've arrived in Boise, explained to me that “Bad news is traffic will increase. The good news is we've got things we can do as a city and as a region to address these traffic concerns that we might have things like, for instance, redesigning and rebuilding the 84 connector interchange.” Well, I can say with great confidence, since I just came from Atlanta, which has the most beautifully designed interchanges you've ever seen that are choked in traffic, that a concentration on designing the most dysfunctional highway that you can is time that's misplaced, because it hasn't worked in any city anywhere in the world. This is a challenge we all share. But can we please work together on this… before we're the last city in America to spoil ourselves based on this flawed idea? This is a city where we should be concentrating on designing it such that many, many more people can drive less. It's not that people won't drive. Of course they will. I will. Everyone will. It's just that if you can take your average daily car trips from ten down to eight or seven or even six, boy, you've really accomplished something. The only way to do that, however, is if you build beautiful streets that are vibrant and safe for people. Because people that have choices, are not going to walk. Ride your bike. Use transit as an alternative to driving. Unless that alternative is those things. The bad news is traffic today is as good as it'll ever be. The good news is the best cities in the world are choking in traffic. Paris has an outer belt. Paris has highways. Paris has every highway you can imagine, as does London. Outer belt. Massive highways clogged in traffic. You know what else? They have amazing cities.

PRENTICE: And you can get one wonderful place in London to another wonderful place within 15 or 20 minutes.

KEANE: Right. And the idea of getting in your car there, I don't want to do that. I want to walk and bike. London is obviously a different scale. But the point is, it will be helpful if we could all start to really challenge the status quo when it comes to dealing with mobility; and together this community of people that are so concerned about how this place is changing as the result of growth. Let go of those flawed ideas that have shaped cities for the last generation. Just let them go. It's okay. Just let them go. And let's take up a new collection of ideas around how we address this differently, such that we're building a city that is in the spirit of what the city is today versus becoming something that's utterly different and much like every other city in America.

PRENTICE: One of the best things that I'm certain that anyone can do is keep good staff and find great staff. Goodness knows a lot of people on your floor process a lot…, well, who knows how many permits are processed on a daily basis?  But can you talk about the “art” of what you and your colleagues do? We certainly appreciate the “science”, but what do you look for when you're talking with a potential new colleague?

KEANE: Great question. I love the art and science aspect of it. I think of that… as I spent seven years in Atlanta talking about the fact that you've got to get the science. We’ve got the data and the engineers- no question about it. What you're missing is the art. In this case, there are employees at the city that work in the Planning Department that are highly capable and committed public servants. It's been a little while since there's been kind of permanent leadership here. I think as a result of that, morale has been down, I think. But the good news is, since we have such talented people that are committed to this, I think we can make great progress relatively quickly. The progress will be substantially around two things: One is, “What is the role that we play, helping the community through a period of time that Boise really hasn't experienced?”  And having the greatest aspirations for working with the community on these issues, we've been discussing that we should do this. We will do this better than any anybody has ever done it. So, that's one of the stories. The second is something very different, which is: Getting as good as anyone, at how we consistently and predictably treat people of Boise and the way we work. That goes from helping people with getting a permit to renovate their house, or helping someone figure out what this complex zoning ordinance really means, to involving the community and how we plan this place. And so, it's the relationship with the community side of things, which is the other art, so to speak, which means that one of the great things about people here since I've arrived two months ago is - and I've been talking about - we have to challenge the way we work. We have to consider changing our processes, whether it's how we process permits, how we use our design review processes to produce higher quality development in the city, whether it's how we engage the public in these efforts that we have with them. We have to be willing to challenge the way we're used to doing things, such that again, we're constantly asking, “How can we do it better? How can we do it the best?” And so, I think to your point, we've had some issues staff-wise over the past few years, and I'm hopeful to really build upon the great team we have quickly, which requires a lot of discussion with people like Boise State University and the University of Idaho, and partners - people that are producing talent and have these same aspirations.

PRENTICE: Tim Keane is the new director of the City of Boise Planning and Development Services. Mr. Keane, good luck in the science and especially the art, and we look forward to many conversations with you down the road and through the years.

KEANE: Thank you, George. I really appreciate it. Enjoyed talking with you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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