I need to reflect on this later, but Planetizen and Discovering Urbanism have both recently called into question the need for planning, as compared to the organic, decentralized system of Emergence.

After reading Daniel’s post, I was curious to read Steven Johnson’s book Emergence (2002).  And just today, Planetizen relayed a Slate article on the same theme.  Both the book and the Slate piece argue that cities are formed by the aggregate of a million decisions of residents, companies, and other stakeholders – not by comprehensive planning (understood to be the attempt to direct and control growth or development with certain goals in mind).

With the increased recognition of urban planning as important in cities and regions, there seems to be a parallel trend of anti-planning sentiment in favor of emergence.

Whence this criticism?  Whither planning?


Update:  I responded in a comment, but realized that this blog theme does an excellent job of burying comments in tiny text that no one will find.  I’m copying my response to Daniel’s point that the Slate article seems to conflate top-down central planning with all other types of planning, ignoring the participatory and community-building aspects of contemporary planning practice.  See Comments for original post.

The anti-planning (or I should probably say pro-market or pro-emergence) arguments tend to set up the dichotomy between absolute planning and free-market principles, while at the same time talking about “putting some mechanisms into place” regarding land use and economic functions and the like. So… is planning good AND bad, then?

If they’re reacting against Soviet-era planning, it’s certainly not fair to lump anything we do in the U.S. into that category. Even if that much centralized authority is effective in making change, there is no legal framework OR popular desire to engage in that project in America. Their argument against central planning, as you said, is valid, given the value we place on democratic principles and on the basic equality and rights of all people. But to push their argument further, their responsibility is to clarify what *type* of planning they’re talking about, and not to accidentally (or deliberately) conflate those ideas.

It seems to be, in part, a case of people getting really excited about 1) nature and/or 2) the Internet, and trying to relate those metaphors to the rest of modern life. The problem with using either is that everything humans do has become artificial, so it’s hard to sort out “natural” behavior; and of course, that the underlying structure of the Internet allows the apparent front-end chaos to thrive.

I think it’s also a case with some – but not all – proponents of incrementalism or free market or emergent systems, of setting up “planning” as a straw man to knock down, then espouse their principles. The confusion between city planning and central/master planning, as we generally understand those terms, may be a deliberate political move. I’m opening myself up to further criticism by making that generalization, so I stress that it’s not always ideological manipulation! But for some, it decidedly is. Whenever you move from observation of a system, to declarations about how it or other systems SHOULD behave, you’re out of the realm of science, and into philosophical or policy questions.

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