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As all things government-spending-related become topics of general debate rather than just policy wonks’ geek-out of choice, the activities of that government move into the spotlight.  And as our cities get more popular and our problems of modern living more complicated, the field of planning (land use, environment, transportation, housing, economy, other) has been lauded as the solution or attacked as part of the problem.

There’s no easy way to characterize and dissect American attitudes toward planning, and certainly no one solution to the “right” kind of planning and at what cost.  Generally speaking, though, people in my generation (finished school, starting their first job or three, married or not, moving to a new place in the city, enjoying “urban” amenities like coffee shops and parks and concert series, walking or biking to work) seem to generally view urban planning as a positive thing, where older generations tend to be more skeptical.

While recognizing this is itself a generalization, I wondered if I could explain it with another generalization:  people my age tend not to be property owners, and those older (who tend to be skeptics) are.  To them, “planning” is not about finding an affordable apartment or having a bike lane or community garden, but about how much their property taxes are, who is telling them whether they’re allowed to put an addition on their house, and whether installing a roundabout in their area will increase traffic along their street.  Not to mention homeowners’ focus on the quality of their schools, since much of the district’s expenses come directly out of their property taxes and since, if they have children, they may have made the decision to live where they do based on the schools.

No wonder they may gripe about planning!  If all they ever see of urban planning is the Board of Zoning Appeals and their water bill and annual or tri-annual tax assessment, and maybe a road improvement which increases traffic congestion or impacts their parking spot at work, no wonder they complain.  They don’t take the bus, so a new route isn’t too exciting; they spend a lot of time working on their house or in their own backyard, so they don’t go to a public park except maybe for the Fourth of July fireworks; and they’re busy living their own lives and aren’t generally called on to articulate the long-term vision for their community.  They care about paying the large bills (mortgage, utilities, taxes, school and children, car payment) they have to worry about.

This isn’t to say that people my age don’t own cars or some form of property, or inherently care more about their community (some would argue they care less, being more transient) or automatically use these public resources.  They do, however, tend to be less burdened with taxes and possessions and are in a place where they’re more open to and able to try new things; have less money, so rely on things like renting an apartment or taking public transportation or spending time in free public spaces; and may use their free time to engage in civic projects like community gardens or social activism or environmental justice work or just spending time enjoying urban amenities.  As cities, and by extension planning as a field, become the next cool thing – even Scientific American got on the bandwagon and just had an issue celebrating cities – those who haven’t yet been burdened with the full costs of modern living seem to overlook the bureaucracy and focus on the bigger, more interesting picture.

So assuming all this speculation has identified a decently solid truth, I further wonder, is this the natural progression of generational attitudes toward planning?  Or will this enthusiasm “stick” as my generation buys property, settles down, has children who need schooling, and who will eventually get stuck with the bills?  There’s already mixed evidence about whether suburban living will continue to appeal to young families, but from my very limited and anecdotal evidence, it does seem that school-age children (and/or the desire for a more traditional household living situation) will drive some people out of city neighborhoods to somewhere more suburban, less complicated bureaucratically and planning-wise.  If young people will inevitably grow out of their love of urban living and support of greater institutional involvement of the life of a city, then we should worry (again) about our cities in the next few decades, if they will again enter a low period.

If the attitude is not simply related to age and level of responsibility, however, maybe we’re really in a larger period of change.  Maybe we still need to focus on convincing the homeowners and soon-to-retire generation (who after all, still have the power as property owners) that some changes with planning are a good thing.  But maybe we also have the larger shift in attitude on our side, in the long run.

And of course there’s one huge group I have not touched on:   the elderly.  Those who may or may not still own their own homes, and who are still paying those bills (though maybe not a mortgage) like their working counterparts.  Many of those people were also young when cities were rapidly growing in the US, however, and may see a city neighborhood in a more positive, perhaps more nostalgic way.  As they age, they become more dependent on others to get around, are less able or willing to drive everywhere, and they may or may not be interested in the housework associated with “aging in place” versus settling in a denser and more active community with other seniors.  As they interact less with planning bureaucracy but face more of the issues that planning addresses, will their attitudes also change for the better?  How do their attitudes now differ from younger generations?

As with any issue or question or field of work which relies on public discourse, planning needs to care about how it is perceived by the general population.  Ultimately, planners are only there to educate and advise the public about decisions it will make about its own community and future.  The underlying perceptions of planning have an effect on each individual project or debate, and the success of our field depends in part on our awareness of and ability to positively influence those perceptions of us and our work.

Hi everyone.  So, a few updates:

  • I got a job and am moving to Anchorage, Alaska.  Yeah.
  • I just participated in Cornell’s graduation ceremony and am at this point 95% (ish) done with my degree.
  • Summer is officially beginning with a potluck at our house on June 1.
  • And I am, for the time being, ratless (RIP Tiny!)

I’ll be back with something more interesting soon!

Masters of Regional Planning on the move - Cornell Graduation 2011

Masters of Regional Planning on the move - Cornell Graduation 2011

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.

This post will actually be considerably less topical (read:  about Haiti) than its title implies.  It concerns two types of planning:  planning “before,” actions taken in preparation for or the prevention of a crisis; and planning “after,” the coordinated action we take to clean up the mess and build better than before.

The introduction to Nolon and Salkin’s Land Use in a Nutshell set me thinking about this:

The great fire of 1666 in London led to the adoption of municipal building construction laws that required brick exteriors, wider streets, and open space along the Thames River for access to water for firefighting. . . .  These early land use rules were . . . formalized by the Act for the Rebuilding of London adopted by Parliament in 1667.  The Act gave the municipality the power to regulate the construction of buildings:  their size, height, and placement on the lot, and the materials used (2).

Other examples of dramatic renewal and growth came to my mind:  Chicago, following the 1871 fire; San Francisco, following the 1906 earthquake; the many destroyed villages of northern France and Belgium, reconstructed after the First World War; the bombed cities of Japan and Germany after the Second World War; (a plan f0r) the town of Greensburg, Kansas, after being levelled by a tornado in 2007.

This is not to say that renewal will inevitably follow a crisis, but in each case listed, the devastating losses caused by natural or man-made disasters became an opportunity to reinvent the form of the city.  London, already one of the most important cities in Europe by the 17th century, was rebuilt to become the economic and political center for much of the world, its grand new architecture the manifestation of its wealth and power.   Chicago, its urban core cleared of its old wooden buildings and boarded walkways, had valuable land available to build its new downtown of skyscrapers, paved streets, and rail lines.  Albert, a small city in France, was completely levelled by 1918 and rebuilt by the late 1920s, not a replica of its original form, but with modern infrastructure, wider streets, and a reorientation of the city’s main axes to better locate its new industrial sites in appropriate areas.  Tokyo, with most of its wooden structures burned away in Allied firebombing by 1945, had by the end of the twentieth century become perhaps the most modern city in the world.

The idea that “an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure” is central to urban planning:  we can make choices today with tomorrow in mind, guiding our next steps, procedures in hand for when something goes wrong.  But even with all our precedent cases, forecast models, and good intentions, can we ever really do anything but react to the events we can’t control?

I’m not suggesting we should despair because we can’t prevent the unpredictable.  Much of our knowledge of good city design is thanks to the lessons we’ve wisely learned from past mistakes, or at least from close observation of what went wrong.  My question is whether we can do anything more forward-looking than error correction, and I’m not sure that the answer is “yes.”

There always exist a handful of brilliantly insightful people who can foresee possibilities far into our future, and many more who can make reasonable guesses about where we might be headed.   However, the complicated tangle of culture, politics, and logistical constraints we call modern life often makes it inordinately difficult to take more than a single step forward.  The one redeeming value of catastrophes seems to be their ability to force us into drastic action.  In their most extreme form, disasters can “wipe the slate clean” and challenge us to make new choices:  in the example of city form, to use physical loss as an opportunity to build new and better.  We can return to the status quo ante, but it is no longer a given that we should do so.

So how should we move forward?  I think we need to spend more time looking thoughtfully backward:  more careful assessment of successes and failures in disaster recovery, particularly where planners (or private developers) chose to rethink and redesign their city.  Evaluate what worked and which actors and circumstances allowed those changes to take place.  Identify which examples have the best analogues to current cities, and where those successful strategies might be employed in the wake of future crises.

To go a step further:  what if cities wrote into their comprehensive plans a “disaster renewal” section, in which they would identify locations which are most vulnerable, locations (or networks) which are most in need of change, and steps to take in order to foster successful redevelopment following a crisis?  No doubt this suggestion would be met by many, most notably city councils, as a morbid hypothetical exercise.  Consider, however:

  • More and more of our global population is living in cities.
  • In the United States, our infrastructure is aging; in many other parts of the world, city infrastructure is inadequate or non-existent.
  • Cities tend to locate on flat land near water.
  • The incidence of major weather-related disasters has been increasing in recent years, and there is little reason to believe this trend will reverse.
  • Even where disaster recovery plans have been written, they are notoriously difficult to execute.
  • Even where short-term disaster relief and recovery are administered, the monumental task of long-term recovery suffers from lack of organization, collaboration, and vision.

We can’t stop disasters in our cities, much as we try to mitigate, but time and again we’ve found opportunity in our losses well outside the scope of everyday planning processes.  If we can only really organize ourselves to make big changes in the wake of crisis, shouldn’t we be better students of our own past disasters?