Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Thu Dec 11th 2008 at 8:49am UTC

The Planning Imperative

Jamie Galbraith says planning is the cure for America’s problems (via Planetizen).

“Planning” has been a dirty word in American politics for decades. For the hard-line right, planning destroyed freedom: it was the “road to serfdom.” Anti-planners also thought it a failure; for them the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was due to “central planning.” But without public planning, who is in charge? Lobbyists who represent the private planning of the great corporations. The public interest ceases to exist, and the public sector becomes nothing more than a trough at which private interests come to feed.

What the government needs most today is to regain an independent capacity to think. The government needs a way to imagine the future that is not dominated by lobbies or even by Congress so long as Congress is dominated by lobbies. Planning is a process: thinking, coordination, action. What is the long-term national interest? What specific targets must be met? What is the best way to do it, and who plays what role? …

Markets do not design new systems—new patterns of transport and housing, new technologies for electric power, for vehicles, for heating and cooling. To design a system, to put the pieces together, to identify the most promising lines of attack and take steps to achieve them: that is the planner’s role.

My PhD is in urban planning, so many might think I’m a proponent. But I’m more than just a little bit worried about planned solutions. Much of the time I find myself argeeing with Jane Jacob’s views on the subject – planning is a poor second to complex, self-organizing processes. And our economy, society, politics, and geography are surely a lot more complicated and complex than in her time. I’d like to believe that government can become independent of lobbyists and regain its independent capacity to think, but the realist in me asks: Is that really possible under our current system?

10 Responses to “The Planning Imperative”

  1. Ian Says:

    Absolutely. There are some big projects that make sense as part of the stimulus package, but for the most part the money would be better spent on incentives for small-scale actors to do great things. Emergent systems (like cities) are almost always more robust and efficient than big, top-down productions.

  2. The Urbanophile Says:

    The problem with planning has been known forever. Namely that the goals and plans of individuals have to be subordinated to the goals of the planner. The real path to greatness for a city is to find a way to give full flower to the creative impulses of the people who live in it, not to straightjacket the place in an over-determinted, top-down vision.

    There’s also more than a little “this time for sure” wishful thinking when it comes to planning. The failures of yesterday’s urban renewal schemes, sprawl-promoting policies, rigid single use zoning, etc. should teach us if anything humility about the limits of planning. But we’ve lost none of the hubris. Today’s “smart growth” planners are no different than what came before. If the results are different, it won’t be because the ideological, one size fits all approach is any different than the planning of yesterday.

    The most interesting and accessible academic work I know on the subject is described in Dietrich Dorner’s great work, “The Logic of Failure”, in which he shows how human being seems hard wired to think in terms of simple linear cause and effect relationships (the Jacobsian “two factor” model if you prefer), while the real world is a complex, multi-variate, dynamic system where every factor acts on every other factor over time. Dorner’s descriptions of the horrific failures even by experts in his simplified scenarios should give anyone reason to pause.

  3. Publius Says:

    You are right on the ball. Unfortunately, far too many well-intentioned people have not read Jane Jacobs, and are put off by the disciples of Friedman, Hayek and Popper (if they’ve even heard of them outside dismissive asides by an old college profesor!)

    This is why I advocate not only deciding on what principles we support, but then to determine the likelihood that regulation will indeed accomplish its stated goal. Just as our market skeptics are right to point out that we need to judge ‘capitalism’ by it’s real-world performance, we must judge government action by the same. And our pluralistic democracy, for all its strengths, does a remarkable job of turning the most noble of causes into dismal and destructive regulation.

    In the piece I link below, I quote liberal Ezra Klein on alternative energy investment:

    “One more time: 79 cents of every dollar the federal government invests in renewable energy goes towards corn ethanol, a heavily subsidized boondoggle that is little better than gasoline. Which is why I worry about targeted investment strategies. It’s not impossible to conjure up massive investment strategies that would make a tremendous impact on global warming. Gary Lipow does a nice job of it here. But it’s hard to imagine such an initiative entering the United States Congress and not emerging as pork encrusted in corn. The incentives are too poorly aligned.”

    Let us be idealists in what we strive for, but pragmatists in the steps we take towards these goals.

  4. Zoe B Says:

    Urban planning of the modern era too often has been viewed as(and sometimes has been) the top-down vision of a tyrant, a loss of freedom and property rights for everyone other than the planner. But it’s necessary to counteract the blinkered vision of the developer who cares only about personal profit.

    Actually, there’s a lot of room in between the extremes. Most modern planners do not have the power of Robert Moses, not all have the egomania of Le Corbusier. Some of them have been proved prescient and wise. Some developers (eg: of the garden city suburbs) have cared about creation of community as much as or more than their own profit margin.

    I would like to give the thumbs up to Jane Jacobs. She showed how top-down planning can sterilize or kill the neighborhood life so many of us want. Zoning, road patterns, and the like prevent an environment from evolving to fit current needs. Euclidean zoning was useful when we wanted to prevent dirty industry from polluting the residential environment. But my town just had fights about whether someone can run a dog-grooming business out of her home, or whether you can keep chickens in your backyard. Some communities forbid residents to dry laundry outdoors. Why should we block the development of home business, household self-sufficiency, and energy efficiency?

    But Jacobs’ organic processes are layered on top of an infrastructure created by a planner. Not all of that infrastructure is superfluous or outdated. Jacobs’ living neighborhoods could not have built the water/sewer system that protects dense urban environments from a long list of epidemic diseases. Over 100 years ago my hometown of Cincinnati built a water treatment infrastructure so capacious and sturdy that it has served the metropolitan area (with little alteration) over a period of exponential population growth. It STILL has excess capacity.

    I love historic preservation, but you do need to tear down and rebuild when lifestyles change or we find ways to eliminate environmental hazards. Between about 1850 and 1870, Baron Haussman reshaped much of Paris. He tore down centuries’ worth of accreted, unplanned growth and created the system of boulevards punctuated by vistas and artworks that we now treasure as part of the city’s beauty. His major concern was the creation of a healthier environment. The boulevards improved the circulation of air and allowed natural light to reach the streets. Sewage that had been dumped in the street or hauled by wagon instead was directed into underground channels (those channels now dump a lot of untreated waste into the Seine, but in Haussman’s day they were state-of-the-art. If we could rebuild all the favelas of the world, poor people would be healthier.

    Haussman did not build subways, but his style of urban planning provided a template for building such an extensive and long-term infrastructure. Today creative-class people love to live in cities with a well-designed subway system.

    What, besides planning, creates and protects urban green space? If a developer owns a significant plot of land in a dense urban environment, is s/he going to give us a lovely public park? Or will they want to build on it? If they own a large tract they may leave green space in order to up the value of the rest of the property. But that only works when the developer owns more than one or two lots.

    Today we treasure the beauty of many older European cities. Much of that beauty was planned in a top-down fashion, to suit the taste of the reigning monarch or the church. Who commonly were motivated by a desire for glory or civic order. They could fund their plans through taxes and tithes, rather than accrued or anticipated profits. How many of them bankrupted their treasuries for the sake of ambitious building schemes? How many of them had a clue about business? How many of those cities now find the beauty created centuries ago to be a steady and significant generator of modern wealth? When profit is the only measure, we can get stuck living in ugly places. Then we have to pay big bucks and go to Europe to fill a yen for urban beauty.

    I think that planning at its best is a long-term dialogue between the community, the government, and the developers. The community asks for what it wants. What the community wants evolves over time. The developer investigates whether the community’s vision for itself is feasible or profitable. This arrangement enables developers to coordinate their individual efforts in synergistic ways. The government protects the public good and enables compromise. If a developer can’t make a project work on the numbers alone (as often is the case for historic preservation or affordable housing projects), government can provide a subsidy or other incentive. Government also can provide the forum and the professional support for citizens to figure out how they would like to improve their communities.

    All progress is incremental. But improvements can be made at every scale of development. Christopher Alexander’s book A Pattern Language illustrates how this can be done. Let’s not get stuck with the old, polarized arguments. They get as outdated as Haussman’s once world-class sewers.

  5. Michael Wells Says:

    Not to decide is to decide. Not to plan is to leave the planning to developers whose motivation isn’t always to develop the best city for the larger community. On the other hand, leaving everything to professional planners leads to sterility.

    While far from perfect and somewhat fragile, Portland’s model of citizen and neighborhood involvement in local planning along with respect for historic preservation has produced one of America’s more workable and livable cities. It allows for Jacob’s messy organic development to happen in response to neighborhood needs. New urban green spaces have been voted on by the regional electorate. New arty neighborhoods have been created by young creatives, sometimes with a little assistance from the city. It’s made possible by Oregon’s statewide land use planning including urban growth boundaries, which has saved farmland and forests close to cities and discouraged sprawl.

  6. Wil Says:

    Christopher Alexander, (who lived a few blocks from my house in North Berkeley) presented a brilliantly unified vision of planning, and design in “A Pattern Language”, but unfortunately, in the the real world planning often ignores the lessons of Jane Jacobs, Alexander, and others, and tends to produce bland environments. Planning is needed to create infrastructure, but can easily fail when extended into design and excessive zoning
    My experience with planning is as part of the building permit application process, and on that level the problems with planning are encountered early. The first issue, as mentioned by Zoe B. is zoning, or as many people think of it, social engineering via over-zoning. The second problem is design review, which is when a board , consisting of a motley group including usually one or two design professionals at most, impose their esthetics on your project. Next, are developers, who are often eager to cut costs at the expense of the quality of the project. These three forces work synergistically to create horrible environments. I would like to see planning boards composed of 90% architectural historians, with one or two artists, and forget about the supposed wisdom of local citizens, and very minimal and flexible zoning codes, to help improve the impact of poor planning.

    One downtown that has done very well with planning is downtown Vancouver, B.C. Old and new are well integrated, it is liveable, stroller friendly, a business centre, has the city’s best nightlife and trends, all in the same small area.

  7. Zoe B Says:

    My local design review board’s only power is that of a good idea. Developers/architects must present their projects twice: once at a conceptual stage, and then when the design is nearly final (a small project need only come once). Board members brainstorm ideas to improve any aspect of the design that they can think of: footprint, layout, silhouette, facade, materials, landscaping, ‘green’ building, bike racks, kitchen design, traffic flow, signage, safety features, handicap access …. Nearly every design can be improved – incrementally, or fundamentally. Most projects choose to act on at least some of the suggestions, especially if the cost impact is small. BUT they don’t need to do anything we say, as long as the plans pass code.

    I live in a college town, so perhaps it’s easier to find good design review board members. Our current board includes: a landscape architecture professor, a green-building engineer, a professor of engineering design, a local architect, and a community member of eclectic background who is involved in town planning issues. Members are free to disagree with each other. The only payment for service is a free lunch.

    There are problems with MANDATING good design, beyond code issues necessary for safety. My local board is empowered to promote good design through more than the review of individual projects. It can ADVOCATE for, MARKET and SELL good design. There are project awards for recognition and thanks, including one with a cash stipend. There is a newly updated design guide now being promoted and distributed. The board can convene meetings of local architects and developers to discuss issues such as: affordable housing, the costs and benefits of green building, or ways that design can affect our college students’ behavior. Board members may choose to speak up at planning commission meetings, school board meetings, downtown business-district meetings, and so on. There are hopes that the board will have dialogue with our university’s campus planners, to improve the physical interface between town and campus. All of this ‘official’ activity develops the network of interpersonal relationships that continue the brainstorming for good ideas and the promotion of good design whenever 2 parties bump into each other around town.

  8. Wil Says:

    Zoe B. You are fortunate to have a good design review arrangement in your town. I like the idea of brainstorming for good ideas, but not, as you said, mandating design. …I can still remember my first encounter with a design review board in a suburb of San Francisco in the mid seventies. It was composed of an odd assortment of business poeple and one retired architect. We were still at the meeting at midnight arguing about my design for a small apartment building. The amusing thing about it was that some of the members were unable to articulate why they didn’t like the design, I think it was just bcause the exterior had some post modern elements, but I remember thinking how much better it would have been to have a board composed of people who understood design. …Then there are often strange, arbitrary requirements, like in Vancouver, where the second story has to be offset back two feet from the wall below on the sides of houses in some neighbourhoods – Does that really allow more sunlight? …I think that small college towns, like yours, may handle design review better than big cities and suburbs, because you have a good chance of a board with some design education.

  9. Curt Says:

    There are no examples of deregulated cities with quality architecture or planning. One comment mentioned Vancouver B.C. as a model of quality – and it’s also one of the most highly government planned cities in the Western Hemisphere.

    Houston, TX is has minimal government planning. Some regulations are more effective than others, but overall, regulation works. We’re learning from other industries that deregulation as a response to changing circumstances can lead to disaster. Different, not necessarily less, land regulation is the answer.

  10. Kevin Howards Says:

    Can you provide more information on this please.