Thursday, November 5

Planning has come a long way

While rummaging through the municipal recycling bin the other day, I happened to come across an old textbook from 1991: Contemporary Urban Planning, Second Edition. Remembering that reusing is one notch better than recycling, I grabbed it and skimmed through some of the chapters. Chock full of photos of gleaming skyscrapers and various megaprojects, the textbook is a relic of a different age when the modern motor city was expected to wipe out traditional urban fabric altogether. I had to doublecheck the date to make sure this was really 1991, only 18 years ago. Planning has come a long way since this was written.

The chapter on transportation is fantastically bad. The following words are not in the chapter at all: bicycle, pedestrian, neighborhood, beauty, human, love, happiness. Instead, it's declared that "adequate circulation [of automobiles] is and traditionally has been a major planning goal" and the bulk of the chapter describes the models used to plan roadways to facilitate optimal traffic flow. What happens next to the lanes of fast-moving vehicles is inconsequential. Environmentalists get a little shout out, but only as obstructionists who thwart the rationally optimal siting of new highways. There's a couple of paragraphs on public transportation tacked on to the end, mostly to describe how it's unsuitable for suburban densities and thus must be "heavily subsidized" to exist. On the other hand, "the fact is that in a direct sense automobile transportation is paid for by those who use it."

The chapter on growth management lays out the tensions of limiting growth on suburban fringes quite well, but the idea of allowing more density in some areas to relieve the pressure in others never crosses the radar screen. The mantra "separating incompatable land uses" is sprinkled throughout the book, showing up in a chapter on urban design, another on community development, and in the introductory what-is-planning-anyway paragraph. Jane Jacobs' ideas of diversity are given a brief reference but she is drowned out by sheer volume. The chapters on history tell the story of urban disintegration and suburban triumph, ending with the notion that technology may be making cities obsolete altogether.

What distinguishes this era from our own? First, the New Urbanism movement had not influenced planning yet. Compact, mixed-use, and walkable neighborhoods were still something planners should be replacing, rather than preserving, or even creating. Second, global climate change and a focus on sustainability have pushed energy efficiency issues from the periphery into the center of planning.

Reading through this book gives me more insight into some of the negative perceptions of planners that are floating around certain circles. If that's where you are, just pick up any copy of Planning magazine or skim through Planetizen for a while. I think you'll see a very different picture.


Eric Orozco said...

Sow...that ramp-fed parking deck is seriously the centerpiece of the cover photo. Says volumes already! ')

Eric Orozco said...

Is that Tyson's Corner by any chance?

jessie ray said...

wow... totally craziness! does make me wonder though-as i often do- what are we doing now that will be the bane of the future generations existence/planning practice? i like to think it will be what we don't do, but who knows?

LH said...

Daniel, nice post. You had me at "While rummaging through the municipal recycling bin the other day . . ." Not to probe, but is this a common activity for you? :)

For me, the fun factoid is the notion at the time that "technology may be making cities obsolete altogether." Of course, we have learned since then that the transition to an information and knowledge based economy has rendered cities and metro areas even more important, and, it is far-flung rural areas that have been triply victimized: 1) insufficient density of people and institutions to stimulate innovation, 2) declining agricultural and manufacturing jobs as we mechanize everything, and 3) higher operating costs associated with dearer energy.

But here's a 25-point toss-up for you and others: what do you predict will be the reaction by the 2027 version of you when you trash-pick and read through a 2009 "Contemporary Urban Planning" textbook? I.e. what's being touted now that has legs, versus what will be seen in retrospect as wildly off? Discuss.

Eric Orozco said...

Nice question Lee.

I'll just throw one out: I would hope that this concern to categorize things by their location in an "urban transect" will be seen as fighting more than aiding sustainable urbanism. I would hope that people eventually come to treat cities for the complexity that they represent. I would hope they become more aware of the context, culture and peculiarities of places. In other words, that they truly value the importance of planning, the old fashioned rolled up you sleeves version of planning and actually get intimately involved in places. We need not codes but real "plans", integrating land use and transportation at every level, and being visionary Burnham style at the metropolitan scale. If planning is just about creating planters and amenity zones, we're missing the big picture here.

Daniel Nairn said...

Eric, it does look like Tyson's but its Stamford, Conn. It's the "after" picture of a before-and-after montage of an urban renewal scheme there.

Jray and Lee, that really is a great question ... made me think for a little while this morning. I have to remind myself that planning techniques are not a religion. Even if some great ideas may be working now, it doesn't mean they will apply at any time and at any place.

That being said, I see more longevity in the strategy of facilitating a diverse urban fabric than the more colossal urban renewal schemes or the sprawl status quo for a couple of reasons: 1. more organic mixed-use environments should be able to grow and adapt with changes. 2. There is more historic precedent for this kind of form. If anything, the 20th century development patterns were the outliers.

I do think this is as an field where pragmatism and open-mindedness are good things though. Thanks for encourage this.

Daniel Nairn said...

Lee, it's actually not as nutty as it seems. They separate books from other forms of paper and put them in a big trailer. Whenever we drop off anything, I usually end up spending about 5 minutes looking through the current selection.

LH said...

Daniel, when you put it like that . . . sign me up! I'm a sucker for free discards, too. I just had visions of you rummaging through trash heaps alongside drifters muttering to themselves. (Of course, that's par for the course in my neighborhood, but I figured it would seem very out of place in C'Ville!?!)

Anonymous said...

This book (the 8th edition) was a required text in a planning class I took just a year ago. I hope the book has come an equally long way in that time :)