Unplanning – the best way to get a more livable city?

The times they are a changing.  So many people want “better” planning.  Yet it shold be glaringly obvious that the 100 year old model of city building is broken.  We are facing new conditions, new needs.  How best to adress them?  Unplanning?

This is a review from Car Free Cities – carfree.com By J. Crawford.—-

cover   Unplanning
Livable Cities and Political ChoicesCharles Siegel
Preservation Institute, 2010139 pages
Available as HTML
Available as PDF
I find the HTML version easier to use.
Paperback US$12.95
ISBN 9780978872854

 

The last paragraph of the book is an excellent summary of Siegel’s position:

The calls for more planning assume that centralized organizations staffed by experts should provide us with goods and services, and ordinary people are nothing more than consumers. This view made some sense one hundred years ago, when scarcity was the key economic problem, but it makes no sense now that over-consumption is the key economic problem in the United States and the other developed nations. Today, we need to invert this technocratic view, so we can change from clients who expect the planners to solve our problems into citizens who deal with these problems ourselves by putting direct political limits on destructive technologies and on growth.

This small book parallels many of my own thoughts, although it does not explicitly call for extensive redevelopment of our cities as pedestrian areas. Siegel’s “Pedestrian-Oriented City” is not actually carfree but is certainly walkable and would be much more habitable than any arrangement short of the pure carfree model.* see note regarding serious error

Siegel comes loaded for bear when it comes to planners. He identifies two principal schools of top-down urban planning, the Garden-City people like Ebenezer Howard and the Modernists as exemplified by Corbusier. He sees both planning approaches as highly flawed and as having led us into an untenable situation during the 20th century.

The planners were “technocrats” and knew too much for us to understand. We had to trust them. It was not until the resistance to freeway construction began to arise in the 1960s that there was any resistance to what was, in practice, an authoritarian model. Yes, the planners were appointed by elected officials, but any attempt to influence their plans for roads, roads, and more roads was largely futile, at least in the beginning.

He devotes about half of the book to the well-known failures of centralized planning. He does concede, as do I, that for some tasks, there is no apparent substitute for centralized planning. The provision of drinking water to a metropolitan region or the arrangement of its public transport route network are both examples of tasks that can really only be conducted for the region as a whole.

Siegel argues that at a smaller scale, such as a small city or a city district, we shouldn’t plan at all. We should set some minimum standards appropriate to the kind of area that is foreseen to develop at the location there and let the market do its thing. All areas would be mixed use, excepting noxious uses. By raising the cost of driving to reflect externalities, the big-box model that dominates the US retail scene today would naturally come to be replaced by more local stores within walking distance for many and short driving distance for everyone else. This is certainly a more workable model than any attempt to sustain the current drive-everywhere-now model that is contemporary America.

Siegel thinks that individual demand for various kinds of housing at various densities can yield a balanced supply of housing once the centrally-planned sprawl developments have been basically killed off by internalizing the external costs of the auto-centric model. I go somewhat further in my proposals to let citizens design their neighborhoods directly, working in the field. Siegel stresses the importance of letting people see what plans would look like once built; textual descriptions are inadequate. People will accept much higher densities once they understand what it will look like and that it does not lead to still more driving.

I was interested to note how strongly Siegel deals with the noise question. It is one of my own pet peeves about living just about anywhere, even in rural areas if you consider the noise of overflying jets. This is one of the least-considered issues in modern life, yet there is increasing evidence that noise really does kill.

For me, the interesting part of the book is Chapter 5 to the end. The initial discussion of the history of centralized planning is quite well known to me. Others may find it more useful.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in an alternative view of the future. It does not achieve all of the benefits of true carfree urbanism, but its goals may be more realistically attainable in the USA.

*Mr. Siegel has kindly pointed out that my reading of his pedestrian-oriented city is just plain wrong. He’s right. We will have more to say about my error at some place and time, probably the next issue. Note added 16:18 Eastern Time 8 July 2010 with apologies. JHC

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Unplanning – the best way to get a more livable city?

  1. Ernie Yanarella

    As always, a thoughtful review of a book and insightful perspective on its relevance to Lexington and its environs. I will order this book shortly after I post this comment. For now, here are some rambling thoughts on this blog entry on a sultry Monday morning.

    Siegel (and by implication Austin) seem to pose the issue in far too a polarized manner. I find the planning-unplanning dichotomy too sharp. Indeed, as you suggest, Siegel, like you, backs off from a blanket critique of planning–as he must. An honest and sober look at Lexington’s planning process suggests that while planning does take place, it is usually retrospective planning that leans in the direction pointed to by developer cues sometimes modestly compromised by awareness of where active citizen opinion stands. (Consider the last debate over the comprehensive plan and urban growth boundary.)

    Between the unplanful type of planning Lexington-Fayette County is famous for and the top-down planning for which Robert Moses was known, there is the kind of top-down/bottom-up version that progressive cities like Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle seek to realize–and, of course, often fall short of. Too often, LFUCG has frittered away the opportunity to use well-steered initiatives like Destination 2040 as board blueprints and general guideposts for building the framework for sensible planning for and in the future.
    Lexington-Fayette county is blessed with civic organizations like Bluegrass Tomorrow, the Fayette Alliance, and ProgressLex, all of whom should play a much more significant role in mediating between elected leaders and appointed official, on the one hand, and citizens populating the scale of governance and planning, on the other.

    My point is that the Lexington and other cities aspiring to be progressive and conservative simultaneously operate in planning systems that are poorly represented in polarizing terms. In Lexington-Fayette County’s case, improved leadership in the mayor’s office augmented by strong planning direction from the top could help coordinate and crystallize a planning vision informed by a better informed public for which its civic groups could provide more meaningful and influential public forums.

  2. Danny

    I’m not so sure I agree with the top-down/bottom-up synthesis. First, cities like Portland and Vancouver are heavily influenced by private development money, and insofar as they are deemed successful, it’s normally based on the attraction of private, increasingly transnational, capital. (See Matt Hern’s Liquid City for a non-academic view of Vancouver, and also his chapter comparing Portland and Vancouver.) What Ernie describes as (mostly) functional examples of strong top-down leadership are normally heavily influenced by public/private partnerships (government/commerce)–top/top partnerships– not particularly government/public (government/community)–top/down partnerships.

    Of course, this isn’t to say that better leadership from the Mayor’s office, or more active citizen engagement at the level of city/county government, isn’t certainly needed. And as the article mentions, infrastructure like water and gas lines certainly require strong central governments (at the local, state and national scales).

    But it is to note that the sort of models that approach what Ernie discusses as good mixture of top-bottom governmental approaches are fraught with their own problems. What does strong leadership informed by specific civic groups actually mean? Does it use Pittsburgh or Vancouver (site of the slum-clearing, debt-ridden, citizen-scorned 2008 Olympics)? Is it to create a city for Thursday Night Live-rs to consume on a regular basis? Is it a city of affordable housing? One that cultivates a realistic mixture of wealth and poverty? What is city leadership and who has access to the ears of it?

    Too often, I think, those who have the ears are paid professionals, such that city resources go toward echo-chambers of ideas that the city is already (or should already be) aware of: see Creative Cities Lexington or city trips to Pittsburgh, Austin, and all the others that have happened these past 10 years. Contra Ernie, I’d suggest that Lexington has been inundated with the type of specialists and civic groups that are the hallmark of other progressive cities.

    The benefit of bottom-up as a primary lens through which to understand cities is that such actions are often hyper-specific to people’s needs and fairly affordable to carry out (with a minimum need for experts whose credentials demand outsized monetary payments), though of course the needs and actions are somewhat boring and not necessarily tourist-board material: food, clothes, security, functional leisure space.

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