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.—-
Livable Cities and Political ChoicesCharles Siegel
Preservation Institute, 2010139 pages
Available as HTML
Available as PDF
I find the HTML version easier to use.
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