EFFECTIVE AND DEMOCRATIC CITY (AND TRANSPORTATION) PLANNING: Neither Top-Down nor Bottom-Up Is Enough

The Human Scale is a wonderful movie based on the powerful insights and work of progressive urban planner, Jan Gehl; it’s now available in CD format.  Everyone who loves cities should see it.  In potently visual scenes, the film lays out his critique of today’s automobile-focused high-rise urban design, the dangers of top-down authoritarian planning and “mega projects,” the value of allowing “ordinary” citizens to shape development goals, and the dynamism unleashed by embracing unplanned and open-ended grass-roots creativity.  It’s an important message from a brilliant person who carries forward the best of the Jane Jacobs and William Whyte tradition of human-centered city life.

But I left the theater extremely unsatisfied.  The movie presents all the evidence needed for a powerful conclusion, and goes as far as saying that “Master Plans” should be replaced with “Frameworks” that leave space for democratic uncertainty.  But it doesn’t really address the complexities of replacing central control with a free market of bottom-up innovation for entire cities or regions — how such an approach deals with planning for needed large-scale infrastructure for water or housing or energy or transportation that inevitably disrupts certain areas, or avoids simply turning planning over to the wealthy or ruthless, or deals with NIMBY parochialism or prejudice against various kinds of incoming “others.”

Maybe I’m jumping ahead of the movie’s own goals, however it seems to me that simply denouncing Le Corbusier and Robert Moses isn’t enough – we need to describe the alternatives.  And we have to admit that creating human scale environments requires not only a participatory, open-ended process but strong leadership as well as a large measure of good luck.

Neither top-down nor unregulated bottom-up: what cities need in order to make themselves livable is a sequence of interactive, tight-loose processes that move through the three phases of Planning, Design, and Implementation that combines broad participation with technical input, democratic debate with accountable central decision-making, long-term visioning of regional needs with sensitivity to particular circumstances, the vital role of strong leadership with the many benefits of distributed innovation, and a realistic understanding of financial realities with profit-making transparency.

Through all three phases, cities need a way to identify and prioritize needed infrastructure even if its construction will be disruptive; a way to mobilize the political momentum needed to push through often contradictory zoning, permitting, code, and regulatory requirements; and a willingness to accept that many end-stage details are simply not knowable at the start.

ELIMINATING TOP-DOWN PLANNING DOESN’T CREATE DEMOCRACY

The films first weakness is that it doesn’t talk enough about the context that shapes city planning.  Planners do not operate in a vacuum, and the more mega- or important the project the less independent they are.  Cities, like states and countries, are a jumble of diverse groups and interests – civic, religious, political, manufacturing, retail, finance, local and regional, and more.  But these groups are not equal.  Their importance is proportional to their power:  their role in shaping public opinion, turning voters out for elections, donating to campaigns, keeping the city running smoothly, or any of several spheres of business activity.  In general, this means that the more wealthy and powerful a group is the more their approval is needed for major decisions, including large-scale urban planning.   (As Piven and Cloward long ago pointed out, the poor or powerless primarily influence policy through their ability to disrupt “business as usual.”)

As a result, even the most “imposed from above” plan is almost always actually developed through an extensive process of consultation and compromise among elite groups.  Even the icon of technocratic-bureaucratic control, New York’s Robert Moses, ended up working within the context of available funding from the federal Interstate program and the national economy’s focus on cars.  Therefore, it should not be surprising that most large-scale projects are designed to serve (or at least to not upset) elite interests and therefore to fit comfortably in dominant economic trends – such as creating landscapes based on the needs of car-truck travel.

But eliminating all top-level power from control of planning in favor of open-ended bottom up initiative doesn’t eliminate elite influence over city development.  In fact, it magnifies it.  One of the ironies of City Planning’s evolution is that it was partly started, and for many practitioners was seen as, a way to control and limit the power of wealth over city development and the resulting squalor and systemic chaos that unregulated power caused.  We often forget that Robert Moses started as a reformer trying to find ways to create accessible green spaces for New York’s immigrants, to reclaim public space along the beaches, to democratize access to fresh air.  He was often opposed by the region’s big developers and financiers!  It was only later that his own increasingly insular autonomy and autocratic personal pretensions turned him into the villain he is mostly known as today.  Both in both his populist and elitist manifestations, Moses represented the technocratic alternative to unrestrained market dominance of urban development.

Without a formal planning process urban development is simply left open to market forces.  The Jane Jacobs vision is that this leads to incremental, small scale growth as families and local merchants slowly adapt space to their evolving needs.  But, in reality, it is just as likely that large-scale investors or unscrupulous back-room dealers use the unregulated opportunity to buy out, wipe out, or otherwise transform neighborhoods in ways that current residents totally oppose but are unable to stop.    Particularly in the USA, there was a long period where urban investors could pretty much build what they wanted where they wanted to – and the results were squalid slums next to toxic-spewing factories, the absence of both sewerage and drinking water, incoherent and dysfunctional transportation systems that stymied commerce, and more.  Then, and now, market-anarchism is a prescription for disaster.

LOCAL CONTROL CAN EMBOLDEN NARROW VISION AND INTERESTS

Ironically, large scale planning of the type addressed in The Human Scale is rare today.  The closest most people come to it is when site developers propose something they know will be rejected: too big, too out of sync with the current built-environment context, too destructive to the natural environment.  The fake proposals go through a series of Agency and public hearings, where they are denounced and revised. Technically, this is an iterative process.  But it’s neither democratic nor efficient.  And it’s not city planning:  it lacks the scale or impact of really big ideas.

This is partly because, as Anthony Flint and others have complained, the big-development planning process has become so entangled with endless public hearings and local reviews that it’s become almost impossible to get large scale projects off the ground.  In Massachusetts, this is particularly true in transportation as a result of the successful citizens’ revolt against the planned Inner Belt highway that would have wiped out huge swaths of the Boston area.  Flint writes: “The 21st century city requires a surge of badly needed infrastructure – not sprawl-enabling highways or bridges to nowhere, but primarily transit. Yet the citizenry is so fixated on killing bad ideas like the Inner Belt, greener infrastructure doesn’t stand a chance… In California, the high-speed rail corridor along the CalTrains route has been stiffly greeted by Palo Alto residents who say, very clearly: not in my backyard. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had public support for nixing the Access to the Regions Core (ARC) tunnel under the Hudson River, on the basis that it would cost too much (though there’s now some evidence he may have inflated many numbers). Light rail and multi-modal boulevards are routinely greeted with concerns about parking and congestion and increased density in established urban neighborhoods.”

On a more intimate level, any project is going to create local disturbances – noise, dust, detours, truck traffic and eventual commuter congestion, and increased competition for on-street parking.  It’s not clear why anyone would want to sign-on for these problems almost regardless of the larger regional or societal value of the eventual result.

Giving adjacent residents veto power over a project also unleashes more prejudicial concerns.  “Protecting” a white neighborhood against incoming African-American, Latino, immigrant, or low-income people is a venerable tradition although usually camouflaged behind concerns about increased school costs, congestion, or changing the nature of the community.  But these days, in cities the fear of change just as typically involves the dangers of upscaling rather than downgrading.  A recent study of major US cities found that nearly 61% of Boston’s low-priced neighborhoods were affected by gentrification – the highest percentage in the nation.  The general impact of public improvements and private development is to make an area more attractive, which means that people with greater wealth than current residents might find it attractive and bringing with them different stores, types of people, and cultural norms, eventually price the old-timers out of their homes.  It’s a legitimate concern and demonstrates that NIMBY is a many flavored syndrome.

PLANNING:  VISION, VALUES, FORM, AND DISTRIBUTION

At its best, planning begins with a broadly inclusive and deeply participative envisioning process.  The goal is to facilitate the emergence, clear articulation, and general acceptance of a set of core values, infrastructural needs, desired physical forms, and distribution of land uses over the area.   Even if the end result of such a process is generally predictable, it is vital that the affected people – or at least a large enough and trusted representative group – go through it in order to come up with language that they feel is their own through a process that they feel comfortable with.  People are much more willing to trust a process if they feel it allows their voice to be heard; much more willing to accept personal discomfort if they know the burdens will be equitable distributed and result in something that benefits everyone.

In addition, without broad public input the inaccurate assumptions and design flaws that inevitably exist in any large-scale plan often don’t get caught until their destructive and expensive impact has already occurred – reducing their value even for the groups promoting it.

The Human Scale movie describes the incredible community-wide process that Christ Church, New Zealand, conducted to plan for rebuilding after a series of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 killed 185 people, destroyed over 10,000 homes and 4,000 commercial buildings, leveling much of the downtown.  Using over a dozen methods to solicit public input, the organizers reported that there were dominant common themes.  As almost every other public survey around the world has also shown, people want walkable, varied, and busy (but not overcrowded) retail areas, bikeable and transit-accessible transportation, lots of opportunity to meet and socialize with others, dense (but not high-rise) energy-efficient residential areas, clean air and lots of greenery, cultural options and quiet spaces, nearby parks and recreational facilities.

There is an extensive literature about large group deliberative processes.  It requires a careful balance of tight and loose dynamics, of open-ended and focused moments, of listening to feelings and articulating nuanced arguments.  There are many ways to sequence and structure the effort:  leaders kicking things off by acknowledging there are problems and asking for public input and help; community visioning meetings such as Somerville’s SomerVision series;  inviting multiple groups of planners to suggest alternatives approaches to either land-use or building forms or even programs; a broad variety of venues for public input from the one-on-one informal to on-line to highly structured testimony; and more.

Participation increases buy-in, and allows for wider perspectives, but it takes central organization and resources – skilled people to facilitate the process, places to hold events, methods to compile input and disseminate results.  It doesn’t spontaneously happen on its own.   Government agencies can run such a process, but they seldom have people with the right skills, are sufficiently unencumbered by previous decisions, or have enough public trust to pull it off.   Using an outside contractor (like Gehl’s firm) is often a better approach.

DESIGN

Turning general statements about “the type of city we want to live in” into usable designs is a skilled job both at the “conceptual design” and the “engineering” levels – the former creates rough drawings that allow people to see what their ideas might physically look like, the later creates the instructions that guide construction.

Leaving things at the level of policy and high-level abstractions is risky.  A case in point is the Complete Streets movement.  Complete Streets is the wonderful idea that streets, our common public space, should be designed to include facilities for users of all modes:  transit, walking, and bicycles.  It has rapidly spread across the nation using a policy-focused strategy  that gets legislative or other regulatory bodies to pass resolutions requiring a Complete Streets approach – such as the policies promulgated by MassDOT Secretary Richard Davey. But, as two commentators recently noted, this leaves “many of the details of how this is done to the engineer or urban designer…but [because] the policy people involved with Complete Streets are, on the whole, not designers…many of the designs built so far have consequently been hit-and-miss…Ironically, many of the ‘Complete Streets’ Americans are now building are incomplete” and neither as bike or pedestrian friendly nor as beautiful an addition to the urban landscape as they were supposed to be.

As implied in the Complete Streets example, some designers buy into a concept and other do not.  Even among those who like the ideas, some have real knowledge and experience while some are just putting new labels on past practices, some are creative while some are unimaginative followers of one-size-fits-all standards.

The best design processes follow the same tight-loose logic as good planning.  Conducting an interactive design process that invites public feedback at several stages, inviting multiple design teams to join in a charrette that reveals a variety of possible approaches, or even conducting an open contest – all these are ways to not only broaden the variety of choices but to also help educate the public so that people can feel more confident about their opinions and more comfortable with the final decisions.

IMPLEMENTATION

And then Implementation – carrying the vision through the maze of inevitable reviews, approvals, funding complications, unanticipated site and construction problems, and eventual use.  This requires sustained, strong, and effective leadership from above.  Of course, the original plan will have to evolve along with changing realities – the trick is finding ways to keep the core human values and design spirit alive. The difference between most elected official’s tenure and the time it takes to go from vision to construction dooms many efforts.  (Boston’s history of extraordinarily long tenures is one reason why its mayors have had so much influence on city development.)  Robert Moses became powerful partly because he had a non-elected sinecure that kept him in office for nearly the entire 20th Century!  As Flint correctly says, “We need someone who can take that vision and navigate the bureaucracies the way Moses did, at the city, state, and federal level.”

But the other essential ingredient for successful Implementation is a willingness for both leaders and the public to limit their preparatory efforts to creating what Jan Gehl calls a “Framework” – clear and authoritative plans for needed large-scale infrastructure along with clear and usable descriptions of the values guiding small scale designs.   But a Framework is not a blueprint:  it intentionally leaves many details unanswered, allowing space and time to people (and markets) to evolve and make their own choices.   A Framework is just a frame – it sets the scope and the shape and suggests colors and patterns but it leaves the interior available for the artist’s creativity.

So Implementation is, in fact, an evolving process of its own.

TRUST, LEADERSHIP, AND DEMOCRACY

The hard truth is that all this requires a certain level of trust – trust among the public and trust between the public and government.  One of the necessary elements of any participatory planning effort must be civility – which means excluding non-compromising ideological or religious starting points that, by definition, require all or nothing conclusions.  This is difficult when Libertarians are explicit about trying to eliminate a public or collective action in most of society, when Right wing activists say that inaction is victory, or when Fundamentalists believe that those who don’t agree with them are Satanic dupes.  Not that everyone else always has an easy time of “getting to yes”either!

At the same time, it also requires a special breed of political leadership: willing to be bold about raising difficult issues, humble about not having all the answers, not afraid to go with the flow, but strong about standing up for larger-picture core values of inclusion and equity, and even stronger about being willing and able to carry through on turning the vision into plans and the plans into programs, buildings, or roads.

The future of our planet is in our cities.  Urban life drives both economic and cultural development. Cities are where half of us now live and nearly three-quarters of us will soon live.   We need to make our cities as wonderful a place as possible to live, work, play, raise families, and grow old.  Democratic planning is the way to start.

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Thanks to my viewing companion, Allan Moore, for the chance to start talking about this.

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Some related previous posts:

THE ART OF TRANSPORTATION (AND URBAN) PLANNING: Going Beyond the Technical Specs

INTERGRATING VISION INTO OPERATIONS: Balancing Front-Line Empowerment with Organizational Priorities at MassDOT

GUNS, TAXES, TRANSPORTATION, AND THE MEANING OF LIFE: Why Government Is a Precondition for Livability

QUICK, VISIBLE, REMOVABLE: Improving City Life by Unleashing Citizen Creativity through Government Initiative

MOVING URBAN INNOVATION BACK TO THE FUTURE: Reclaiming the Village and the Street

WHEN BEING “COMPLETE” IS DANGEROUSLY UNFINISHED: From the Gutter to Victory on Causeway Street

 

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