The Problem with Urban Planning, Part I

Some guy in a Hawaiian shirt rants about urban planners. This is supposed to be “1 of 4,” but I understand the other three won’t be posted on YouTube for several weeks.

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35 thoughts on “The Problem with Urban Planning, Part I

  1. the highwayman

    We can also throw in NIMBYism as a fector to this mix, along with that all land in North America was stolen from one native tribe or an other.

    Let’s also keep in mind what Henry David Thoreau said 150 years ago:

    “Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.”

    Not UGB’s, though still setting some limits on development with good reason.

  2. Borealis

    I can’t buy the smart growth argument that dense housing creates a better sense of community. The image projected is that people interact with their neighbors and that drives community, sort of like ethnic neighborhoods in the past.

    In the suburbs, however, people often drive to interact with people at church, school, soccer games, or other associations that are not neighbor-based.

    I am not sure one is better than the other, but I don’t think government can or should decide which to encourage.

  3. bennett

    So many people these days advocate against things. “The Antiplanner…” for example is “dedicated to the sunset of government planning.” I suppose I wish that Mr. O’Toole was a stronger advocate for his prized “technical solutions,” and less of a demonizer of planning. I feel that the outcome would be much more positive for everybody.

    He also sets up a dichotomy, whether intentionally or not, that planners are only for behavioral solutions and against the technical ones. I would disagree.

  4. bennett

    I also find it interesting that behavior and technology are looked at as completely separate components to the issues Mr. O’Toole mentions. It seems to me that they are inherently intertwined.

  5. ws

    Another comment:

    Once again planners are put into one big pot. Do they really want everyone to move from the suburbs to the city? Not at all. Do they really want to take away single family residences? Not at all.

    Even New Urbanist/SG developments that planners champion are built in the suburbs and are comprised mostly of single family residences. So your argument bears very little reality on the issue. But we’ve all noticed this tactic of yours over the years of lumping things together.

    I personally could care less if people “sprawled” all the way to the moon as long as the developments returned to the environment what they took away. Build the Georgetowns, Savannahs, Charlestons, Alexandrias, and streetcar suburbs all you want! People enjoy these places – we know this because they cost more to live in despite having out of date amenities.

    One of the greatest assessors of knowing we have built something of value is architectural preservation or historic preservation. Mark my words, there will be nothing in post WWII suburbia that will be preserved from being destroyed because it lacks the necessary architectural components for this to occur. That right there tells us we are on the wrong track for development and our built environment is seriously ill.

    Your old neighbor was angry at that housing development going next to hers because she knew what she was going to get: cookie cutter tinder boxes, dinky street trees, and loads of parking. Maybe people would be more accepting of developments if they knew they might get a better built environment or better neighborhood. Something to ponder.

  6. Frank

    highwayman, you’ve gotta stop quoting Thoreau. Do you even understand his political philosophy?

    Some claim that “The Maine Woods wilderness of the mid-1800s made such a deep impression on Henry David Thoreau that he envisioned it becoming a ‘national preserve.'”

    First, remember Thoreau probably wouldn’t advocate federal land management. (He wrote in Civil Disobedience: I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all…”.)

    Then review “The Maine Woods”. Search for “preserve”; the results are enlightening.

    Thoreau writes on page 105: “These are not the artificial forests of an English king, — a royal preserve merely. Here [in the Maine wilderness] prevail no forest laws but those of nature.”

    Here Thoreau looks down on a preserve as being inferior to true wilderness where no laws, except natural laws, exist.

    Thoreau again references royal preserves in the passage from which some selectively pull the phrase “national preserve”. Here’s the entire passage from page 205:

    The Kings of England formerly had their forests “to hold the king’s game,” for sport or food, sometimes destroying villages to create or extend them; and I think they were impelled by a true instinct. Why should not we, who have renounced the king’s authority, have our national preserves, where no villages be destroyed, in which the bear and the panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be “civilized off the face of the earth,” — our forests, not to hold the king’s game merely, but to hold and preserve the king himself also, the lord of creation…

    Thoreau again alludes to royal English reserves, and treats them disdainfully. He references the Revolution against State ownership of land and envisions reserves as being truly free places, where humans’ laws and governance do not encroach. It’s the opposite of civilized; it’s truly wild.

    The “national preserves” Thoreau envisioned are not those ruled and regulated by the federal government. They were places where no law or government existed, except natural law.

    I really wish the left would stop hijacking Thoreau’s libertarian words and phrases for their statist ends.

  7. the highwayman

    Frank said: The “national preserves” Thoreau envisioned are not those ruled and regulated by the federal government. They were places where no law or government existed, except natural law.

    THWM: Let it be.

  8. blacquejacqueshellac

    But nobody is able to refute the point that planning is a taking of private property, without compensation.

    That aside my complaint is that planning nearly always produces Stalinist ugliness. I have traveled widely through Canada, the USA and Europe. Aside from parts of Paris (Baron Haussmann) I am unable to point to many ‘planned’ and attractive cities or areas.

    Planning seems to produce squares and open areas nobody wants to use and paved pathways to nowhere. Whenever I visit a park, university campus or similar and see well trodden paths in the grass and empty pavement I know that planners cannot even plan the basics.

    This is all part and parcel of my belief in decentralization. Personal computers in an internet are better than mainframes. Cars and trucks on a roadnet are better than trains restricted to tracks. Individuals are more important than ‘society’. Five year plans never work. Climate change theory is monolithic and a fraud.

    Beauty and life are organic, distributed and fractal. The tree is shaped by the leaves.

  9. bennett

    “But nobody is able to refute the point that planning is a taking of private property, without compensation.”

    Nobody except the supreme court of the United States of America. To be a taking, in legal terms, something has to be “physically” taken. Restricting ones ability to do what ever they please with their land is not a taking. At least not legally (i.e. constitutionally, as determined by the supreme court).

  10. ws

    blacquejacqueshellac:“That aside my complaint is that planning nearly always produces Stalinist ugliness. I have traveled widely through Canada, the USA and Europe. Aside from parts of Paris (Baron Haussmann) I am unable to point to many ‘planned’ and attractive cities or areas.”

    ws:Any city is “planned” from some degree or another. As far as a large scale example of planning – Washington DC is a great example.

    Personally, I’d like you to give me an example of a city that has no planning. I think that would be an impossible task.

    Let us not conflate democratic planning in the same realm of what communist / fascist planning regimes did. Planning for open spaces, street networks, transit, etc. is a lot different than planning the Soviet’s way of controlling every little detail of urban life w/ little public or democratic input.

    blacquejacqueshellac:“Planning seems to produce squares and open areas nobody wants to use and paved pathways to nowhere. Whenever I visit a park, university campus or similar and see well trodden paths in the grass and empty pavement I know that planners cannot even plan the basics.”

    ws:If a square or open space is not used well, it must mean it was not planned well or designed well to account for the criteria that is needed to make a successful open space. I would hardly consider Central Park a failure, btw.

    Master planning (campus, housing, parks) and urban planning are two different things – even though people with similar backgrounds are at the helm. Nobody can account for the minutia of details. Nothing is perfect and even the best plans fail to some degree. That’s just life and it goes to show that urban systems are complex.

    Speaking of grass and campuses, University of Oregon planned some of its pathways by not putting in any paths initially and planting grass to see where people would walk to classes. They then put in the paths at a later date in response to this. That still is considered planning, however.

  11. the highwayman

    ws said: Speaking of grass and campuses, University of Oregon planned some of its pathways by not putting in any paths initially and planting grass to see where people would walk to classes. They then put in the paths at a later date in response to this. That still is considered planning, however.

    THWM: Sounds like how the Oregon Trail morphed into an early road.

  12. blacquejacqueshellac

    A quick response to the request for cities without planning. Probably none.

    The real question is: Which beautiful cities developed their beauty without planners: Answer: Drive through Europe and visit the old town of almost any city you choose. There are hundreds of them. They grew like trees grow. In North America look at old Quebec City, the old part of Montreal, a few new England villages. No planners.

    I am curious: Do any of you pro-planning types know what fractal growth is? I expect you don’t and I respectfully suggest that getting information on matter of fractal things [sorry – math pun, couldn’t help myself] would help planners be better. We’ll never get rid of planning, seems to be one of our inherent tendencies and is of course not all bad. So better be better at it.

  13. ws

    blacquejacqueshellac:“The real question is: Which beautiful cities developed their beauty without planners: Answer: Drive through Europe and visit the old town of almost any city you choose. There are hundreds of them. They grew like trees grow. In North America look at old Quebec City, the old part of Montreal, a few new England villages. No planners.

    I am curious: Do any of you pro-planning types know what fractal growth is? I expect you don’t and I respectfully suggest that getting information on matter of fractal things [sorry – math pun, couldn’t help myself] would help planners be better. We’ll never get rid of planning, seems to be one of our inherent tendencies and is of course not all bad. So better be better at it.”

    ws: All of these cities had planning that occurred to some extent or the other. I’m sure that within these examples you have given me (old towns in Europe), I could find a church and a square that was centrally located (and planned) with houses and shops concentrically irradiating outward from it.

    I’ll give you one top-down planning goal that was used to design older cities and towns: defense. Many cities were designed with this common goal. It was not as if there were all of these independent pieces that randomly came together.

    blacquejacqueshellac:…Quebec City, the old part of Montreal, a few new England villages. No planners.

    No planners for old Montreal?

    I’d disagree that there was no plan.

    A planner of Old Montreal.

    His street plan.

    There is no such example of a city that took the extreme of having no planning at all. Never. Also, not all planning is good, and not all planning is bad. But it is simple utopia to think that cities of complexity were not laid our and planned by top-down movements of government or religious backgrounds.

  14. blacquejacqueshellac

    ws, you make interesting points.

    I see planning as being distinct from map-making, laying out streets in small areas and a primitive fashion or a medieval strong man saying ‘knock down that house, we’re building a wall there’. If you see those latter things as planning, then ok, I agree, there is always some planning.

    At the same time it is clear that many, if not most old city streets are paths, cow, game or human and utterly unplanned, or are streets which grew fractally from the original streets and builds and topography. These are the most beautiful ones. Your radial roads are just pathways leading naturally and inexorably to a crossroads.

    I live in a city of just over 1M people. Our by-laws dealing with land use exceed half a million words. They dictate development to the extent that they require certain species of tree to be planted when multi-family housing is built. The half million words are combinations of legalese, liberal buzzphrases like ‘community enhancement’, loophole after loophole. There is no certainty, there is only the need to supplicate favored groups like bureaucrats (of course) and tenants associations and a ‘Development Appeal Board’ many of whose members are architects and planners.

    Now that’s what I call planning.

  15. blacquejacqueshellac

    Forgot to say, comparing the old Quebecois priest’s ‘plan’ with a modern ‘plan’ is like comparing apples with oranges through three levels of hyperspace and in an alternative universe. The old dude basicaly drew a map of what was there.

  16. ws

    blacquejacqueshellac:“They dictate development to the extent that they require certain species of tree to be planted when multi-family housing is built.”

    ws: I’d personally like to see the wording of this, as every municipality has a list of acceptable street tree species to use in certain situations.

  17. bennett

    “I see planning as being distinct from… …Now that’s what I call planning.”

    The …’s and everything in between represent something that is done by the planning profession. I’m glad to see that you think “map-making, laying out streets in small areas ,” is okay, because this is what a lot of planners do. And guess what, these maps and street layouts are powerful growth management tools. I am a planner and I almost exclusively make maps to pay the bills.

  18. the highwayman

    blacquejacqueshellac said:
    ws, you make interesting points.

    I see planning as being distinct from map-making, laying out streets in small areas and a primitive fashion or a medieval strong man saying ‘knock down that house, we’re building a wall there’.

    THWM: Though the Roman Army built roads like that.

  19. Dan

    ws: I’d personally like to see the wording of this, as every municipality has a list of acceptable street tree species to use in certain situations.

    Of course. The LAs don’t know a pine from a willow and will spec inappropriate trees that may damage infrastructure.

    Imagine: someone objecting to making a job easier. I guess there are those that object to the sun rising…

    DS

  20. ws

    Dan, I’d actually disagree completely regarding the street trees lists. These lists produce some of the nastiest tree species available – upright dinky trees that won’t get over 20 feet wide. But hey, the egotistical architects love them because they reveal more of their edifice for the world to see, and public works like them because they don’t crack the sidewalks. Even worse is the fact that most street tree pits are really just coffins for the trees.

    Then, I go into older neighborhoods where there might be a gigantic elm tree in a 3′ planting strip. Remove that tree, and that space is wildly different. The issue at hand is the ROW for roads are so small that do not allow for large trees to grow.

    LAs DO know the difference between tree species, just that the knowledge of every single cultivar and variety is impossible to keep up with. In fact, leave the design of streets up to LA’s and you will have a much better street environment.

  21. blacquejacqueshellac

    This
    http://devilskitchen.me.uk/2009/08/insight-into-russian-economy.html
    is where planning always goes. Always.

    I posted that our by-law requires specified species but I was wrong. An actual permit I have specifies the species. I misremembered, detail, but my recollection of the ability to force me to plant what petty bureaucrats decide was correct.

    Here’s how it worked:

    1. by law requires “landscaping”.
    Planner: OK, so far, seems reasonable, gotta look nice, what?
    Me: Wait, shouldn’t the market decide? If I sell a house with no trees or grass but rather a concrete apron, whose business is that but me and the buyer? How can you possibly require a developer to do this when you cannot require a landowner to do it? A private owner can pave his yard if he feels like it. For now anyway, until you planning types achieve full control.

    2. Permitting requires submission of “landscaping plans based on the site plan showing …
    (A) the existing topography with the vegetation that is to be retained and that to be removed clearly identified,
    (B) the layout of soft and hard landscaping, pedestrian circulation and open
    space systems, screening, berms, slopes and retaining walls, and
    (C ) the types, sizes and numbers of plant material and the types of hard
    landscaping;

    and that’s where they get you. They reject your plans until they like “the types, sizes and numbers of plant material”. Your only recourse is to decide between enraged screaming or schmoozing; or appeal.

    We’ve also got: “(v) Coniferous trees shall comprise a minimum proportion of 1/3 of all trees planted.” I despise conifers and despise rules like this. I accepted this to get the permit, planted the fucking things, got my inspection, killed every fucking one of them and planted what I wanted, because, see above, after development is complete an owner can do as he pleases, for now.

    I have a 150 ft frontage by 135 ft deep property in a district in Calgary Canada called “Mission” to develop. I challenge any pro-planning commenter here to google and read the Calgary Land Use by-law and the Mission “Area Structure Plan” and tell me what I can and cannot do and ascribe any sane reason to any of the clear rules, of which there are not many, most being platitudinous bullshite with no known meaning in the English language, or any other.

  22. ws

    blacquejacqueshellac:“Wait, shouldn’t the market decide? If I sell a house with no trees or grass but rather a concrete apron, whose business is that but me and the buyer? How can you possibly require a developer to do this when you cannot require a landowner to do it? A private owner can pave his yard if he feels like it. For now anyway, until you planning types achieve full control.”

    ws:I’m going to play it both ways. No, it should not matter what species you put in a landscape plan (or conifer ratio, etc.) outside of the road ROW. That is ridiculous IMO. Secondly, it should matter what the layout plan will look like including topography (cut/fill), existing vegetation, berms/retaining walls, etc. occurring because these have implications on landslides, erosion, and stormwater runoff, so on and so forth.

    I understand that Calgary is drought sensitive, so it may be that they are trying to promote water conserving landscapes with regulating plant species, but probably not.

  23. Dan

    ws, believe me most LAs need much, much work on their plant material. In grad school AFAIK there was one guy who I could walk around with and count on to ID material & give cultural reqmts, and that ratio of 1:30 is about what I find anywhere I go. The urban/city forestry unit usu gives the street tree list, not LAs (I’ve done one wherever I’ve gone). But as to the design of the ROW, that I agree with, as long as they are CSS-Dan Burden-human scale aligned.

    As far as the market deciding plant material? Snork. Good one.

    DS

  24. blacquejacqueshellac

    DS, I never quite understand your post. Please explain ‘LA’ ‘ROW’ ‘AFAIK’ and similar to us mere mortals who merely build stuff as opposed to learned planners who stop us from doing so.

    As for your snork snark, a blooming tree or shrubs in spring will sell or rent more units that damn near anything else. Developers and landlords know it – apparently planners do not, or do not care. The market decides a lot more than planners ever figure out. They seem to have a blind spot for it as it directly competes with them, but they do not compete, they cannot, they are less efficient so they cheat by command and control.

    Calgary is not drought sensitive. Our planners ‘project’ that in 50 or a 100 years we might be, assuming their climate change fairy tales and incredible population growth, so of course they try to ban water usage right now, as planners are also unable to do either present or future value calculations. Every five or ten years we are unable to water our lawns except every second day. Boo. Hoo.

    Hostile to planning and planners? Who me? Did anyone go look at my link in previous comment and see what’s happened to the Russkis and what the planners have done to them? Can’t happen in America? Dream on, it’s exactly what the planners want.

  25. Dan

    Whaddup Blaquehepcat,

    I travel around the country several times a year talking about synthesizing tree benefits into built stuff, among other things. I can quote the literature on property values in my sleep, which has nothing to do with the market choosing appropriate species. Unless somehow all of a sudden information asymmetry wrt tree species has magically disappeared. It, of course, has not – but what does one expect from the willfully blind (‘fairy tales’)?

    DS

  26. blacquejacqueshellac

    “… talking about synthesizing tree benefits into built stuff, …”

    Ah, I see then, you are a foreigner just learning English or perhaps a professor of Sociology or Political Science.

    “I can quote the literature on property values in my sleep, which has nothing to do with the market choosing appropriate species.”

    Perhaps you could quote me something apropos this topic which seems to have evolved into a discussion of whether a developer and his buyers on the one hand, or you on the other, should choose what is planted in a new development.

  27. ws

    Dan:“ws, believe me most LAs need much, much work on their plant material. In grad school AFAIK there was one guy who I could walk around with and count on to ID material & give cultural reqmts, and that ratio of 1:30 is about what I find anywhere I go. The urban/city forestry unit usu gives the street tree list, not LAs (I’ve done one wherever I’ve gone). But as to the design of the ROW, that I agree with, as long as they are CSS-Dan Burden-human scale aligned.

    As far as the market deciding plant material? Snork. Good one.”

    ws: I don’t need to know your personal experiences with LAs, as that is my background.

    First off, LAs are not supposed to know every tree plant species – they have too many other responsibilities than to be exterior decorators. It’s like asking an architect to know every single ASTM building material available and identifying it on the spot. Also, if LAs were supposed to know every tree and its requirements, what is the purpose of a city hiring an urban forester?

    I will reiterate, the street tree lists generate some of the ugliest, non functioning street trees there are. Upright fastigiate trees is what you get. Street trees are supposed to be aesthetic, but mostly functional. An upright tree (that the planners love) is not going to protect the pedestrian from the elements. That is its main purpose, afterall.

  28. Dan

    Perhaps you could quote me something apropos this topic which seems to have evolved into a discussion of whether a developer and his buyers on the one hand, or you on the other, should choose what is planted in a new development.

    hepcatblaque, you’ll want to reflect on your confusion between market choice and market outcomes and the clarification above.

    Nonetheless, not that anyone expects command of facts from certain ideologues to be exhibited above, but I’ll wager the %age of localities that regulate trees on private property is less than the %age of people who choose their identity & worldview based on a third-rate novel (esp SFD, unless public incentives are involved, or health safety & welfare come into play. Maybe impacted waterways, but very few of these).

    DS

  29. Dan

    First off, LAs are not supposed to know every tree plant species – they have too many other responsibilities than to be exterior decorators. Also, if LAs were supposed to know every tree and its requirements, what is the purpose of a city hiring an urban forester? [emphasis added]

    My point exactly – the UF/Hort professions see that often trees are treated as decoration in the LA profession, not functional units to shade buildings or pavement (their main benefit) or to intercept stormwater (a close second in measurable benefits).

    And as i said above, most cities do not regulate private property plant material beyond number – it is the responsibility of the LA to spec the appropriate plant and plan review usu merely checks the spp. match plans and the counts match. BTW: my old landscape design & construction business largely existed for cleaning up the mistakes of LAs and LDs. Let me be clear that I’m focusing on a particular point in the design and function of public realm, not all of it.

    I will reiterate, the street tree lists generate some of the ugliest, non functioning street trees there are. Upright fastigiate trees is what you get. Street trees are supposed to be aesthetic, but mostly functional. An upright tree (that the planners love) is not going to protect the pedestrian from the elements. That is its main purpose, afterall.

    First, I am unaware that planners love fastigiate street trees. That is a new one for me (Surely the new APA UF manual [#555] has no such love). Second, I am unaware of any major-market city that has a street tree list like what you describe, esp one that is created by the planning dept and not the Parks/forestry dept. This is a non-issue wrt planning. If anything, smaller/staff poor areas will have farmed out the street tree list task to a firm with an LA for a list.

    To be clear: I won a national award with a group of LAs. I consult them wrt the public realm functionality often. I consult them for plant purposes never.

    DS

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