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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Purposes of Planning (the Good Kind): Ordering the City Part II

Compliments to the club for wonderful ideas, and to Nicole for a thoughtful response. I have two final notes to add. 

On the issue of whether it’s wise to introduce commercial establishments into residential areas, I think it’s important to reground the discussion in the range of things, beyond curbing disorder, that planners do and should think about. There’s sales and property tax revenue, of course, not to mention encouraging small businesses, reducing vehicle miles traveled, creating community, and even encouraging the public to exercise by going places on their sidewalks. Jane Jacobs was quite aware of many of these issues, and I think we should be too before we give up our intuitive attachment to her theory in the face of evidence that commerce may not make some residential areas safer. In addition to the other valuable caveats offered in the book and the posts (in particular, that context matters) these additional factors should give us pause before we abandon our dear Jane. 
Secondly, while Nicole’s caution regarding the pitfalls of planning is wise, I think it’s important to rein the discussion back in a bit from where these posts (and perhaps Chapter 7 of the book) have taken us. I agree with the book insofar as it makes a limited point—that big planning as a means of curbing social disorder has a blighted history. To the extent that Chapter 7 is making a broader cautionary point regarding big land use planning in general, I’d observe that it’s difficult, if not undesirable, to rescue cities from obsolete historical forms (including past planning mistakes) through incremental changes. Milwaukee’s “Road to Nowhere,” San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, and other examples in the book—not to mention former industrial zones, decommissioned ports, and failed, late 20th century commercial centers—occupy big swathes of land that require “big planning” to transform these areas into living neighborhoods. These sites often require decontamination, dramatic aesthetic rescue, and infusions of a critical mass of population to create conditions for safety. And realistically, cities can’t afford these areas to lie fallow of tax revenue. 

Planners have achieved important successes on some of these redevelopment sites. See, e.g., the Mission Bay redevelopment in my home city of San Francisco. Gone are the railyard/industrial sites and the concrete channel covering a creek to the Bay. Today you’ll find dogs, frisbees, kayaks, and yoga in a creekside park; thousands of units of condos and affordable housing (built with some of the city’s best and only contemporary architecture); and world class UCSF medical and research facilities. Your next visit, pack a picnic and hop on the new light rail extension to get there.

I wonder if it’s bad planning, not big planning, that is really the problem. Building on Nicole’s ideas, I’ll float the tentative theory that bad planning means: (1) using reconfiguration of the built environment as an excuse to curb social (and socially constructed) disorder, particularly to achieve racial or ethnic displacement (a key point of Nicole’s book), (2) cheap, shortcut versions of major architectural ideas and planning theories (like butchering Le Corbusier’s vision with the tower blocks of 1960s public housing), (3) political egotism at the expense of common sense (the big splash vanity projects of Robert Moses and many a mayor), and (4) desperate, short-termist revenue seeking at the cost of urban individuality, as in our ubiquitous auto or big box retail malls. While humility (and historical consciousness) is good medicine in general, I prefer to take Nicole for a cautionary tale about the first kind of bad planning rather than an indictment of big planning in general. When bad goes big, it’s certainly worse, but it’s not bigness that makes an idea bad.

Thanks to Matt, Nicole, et al.


Posted by Michelle Wilde Anderson on March 24, 2010 at 10:08 AM in Books | Permalink


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Not quite sure what to make of the first comment. Professor Anderson's response was perfectly comprehensible -- and cogent! Thanks for giving us something meaty to chew on, Michelle Wilde Anderson!

Posted by: LawProf | Mar 24, 2010 6:11:50 PM

Why not respond to the substance, anon in bellevue? One of Michelle's points seems to be that some problems don't have simple solutions. Do you disagree?

Posted by: regular reader | Mar 24, 2010 5:03:15 PM

Still impressed by Nicole's book. And still befuddled by this particular respondent's of reactions to it! Speak simply, Michelle Wilde Anderson!

Posted by: anon in bellevue | Mar 24, 2010 3:41:50 PM

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