Thursday, February 24, 2005

Thoughts on The Planning Process

Raise the Hammer has a commonsense editorial on the state of planning in Canada's Great Lakes region; it may as well apply to anywhere in the US.
...cities since the early twentieth century seem to have forgotten that growth (increasing the size of economic activity) and development (increasing the density and complexity of economic activity) occurred naturally throughout most of history without teams of planners to micromanage the process.

Instead, city councils lurch convulsively from fad to fad, desperate not to be left behind. Now it's a low-density subdivision; now it's a community-smashing megaproject; now it's a bizarre "urban village" located in the middle of nowhere on prime farmland.

It seems to me that this effect is somewhat inevitable given that governments in a capitalist democracy are by definition quite unmoored from any primary economic considerations. One of the newest fads is to convene focus groups of "stakeholders" (the definition thereof pointedly ignores the extent or even existence of an entity's financial stake in the issue at hand) to, essentially, put anything from an entire project to the smallest architectural detail to a referendum of surrounding residents and businesses. It plays out in planning commission hearings that go until 2am, sometimes ordering in a midnight snack to tide the participants over until something approaching a consensus can be reached on, say, the top floor setback of a 4-story building going in across the street from 2-story houses.

Somewhat unintentionally, I suspect, this process lets citizens articulate a more sophisticated set of preferences for the look, feel and function of their surroundings in a way that encourages developers to listen and respond. That they often crowd into council chambers to do so belies the developers' protestations that they're simply serving up 'what the market demands' when they build cookie-cutter subdivisons. It should also comfort and encourage planners and designers pushing intelligent reform of the zoning and building codes largely responsible for sprawl.
As Jane Jacobs explains, the trick is to remove impediments and restrictions - like zoning regulations that segregate uses, parking requirements, basement requirements, etc. - so that real growth and development can take place at natural cross-roads and meeting places.


But the worst culprits are still the developers, accustomed to segregation and bland, sanitized sprawl. They hide behind the mantra, 'But we're just giving consumers what they want!'

Read the whole thingTM