Tuesday, October 28, 2014

It's Time For City Planners To Adapt A New Model

See the article in Forbes It's Time For City Planners To Adapt A New Model

I recently had my students study and dissect the plans for five cities, including the historic plans for one.  In all, ten plans.  These are the documents that cities routinely hire consultants to write, often compelled to do so by state statute.

It seems its good municipal management to have a city plan.  Mayors and city councils are somehow more informed as to how to meet the future with ten and twenty year plans in file drawers.  Whether the citizens of a city might be the better for these exercises is open to question but planning is certainly good for the firms of urban planners and architects who prepare them.

Critical analysis by my students revealed several remarkable features.  First, none of the plans ever spoke of what the city’s population might be at the end of the planning period!  The singular measure of whether a city is succeeding or not, namely how many people chose to live there or have jobs to keep them in a particular place, is unexamined.  So, too, is the question of what the profile of persons in poverty will be by the target year.  Given that the ratio of poor residents who subsist on transfer payments to persons in families that are self supporting is among the most important measures of what a city’s economy looks like and will look like it is hard to imagine how anyone can try to better a city’s future, the stated ambition of all plans, without trying to prescribe what the poverty ratio might be.  Finally, not one of the plans discussed the cost of running the city, certainly not the size of the public payroll and the associated benefit costs, including in most cities, the unfunded costs of pensions for retired and current public servants.

Instead, plans discuss and advance a set of what appear to be measures of city health that are clearly more faddish than practical.  Thus, every contemporary plan speaks of how neighborhoods are the strength of any city, which while seemingly uncontestable, is largely not true.  Neighbor health is derivative of city health.  The city celebrates itself, through the words of its consultants, for its commitment to diversity going forward.  Plans speak of why it’s to be desirable for a city to have upwards of twenty languages spoken in its schools (where its students commonly are already doing poorly on basic English competency tests).  Of course, environmental sustainability seems a required discussion in which cities seem to fall over themselves making sure that DPW trucks, buses, police cars are enviro-friendly even as the decay of the streets they roll on, if mentioned at all, are absorbed in the umbrella phrase “infrastructure investment.”  More words are devoted to the “clean” energy required for air-conditioning and heating schools than whether the schools are or aren’t educating the city’s youngest citizens effectively.

Some plans had references to international markets but the references are not to where the city’s industries must compete with their goods but to grocery stores that sell ingredients for burgeoning foreign resident populations. Above all, every plan discusses the important of new buildings for fire stations, community centers, schools, or government offices.  (Remember, architects do a lot of city planning.  To a man with a hammer every problem is a nail.)

None of the plans spoke of the changing nature of the economy.  None set a goal of full employment or even mentioned unemployment.  Poverty was a missing word.  What discussion existed regarding economics was confined to making a specific kind of neighborhood, often called an arts district, to provide propinquity for the city’s “creative” population.  If a link to the economy is mentioned it usually is a passing reference to new and small businesses that would grow up if, again, the physical environment was engineered in a specific way.  The likely center of this new economy is the arts district!

To read a set of plans leads one to the inescapable conclusion that the practice of city planning has escaped reality.  Its highly stylized form, apparently reflective of a settled professional culture, is first and foremost a political document disguised as a physical plan for a specific locale.  Alexander Garvin captures the cynical nature of it all in his new book “The Planning Game.”  Having been a professional planner and a real estate developer, his book is about politics and the importance of “playing” well so that new buildings get built.  There is no discussion of the city’s economy.  The index entry under “economics” takes the reader in every case to a discussion of the financing of projects.  The book rests on the fallacy common to all contemporary urban planning, namely, that the built environment will make the economy happen.  Just as with international development strategy, the artifacts of a successful economy are presumed necessary conditions precedent to a successful economy emerging.

In fact, the “build it and an economy will come” fallacy is but one flaw of contemporary urban planning.  The much larger problem is that the typical plan is really a “retro-static” document, at least for cities not experiencing economic growth.  It sets an implicit idealized state in the past usually the city’s high water mark in population.  Detroit remains hopeful that someday 2.3 million people will live there once again.  President Obama and countless others before him have declared such goals.  Why not plan accordingly, even if the formal plan never mentions a credible strategy to reestablish an economy that would require and support 2.3 million people?

If planning is to be helpful it must see cities first as the economic communities that they were at their beginning. No city ever came to exist but for two forces, security and commerce.  American cities were presumed secure – as modern communities they were and are the creatures of business.  No community, ancient or modern, survives without commerce.  Those cities that no longer produce sufficient commerce to sustain themselves become dependent on others outside, in a modern democracy, to provide for their care they rely on transfer payments.  The cost is local control of their destiny.

Cities that are essentially supplicants to higher levels of government have one of two paths for planning.  One is to become yet more proficient at supplication; in a bad national economy this path spells further decline.  The other is to imagine rebuilding an economy that achieves scale growth.  Planners never speak to the economic possibilities because apparently they don’t know how economic growth actually happens.

Going forward we need “proto-dynamic” plans for cities.  They would sketch out an economic path leading to self-sustenance where the city produces more than it consumes in terms of the larger economy.  This is the only path that will allow a city to anticipate any substantial growth and the capacity to eliminate poverty for those who live there.  To form such a goal a city has to think of how it can generate sufficient industry to provide jobs for its unemployed.  This must be the first order objective and it eludes planners because they have no idea of how the complexities of dynamic economies actually are sparked to life.

The urban plans of the future have to combine the capacity first to encourage a city’s entire population, not just college students – an error commonly made in today’s over emphasized reliance on “creatives” – to take up the possibility of innovating and making new companies that meet unforeseen demands in world markets beyond the city.  Scale production, not small shop keeping or running art galleries, is the only path to growth and urban futures that hold the potential to restore communities which means reducing poverty.  But, of course, this, like the capitalism that holds this promise, appears just too messy for planners who, in the end, see the growth of government and its control over all aspects of the built environment as the pathway to the cities of tomorrow, which in their documents look troublingly nostalgic for the towns that once were.

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