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Thread: Planning - a profession with an identity crisis...

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Rewey's avatar
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    Planning - a profession with an identity crisis...

    Functional or Foolproof

    The planning profession needs to narrow its perspective. Regardless of its roots in various social fields throughout time, it exists to perform a very specific role and fulfil a specific need. As the profession is continually watered down with other concerns and goals, it is doomed to fail, and will only succeed in churning out and endless supply of urban environments which will be a jack of all trades, and a master of none.

    Planners need to make the decision as to whether they are going to create a Functional City or a Foolproof City. The only problem with trying to create the latter, is that as soon as you make something that is foolproof, someone designs a better fool.

    Planners need to abandon the responsibilities hoisted upon them by other notional groups in society who either have little or no understanding of what the planning profession is all about, or have given up trying themselves. We need to build functional cities – cities that work. Not walkable, thin, healthy, visually attractive, crime-free, pollution-free cities. We should not concern ourselves with the principles of CPTED – we have police and a judicial system for this. We should not concern ourselves with redesigning cities to be ‘walkable and healthy’ – we have basic education and a health system for dealing with this.

    Look at Mexico City – it is a functioning city. It has nearly 30 million people, but you can still get from one side to the other on public transport very efficiently. Perth, regardless of the criticism it receives due to its sprawl, is a functioning city. It houses over 1.5 million people, and yet you can still drive from its northern-most suburbs to its southern-most in less than an hour. There is a wide diversity of housing styles, from high-density towards the city, to an endless supply of the Great Australian Dream, to semi-rural style living within 20 minutes of the city centre. It may not be attractive, crime-free, healthy, or pollution-free, but it functions as a city, and that is the key.

    What society wants planners to do is create the foolproof city, but we will constantly be undone by a more superior fool. We need to let go of the notion that we can simply trick people into walking to work by making the streets look attractive. We need to let go of the notion that we can trick people into being healthy by making them ‘accidentally’ get exercise whilst walking to an imaginary ‘public meeting space’. We need to let go of the notion that we can simply fool people into taking public transport and leaving the car at home. These are real people we’re talking about here. Society seems to forget that.

    Planners are not here to pick up the pieces of a justice system which fails to deliver. Do they really think that the problems with Aboriginal gangs in Northbridge are the result of poor planning decisions? It is only blamed on planners because to suggest it’s the fault of the Aboriginies is somehow racist. So we look for non-specific, nondescript groups to pin the blame one, like ‘planners’ and ‘the welfare system’. That way, no-one is offended, and we can go on complaining about it because no-one will be able to work out why we can’t seem to solve the problem by adding public lighting. They’re Aborignies, not vampires.

    We are not here to provide exercise and health benefits when our food producers promote expediency and profit above healthy and responsible foods. We are not here to save the environment when the Capitalist system encourages profit before environmental sustainability. We are not here to save the environment when builder fail to use environmentally sustainable practices, like recycled materials, lightweight construction, and alternative solutions like hemp-based concrete. We will never achieve this as long as these methods are constantly referred to as ‘alternative’ building methods. They need to become the norm. They need to challenge how things are done, when they’re only done that way because they’ve always been done that way. We are not here to combat the pollution created by the automobile company that, over a century down the track, still revolves around the internal combustion engine. And those who claim there is still no viable alternative to this need to see the documentary, ‘Who Killed The Electric Car’, and change their way of thinking.

    Planners need to focus on building a functional city. Once that is done, a functional justice system can work on providing the security and safety we need. After all, that’s what it’s there for. Once it’s there, the building companies can reduce the environmental impact. After all, that’s where the real damage is done. Once it is done, the food suppliers can provide all the healthy food we need, and the education system can empower people to make smarter choices. After all, that’s what they’re there for. And if that doesn’t work, and people still eat themselves into obesity and an early grave, well… who cares. That’s the best thing about a democracy. That’s they’re decision, and they’re free to make it. I’m not going to redesign an entire city because some fat bastard can’t get off the couch. I mean, we even make shows like the Biggest Loser to get the message across, but it really just gives them another reason to spend another 30 minutes sitting on their asses. Does no-one get the irony?

    Urban sprawl exists not just because we couldn’t see far enough into the future to realise the problems it would cause. It exists because it serves a purpose, and in serving that purpose, urban sprawl works. It provides space for those who value it as a necessity. It provides options of lower-cost housing. It provides a sense of living that some people value. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but people are not lemmings. They have their own needs and values.

    A functioning city will also have roads. Lots of them. The notion of a ‘walkable city’ is entirely unrealistic. Goods will always need to be transported. Walking to the shop is fine for a litre of milk, but not when you’re doing the weekly shopping for a family with 3 kids, or shopping for a new fridge, or a 42” plasma. Or when it’s raining. Or when it’s a hot day. I’m fairly certain when the washing machine repairman comes around to fix my washing machine, he’s not going to come by bus, bringing his tools and spare parts with him. Neither is the guy who comes to mow the lawns, the guy who comes to clean the pool, or the guy who comes to install the Foxtel. And while I’m happy to live within walking distance of a sporting facility, I can’t vouch for all the other people in my team, or all the other people making up all the other teams who we play against.

    Planning will ultimately fail when it blindly follows unachievable goals like those presented by theories such as New Urbanism. We laugh at people when they take a horoscope as gospel. We laugh at them when we point out that for a horoscope to be true, one-twelfth of the world’s population would have to have exactly the same personality traits and characteristics. Yet we revel in the notion that if we design a city to be visually attractive and walkable, 100% of the population will react the same way, and we can save society from itself and its obesity. This is nonsense. Such rhetoric and broad generalisations will get us nowhere.

    The planning profession needs to abandon the notion of the foolproof city. So too, the notion of the ideal city, the perfect city, and urban utopia. These things can never exist, and never will as long as society continues to grow or change. We cannot succeed as long as we challenge ourselves to meet goals and expectations that cannot be measured. How can ‘sprawl’ be measured. Who is to say that the detached dwellings on 300m² R30 lots will not be the ‘sprawl’ of the future? Yet this is being heralded as evidence that urban consolidation is alive and working. We will never win a battle against an immeasurable entity. We can not win a war against a noun, just like the ‘war on drugs’ or the ‘war on terrorism’. We can, however, design a functioning city, and we can design it very well.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian TexanOkie's avatar
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    I can imagine this post feels like a slap in the face to most planners, followed by a swift kick to the groin/stomach just to make sure we felt it. The thing is, you didn't intend for to be so, and you bring up many good points. Nearly [<-- keyword] every major planning movement in history has stemmed from a functional perspective as you described. It has only been recently (i.e. last 20 or so years) that the profession has been taken over by a social and political agenda that in turn dictates our pragmatism (at least with mainstream practicing professionals) rather than the other way around.

    Good post, though I'm sure a lot of people would disagree with me.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian H's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Rewey View post
    ...jack of all trades, and a master of none.
    It can be a blessing and a curse in my opinion. On one hand, I think part of the profession’s beauty is that planners come from varied backgrounds (“accounting to zoology” as my professor use to say) and all backgrounds bring something to the table as we tend to operate under the notion that most things are interrelated, and to me this is a ‘good’ thing. Yet, this lack of “focus” in the field is perhaps one of the professions worst enemies as well (i.e. you are at the cocktail party and you tell someone you are a “planner” and they say “what?” - exactly, what are we?). This is a classic (and great) debate, its great you bring it up. Perhaps Wildavsky said it best, “If planning is everything, maybe it's nothing” (Wildavsky 1973)…

    Solution, I don’t know, I am torn on my opinion.
    "Those who plan do better than those who do not plan, even though they rarely stick to their plan." - Winston Churchill

  4. #4
    Cyburbian Rewey's avatar
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    Thanks for those comments, guys. I'm certainly not intending any of my post to be insulting to planners - in fact, quite the opposite. I think it's remarkable that we still manage to function as a profession when a lot of what we have to include as part of the job is dumped on us either by people who don't know what planning is actually about, or can't think of any other solution.

    I know some people devote their life to TOD, or CPTED, or urban consolidation, and to these people I have immense respect, because they are tackling problems caused by so many groups in society. Not only that, they're faced with society's expectation that they can solve a city-wide problem in an incredibly short period of time (often within 5-10 years, but always within our lifetime), ignoring the fact that the city may have taken decades or centuries to evolve into what it is at that time. And not only that, but when we're able to propose a solution, we're more often than not faced with NIMBYism, or lack of support from government bodies, or cries that the money should be spent elsewhere, or accused of trying to take away people's rights to live how they want to live. You've all heard it before - people complain that planners have made society car-dependent, so we propose a compact city, and now we're being Communists and forcing people to live in a certain way. In fact, to some people it is this massive problem solving aspect of the planning profession which is the main attraction (I, for one, am one of those people).

    But sometimes you just want to tear your hair out and remind people of what we're here for. I know planners have made silly choices in the past. In Perth, our 3 most prime bits of land are taken up by a freeway, a railway line, and a cemetery (there's actually people who have died of the plague in that cemetery, so it's pretty old!). But there are some things that are not simply 'the fault of the planners'.

    I actually meant the post as a bit of encouragement (believe it or not!). I love being a planner. I hope other planners love it, too. I just want to remind people that when it comes down to the very essence of what planning is all about, we can be very successful. We can design a very functional city. It's just that so many other groups in society need to come to the table and lift their game if we're really going to have a foolproof city. It's only when we're confronted with issues that are simply not planning-related, we can feel that we're failing at something which isn't really part of our job.

  5. #5
    Dan Staley's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Rewey View post

    Planning will ultimately fail when it blindly follows unachievable goals like those presented by theories such as New Urbanism. We laugh at people when they take a horoscope as gospel. We laugh at them when we point out that for a horoscope to be true, one-twelfth of the world’s population would have to have exactly the same personality traits and characteristics. Yet we revel in the notion that if we design a city to be visually attractive and walkable, 100% of the population will react the same way, and we can save society from itself and its obesity. This is nonsense. Such rhetoric and broad generalisations will get us nowhere.

    These are all old arguments, restated, some in (IMHO) strawman form. This interesting blog is an interesting extension of these arguments from an academic.

    First: Ideals are like the stars: we never reach them, but like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them. Your prescription is to abandon ideals for...what?

    I, personally, know no one who tries to build "utopia". We know what functional forms are and are trying to get back to these forms, finally.

    I don't think TO's 'slap in the face' is quite right, as these arguments come up, get discussed, and we go on. Sometimes the profession gets a wake-up call, but this thread isn't it, as I think that if the economy turns around folks will remember that they want a nice place to live, and we know how to get there.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Rewey's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Dan Staley View post
    First: Ideals are like the stars: we never reach them, but like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them. Your prescription is to abandon ideals for...what?
    I'm not saying we need to abandon ideals, but we need to at least be realistic about what we're trying to achieve. And there's a very important reason for this.

    All of Australia's main State planning documents (such as Melbourne 2030, and WA's Network City document) are geared towards urban infill and urban consolidation. Now, I get all the reasons behind that, and I'm not trying to argue whether this is a good thing or not.

    What I'm saying is, these targets need to be realistic. Sydney's Property Council wants 70% of all housing built up to 2031 to be within existing urban areas. More and more research is coming out pointing out how this is simply not possible. The Network City document of WA wants 60% of the predicted 370,000 dwellings by 2031 to be within existing urban areas. Again, knowing the situation in Perth, this is simply not possible.

    I say that this is very important because all of our States have set entirely unrealistic and unreachable goals in their overarching planning documents. This means that when we reach the time specified as a target for reaching these goals (around 2030-31), every State will look back and think, 'well, we failed miserably - we didn't even come close'. How satisfying would it be to set a goal and actually meet it, or possibly even exceed it? Instead, we'll look back and blame the planners of today for 'not planning for the future'. It's like the common argument you hear today - 'blame the planners of 50 years ago for urban sprawl'. Does this make it sound like planners of the past achieved anything? Did they have any success?

    I don't think I intended my original post to be a wake up call to the profession. I do find it interesting, however, how many problems in society are attriubted to poor planning.

    Look at it this way - if the automobile emitted zero pollution, would automobile dependency be a bad thing? My guess is no, due to the number of proponents for public transport (perceived as creating less pollution). So is the problem really with the way the city is designed? Again, my guess is no. The automobile industry has varied the function of the car very little over the past 120 years. If we, as a profession, had changed as little over the past 120 years, I would understand some of the criticism that we are part of the problem. However, when you realise how much town planning adapts to contemporary human needs, I think we've been quite a progressive industry. If other industries kept up with contemporary needs and contexts, maybe we wouldn't be facing the problems we currently are.

  7. #7
    While city planning in the US has always had a very stsorng utilitarian streak (it was early on called the city efficiency movement), it has always had other goals. The legal justification for planning in the US was health (see Euclid v. Ambler). The earliest planning theorists were reacting against the problems of immigration, industrialization and urbanization, which were always bigger than just making the trains run on time.

    Focusing on function won't make planning easier. What is a well functioning city?

    Giving up on crime, health, etc won't help either. The public still demands that these factors be addressed, even if they are conflicted by the means and results.

  8. #8
    Dan Staley's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Rewey View post
    I'm not saying we need to abandon ideals, but we need to at least be realistic about what we're trying to achieve. And there's a very important reason for this.

    ...

    What I'm saying is, these targets need to be realistic. Sydney's Property Council wants 70% of all housing built up to 2031 to be within existing urban areas. More and more research is coming out pointing out how this is simply not possible. The Network City document of WA wants 60% of the predicted 370,000 dwellings by 2031 to be within existing urban areas. Again, knowing the situation in Perth, this is simply not possible.

    I say that this is very important because all of our States have set entirely unrealistic and unreachable goals in their overarching planning documents. This means that when we reach the time specified as a target for reaching these goals (around 2030-31), every State will look back and think, 'well, we failed miserably - we didn't even come close'. How satisfying would it be to set a goal and actually meet it, or possibly even exceed it? Instead, we'll look back and blame the planners of today for 'not planning for the future'. It's like the common argument you hear today - 'blame the planners of 50 years ago for urban sprawl'. Does this make it sound like planners of the past achieved anything? Did they have any success?
    [emphases added
    The projections from our census show that by ~2050, the demand for SFD units will be ~25% of all demand. Your numbers look to be in line with that.

    wrt to what I bolded, I'm interested in the technique you use to see into the future. Are you willing to teach me how to do this, as there is a very large Powerball (lottery) jackpot here and I'd like to know the winning numbers so I can retire. But seriously, it sounds like you don't agree with the goals of your marching orders. If you have a special talent for scenario analysis, and this talent informs you that the plans need adjustment, perhaps you should seek to inform decision-makers of better ways of enacting adaptive management techniques to insert more flexibility into the plans. That is: you are concerned about lack of adaptive management in your plans. Start working to change the plans - presuming that the entire planning profession is suspect due to these plans sounds like a hasty generalization fallacy.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Rewey's avatar
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    I'm not trying to claim I can predict the future, I'm just using various stats and figures to judge how realistic these goals are. I've got some details for Perth at home, but I've got some data here at work regarding Sydney which helps outline my concerns:

    a) at no time in the past has Sydney been able to produce dwellings at such a rate as to suggest it can meet the current targets
    b) as the urban vacant land is nearly exhausted, providing new land requires the demolition of existing dwellings, which drags the process out and results in disagreements between neighbours and councils
    c) conservative estimates show a shortfall of 84,000 infill dwellings by the target date
    d) an estimated extra 8200 hectares will be required around the fringe for new greenfield housing
    e) studies in NSW show that 85% of people who live in flats would rather live in a free standing house
    f) only 0.6% of NSW is urbanised, and so drawing an UGB at the current fringe might be a little presumptuous

    When you combine this sort of data with the general widespread reluctance of Shires to increase density codes, and the inability of existing infrastructure to support the massive increase in population (most notably the problems we experience with the water supply and sewerage), and the increasing sense of NIMBYism (when it comes to increased urban densities), it appears as though the likelihood of reaching these targets is slim, at best. People seem to forget that planners don't own the land. What businesses move in to a building once it has been built is often out of our control. A permitted land use of 'Take Away Food Outlet' (from City of South Perth Scheme) could permit a health food store, or a McDonalds. Which use ends up in there is really due to market forces, not what the planners are hoping to achieve.

    With regards to my initial post, I guess my frustration really comes from the fact that I read so much about the failure of the planners to do this, and that, and that planners are to blame for crime, and obesity, and pollution, and traffic congestion, and people's love for the automobile, and so on... When you step back and look at the actual function of planning, we can design very functional cities. We're responding to contemporary problems, and trying to create solutions with future demographics in mind, but some things are simply out of our realm.

    In Australia, we hear a lot about the Singapore having virtually no crime, and this being the result of a very strict judicial system. I'm not sure about the system in the US, but have a read of my article below, which outlines the stupid decisions our judiciary make. This will help outline why blaming the resulting levels of public crime on planners just does my head in!

    http://thinkingmansfridge.blogspot.c...e-with-me.html

    Rewey

  10. #10
    Quote Originally posted by Gotta Speakup View post
    While city planning in the US has always had a very stsorng utilitarian streak (it was early on called the city efficiency movement), it has always had other goals. The legal justification for planning in the US was health (see Euclid v. Ambler). The earliest planning theorists were reacting against the problems of immigration, industrialization and urbanization, which were always bigger than just making the trains run on time.

    Focusing on function won't make planning easier. What is a well functioning city?

    Giving up on crime, health, etc won't help either. The public still demands that these factors be addressed, even if they are conflicted by the means and results.
    What would the car companies do?

    They focus on their primary function - moving people fast. But they also have other factors of design. Because car accidents happen, they make cars with safety features such as airbags. Because car crime exists, they design cars with features such as anti-theft tracking or automatic locking doors.

    Of course, if the police did its job perfectly and hunted down all crime, then cars would not need anti-theft features. But so far as that failure exists, the car companies react to that by making theft-proof cars.

    It's the same thing with cities. We can design cities that are crime-proof so long as crime exists, and if there was no crime then we could make other kinds of cities. The identity crisis is to ask why are we making cities in the first place? The car companies know why they make cars.


    Emergent Urbanism
    http://mathieuhelie.wordpress.com
    Last edited by mhelie; 21 Jan 2009 at 4:55 PM.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian cellophane's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Rewey View post
    Look at it this way - if the automobile emitted zero pollution, would automobile dependency be a bad thing? My guess is no, due to the number of proponents for public transport (perceived as creating less pollution). So is the problem really with the way the city is designed? Again, my guess is no.
    i love my car, but if i could take a train or bus to work every day instead of driving i would, regardless of how much pollution the car did or did not emit. it is my some what utopian belief that if people (in the US) all had access to cities where public transport was efficient, cost effective and widespread most would rather take the train than deal with traffic and parking. most people how ever have never been in a situation where this was possible and have only a very limited picture of what public transport it - probably from a trip to NYC or somewhere in europe.

    how much of how people envision an ideal city is influenced by a picture or paragraph they saw in school discussing flw's broadacre city or corb's radiant city? both of those were sprawled out and glorified the car...

  12. #12
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Rewey View post
    With regards to my initial post, I guess my frustration really comes from the fact that I read so much about the failure of the planners to do this, and that, and that planners are to blame for crime, and obesity, and pollution, and traffic congestion, and people's love for the automobile, and so on... When you step back and look at the actual function of planning, we can design very functional cities. We're responding to contemporary problems, and trying to create solutions with future demographics in mind, but some things are simply out of our realm.
    Rewey
    Planners know a little about alot, and the function of the profession is to know enough to consider the all the stakeholders when designing a city. Lets say you have an empty lot, wouldn't different people in your city have different opinions on what should go there? A young family might want a day care, a single woman might want a boutique, a retiree might want a medical office....its up to the planner to make a recommendation to the elected officials on what should go in that empty lot when a developer comes in to develop the lot. Planners should understand their stakeholders, local politics and the developers limits and try to develop plans and policies to make the highest and best use. I'm not saying planners are perfect, but they have little control on some aspects of development including politics, the market, etc.
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

  13. #13
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Rewey, I think you raise many valid and discussion-worthy points in your initial post. These are questions the field should be asking itself, I think. Its always a healthy discussion to have to account for what you do and ask if its really the best way to do it.

    Here are some of my thoughts:

    The Functional City - another way I have viewed this same dynamic (and you make an excellent point) is that planners are, ultimately, in the business of managing the passage of time. The Functional City as you describe it is one which acknowledges and embraces the fact that the city is an every changing, ever growing entity. There is no "end point" in its design. Populations swell, maybe they plummet, lifestyles change, energy use patterns change, transportation, commerce, family size, etc.all change. In all of this, we must establish systems that respond to this change in ways that maintain high quality of life in the urban world. The "foolproof" city is stymied by the bigger fool, perhaps, but in my model, that fool is Time (or maybe its Time that turns us into fools when our models become antiquated and out of date). We will NEVER be able to design a form or system that will stand throughout time without modification. Systems will change and so will the forms that house it. This is as true as raising a family as it is in running an urban center.

    The confounding nature of time is also what makes planning such a messy business. But I would argue that the criticisms of "failure" often leveled at planners are not grounds for a crisis in the field. Every city is different and there are many great ways for cities to function. There is not, nor should there be, one formula. Planning is, in my opinion, necessary to manage growth. Planners don't always make the best decisions, but that comes with the territory of changing realities. When a government program or leader fails to deliver on their promises, do we say we don't need government anymore? No, we criticize that leader for their failures. When a company files for bankruptcy, do we say business is a failure? No, we say THAT business failed. It should be the same with planning. Planning as a field hasn't filed, but specific models and departments have perhaps failed in their intentions. That is a valid criticism.

    I'm not saying these are your arguments, but just some of the ones that non-planners sometimes level at us.

    Lastly, I would express some disagreement over the idea that we need to narrow our focus to the built form. I am a community development planner and I went to planning grad school, so the theory I am working from is planning based. I think the work I do (on issues of housing, social capital, food security, infrastructure) is made better because I do have an appreciation for how disparate parts of the city come together to create opportunity for residents (for jobs, affordable housing, access to transportation, improved health, poverty issues, etc.). That's part of what my planning background lends to the situation. Another is a well-versed understanding of how to create and manage public processes - that is, how to engage multiple constituencies to create better, more appropriate responses to social concerns. In these cases, its only partly about the subject matter I know about and more about my ability to create an environment where those with specialized knowledge can bring it to bear to solve or at least begin to address problems.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

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