October 24, 2012

An Integrated Process For Better Urban Planning



Urban planners frequently believe their projects maintain the most efficient balance between demand, costs, and utility.  A project may be result of community discourse, technical analysis, review by the local business community, and a fusion with the most cutting-edge theories.  Yet when the proposal sits before a local planning commission or city council, too often it is torn to shreds. Heavily debated and politicized, if the proposal ever emerges from the other side of the gauntlet, the final outcome is a shadow of it former self, too weak to do anything effective.  There is a pressing demand for an Integrated Planning Process that accounts for the organizational machine of local government and decision makers.

I once heard a story about an urban planner who taught at the University of Cincinnati. The story goes that the planner spent everyday of 30 years studying a particular neighborhood, Over The Rhine, which has historically been a concentration of poverty and crime.  Everyday he walked the streets, spoke with residents,  befriended local businesses, studied the history, conducted economic research and over 3 decades acquired a thorough understanding of the internal and external forces that shape the neighborhood.  But when members of the local government asked for his input to create jobs, reduce crime, or improve the quality of the streets, he was incapable of providing realistic solutions. 

Certainly he had ideas.   Many of them were brilliant.  But the problem was that his sophisticated understanding of OTR also resulted in highly sophisticated proposals.  Many of these solutions were outside the interests of some decision makers, beyond the means of the local government, or required the overhaul of dominant frameworks such as state laws or county budgets.  The proposals that were acceptable were then diluted through tedious meetings, city council debates, local commissions, and ongoing budget cuts.  By the time his solutions actually hit the pavement, they lacked the means to create actual change.  Does this sound familiar?

Urban Planning has become increasingly complex with the rise of big data, inflating costs, diverging politics, and the advent of new technologies.  Given the historic challenges to balance all the demands of planning and development, it is a wonder that anyone can integrate all the new elements at all.  The process becomes unwieldy, and it is therefore no surprise when the final outcome fails.  It doesn't necessarily take decades for many of us to find ourselves faced with a scenario similar to the one described above.

But perhaps we can learn from the field of Product Design, an industry that has also become increasingly complex.  Imagine creating a new mobile phone.  Multiple departments must work together to compile a functioning design, some departments have to create new technologies to meet the demands of the co-workers across the hallway, and once everything is assembled it must also be mass produced, marketed, and sold.  But the process is not strictly linear.  There are limitations for mass production and supply-chain challenges to acquire the necessary parts. There is often a need to create the tools and technologies to assemble the product and then to sort out the logistics of packaging, shipping, and retail.  All these variables have a cost, all these variables entail the energies of thousands of people, and all of these variables must be delicately balanced to result in a working final product for mass consumption.  And if the item doesn't work as well as a competitor product, then no one will buy it. 

To ensure that the product can meet an array of expectations and capacities, every variable is recorded and investigated from initial ideation to the point of consumer use.  In the samer manner, the Integrated Planning Process maps the array of variables to create, design, modify, and implement a solution.  This procedure can reveal to stakeholders and participants what is essential, what is not, impose more clarity, and save time by providing alternatives for individual components.  

This process allows decision makers the ability to look beyond what needs to be stripped down, there is a means to prioritize what is essential, non-essential, and what adds value.  The project will of course change, but the planner is taking responsibility for the forces that impose change, and therefore holding more control over the outcome.  This improved capacity to understand and measure flexibility, will result in higher-value outcomes.

There are several ways to utilize an Integrated Planning Process.  Here are just a few possibilities:

 1.  Simple info-graphics to articulate the processes of decision making reveal the degrees of flexibility in the planning process.  These can be shared publicly (suggested) or for internal use only.

2. Presenting a comparative "teardown" of similar projects in other municipalities can provide a platform for critical engagement to document costs for optimization.   If you identify teardown components in relation to the outcome, you can better isolate the variables that matter most.

3. In addition to itemized costs, planners can provide details for alternative options with the clear cost/benefit of each alternative.  Instead of letting city council decide what works and what doesn't, or too demand more research, simply provide 2 or 3 options for each element of the plan that will have a similar outcome but with a clear cost/benefit.  These variables can then be reconfigured like Lego Blocks.  In this manner it is possible to find ways to quickly reduce cost while maintaining performance.

4. Planners can submit a list of prioritized alternatives or suggestions for modification to the entire proposal,  to better control the outcome of political committees. I do suggest you have this ready and waiting, but do not offer it up in the beginning.  Expect that your proposal will be changed according to the whims of dominant power systems.  There is nothing you can do about this so it is best to factor it into your planning process to create a more viable solution.

5. Planners must recognize that the organization implementing the project (doing the construction work for example), maintain their own level of influence upon the success of the project, such as their ability to finish work on time and under budget.  Map it.

The Integrated Planning Process maps the variables informing project design,  the influence of those who hold authority, and the influence of those who implement the work, and will provide planners the means to propose solutions that are resilient to the political machine.  An Integrated Planning Process results in flexible proposals designed to contend with external demands and will always create a more robust outcome. If a development scheme consists of the insights of stakeholders, but has the ability to fluidly accommodate the organization structure of government and implementing partners, the final result will be more value-laden for the target population and for the neighborhood.

Will such an integrated process always work?  Absolutely not.  There are too many variables, and it is incredibly difficult to measure how much influence each variable will impose upon the outcome.  To borrow from Nate Silver's book, it is a challenge to separate the signal from the noise.  But product design is no different.  There are always glitches, a necessity to release updates, and to release a next generation product based on the precursor.  The Integrated Planning Process does not result in a single one-off solution to later abandon.  Rather it sets the foundation for sequential upgrading.

There are many planners who already work in a similar fashion, but do so intuitively. Integrated Planning thus becomes a skill acquired through experience and therefore is not universally upheld. But if Integrated Planning can be  can be more directly implemented by practitioners (and not just in their minds), or utilized in university curriculums, the benefits will soon become obvious. Planners will typically be more satisfied in the outcomes of their work, but ultimately it is cities who will benefit the most with better projects conducted amid less debate, in shorter time, and for less money.