Urban Planning Trends are Bad Medicine

Smokestack chasing.  Garden cities.  Tactical Urbanism.  New Urbanism.  Creative cities.  What do all these have in common? They all reveal the greatest weakness of urban planning as a discipline. The reliance upon urban development trends, which shift every few years, has ruined neighborhoods, devastated communities, and undermined economies.  Yet we keep doing it.

When I was a graduate student, sustainability was the utmost priority.  And for the last few years, every planning and design firm advocates bolstering resilience as the prescriptive cure for cities ensnared by poverty, conflict, or natural disaster.  But how do any of these concepts actually make a difference in the field of urban planning?  While they may posit some degree of merit by creating philosophical or operational frameworks for positive action, they do far more to impend weakness upon a community.

Anyone can read a book about the creative class and push for their city to open more coffee shops and tattoo parlors.  But an urban planner is trained to measure problems so as to determine solutions, not just impose preconceived ideologies upon a space or population.  Measurement is the core of urban planning.  The ability to fuse social, economic, spatial, environmental, and cultural data into an observable model provides planners the ability to determine structural weaknesses in a community.  These structural weaknesses may be offset through direct internal realignment, manipulation of broader legal frameworks, or offset by outside interventions.  But the application of broad concepts as a cure-all is not a solution, it simply is a waste of resources, or at worst, an act of  imperialism.

Certainly urban planning trends are drawn from observable social processes.  And many of the ideas, such as sustainability, are not bad things on first review.  But when New York city planner Robert Moses proposed putting a highway through East Village, he was simply subscribing to the values of the day.  He believed that cars and highways were positive tools of progress.  He believed that the old communities were dirty and backward.  He was doing the residents of the East Village a favor by installing this highway, to connect them to all of New York and the rest of America.  It never occurred to him that they would want, or deserve, something different.

One of my first projects as an urban planner was to conduct an impact analysis for a wind turbine farm in rural West Virginia.  Thousands of acres of virgin forest were to be destroyed to install wind turbines which would route the power to New Jersey.  The residents of the local community were outraged.  Yet entrapped by poverty, these residents did not own the land around them.  It was the property of coal companies and the US government.  They could no nothing but watch their lands be destroyed.  New Jersey of course didn't mind ruining one community to facilitate its own energy needs.  After all, wind energy is sustainable.

What we as urban planners believe to be true and good in ideology can just as likely wield a terribly destructive power.  In that regard, is it not better to forgo all ideologies?  Perhaps it is better to attend  the intricacies of measuring complex systems.  We must recognize that every method of measurement  imposes a value upon the outcome, and so we must place greater attention and selectivity upon this primary step in the planning process.  If a given system of measurement works in one location, it will not necessarily work in another.  So how then can we presume that outputs are transferable?

Good urban planners will not invent the wheel every time they approach a settlement.  They will aslo not limit themselves to particular methods or ideology.  In the same way a good musician will not say simply "I am a jazz guitarist" or "I am a rock guitarist," rather, a good musician will study all forms of music so at the moment of performance he may play freely, not thinking about "I must infuse a minor third on the next note to get a given result." When trapped by conventions such as style or planning trends, the intentional application of convention will undermine the effectiveness of the final product. Urban planners trained to measure and respond will forever create better solutions for community problems than those who apply preconceived notions of community or development.


  1. We are of the same wavelength. I see the same problem in my country, the Philippines.

    My country has been victim to these paradigm shifts. In the context of aid agencies pushing for these slogans and local planners lining up for the aid finance, our pool of planning practitioners has produced a landscape of no clear direction, a hodgepodge of guidelines, and unfulfilled conference joint statements.

    It's always easy to jump in to a bandwagon when everyone is in groupthink and when money is abundant.

    It would be great if most of our country's spatial planners just sit down and reflect on the impact of the wanton application of slogans through the decades.

    Thank you for this post. Maybe we can collaborate in the future.

    David Garcia
    Metro Manila, Philippines

    1. Hi David,

      From what you describe, it sounds like within the Philippines there is always a big campaign with lots of rhetoric for urban development programs. I imagine lots of people with signs, marching down the street, chanting over some sort of water initiative, or passing out pamphlets to garner wider political support. In this regard, the process is far more about winning over the crowd to influence politics than to focus on developing solutions to particular problems. Is this accurate?


  2. For me, this is an old issue, as I've viewed "urban planning" as fixated with the build environment, with the assumption that urban planners understand all aspects of planning. Not at all!

    On top of that, let's not forget that urban planners work hand-in-hand with the commercial real estate community, with their bosses and politicians as their intermediaries. Everyone benefits from this symbiotic relationship, except for the broader community.

    Take San Antonio, Texas, as an example. We've had "growth" and "development" for 40 years, as well as "innovation" and "competitiveness", yet we remain a poor urban city, with a poverty rate of 20%. This Chamber-of-Commerce methodology is the old paradigm, and paradigms don't shift until the powers-that-be realize their shortcomings.

    The new paradigm embraces the most difficult planning issues, and makes a genuine effort to address them. I address this challenge in Progressive Planning magazine, which ultimately deals with socio-economic outcomes. Let's hope for a new day, thanks.

    1. Hi Fernando,

      In fact you are on the same track of thinking as myself. Your example about San Antonio is spot on, considering the amount of effort spent on change yet with limited or no outcomes. Although I don't work in traditional planning environments, I continually see the same problem played out in impoverished nations and war zones. This raises the question, why is it that such great ideas are poorly implemented? Either the do not fit the problem or the idea does not fit the process of implementation (such as via chamber of commerce, city councils, community support etc). Perhaps to really contend with this we need, as a profession, to begin with the way the profession is designed and its participants are educated.

  3. Your warning against following trends is certainly on point, but I'm not sure I would go do far as to abandon all ideologies, ask you suggest. I believe its possible to distinguish between a trend that is a short-term "fad", and trends that are worth fighting for and which represent basic organizing principles (access to clean water and effective sewers being two examples).

    I write this as non-planner, but as someone from a suburban background living in Tokyo. My perception of what city living is like has changed dramatically, all due to the incredibly widespread, fast, and efficient mass transit system. You say, "Perhaps it is better to attend the intricacies of measuring complex systems".

    I agree - it is important to measure the effects of how our environments affect quality of life. From both an anecdotal and theoretical perspective, the benefits of an extensive mass transist system are quite high. Tokyo (and Japan) has generally been riding the mass-transit trend since World Warr II.

    It saddens me to think that when I return to the US there will be so few cities I can live in that have adequate public transit. If planners don't accept mass-transit as an organizing principal, how will the rest of the country?

    1. I love Tokyo. I haven't been there for a long time, having visited for a few weeks in 2004, but I loved everything about the city. From the transit, to the food, talking with homeless people in the parks, to even walking around the shady neighborhoods, knowing that I'm relatively safe. Overall an amazing city.

      In America I believe you will find that the majority of urban planners love mass transit systems. However there is a lack of public and political support for such measures. In Ohio, for example, there have been efforts to connect Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland with a high-speed rail for decades. It would cut deeply into transit time and traffic, and numerous studies have proved its economic viability. That rail could even branch into other states, such as Kentucky and Indiana. However, the current Governor of Ohio cut the program immediately upon taking office. Also when you talk to people throughout the cities, suburbs, and rural areas, you find that people really want the independence of their car... although few, if any of them, have ever utilized a mass-transit system.

  4. Thank you so much for this post. I am a planning student that has felt similarly frustrated by the paternalism of modern urban planning trends, especially when we American planners claim to be upholding the principles of democracy.

    1. Hmmm, I'll have to think about what you said. To be honest, democracy as a planning issue is usually on the edge of my concerns. I mean, I'm all about communities identifying problems and outputs, however I never think "how can this be more democratic?" Rather its just about fitting the best method to the problem.

      Perhaps this is complicated to me because there are plenty of functioning economies and societies throughout the world where democracy is not a value, so I don't really hold it as essential. It is a positive for general well-being but not critical for survival, and where I work, the issues are more often pending on life and death. I don't live in a democracy (Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic) or work in one (Somalia maintains a strictly centralized government), but I do develop strategies for civil society to participate in governance given the conditions, yet the population does not dominate the process or the outcome. However this isn't really democracy. But should it be? No idea.

  5. Is there scope to judge outcomes in relation to human scale? How long it takes to walk between daily needs, what the view is like at eye level, noise levels, nearby vehicle speed and size.

    I feel like there must be some list like that that is universal, not a fad.

    And I also feel that the result would favour multiway boulevards and complete streets over undifferentiated stroads, shorter blocks and lots, narrower travel lanes, narrow shared streets, enclosure. If a small city, village-like with common services clustered centrally in the most compact area. If a larger city, mid-rise mixed-use and townhouses being common forms. I think it's hard to end up with sprawl when starting with human scale as your foundation.

    Having tried the experiment, we now know that Moses' freeway cities don't result in free movement, but instead congestion. And we know that people flock to pedestrian-friendly places, and bid up the cost of real estate.

    There are definitely contorted examples of new urbanism done badly, but I can't shake the feeling that it's based on more sound universal principles, that relating cities to human scale is an important foundation and that the NU (old U) conclusions are inevitable.

  6. Hi Neil,

    Your argument is solid and I'm inclined to agree with you. To work at human scale makes sense given we are creating spaces for human use. How this actually plays out would vary quite a bit and I think most urban interventions have limited repercussion. But I question the notion of universality.

    For example, the inclination in the Middle East is to build massive cities in advance of any settlement, then fill them up with businesses, families, and activity. I doubt this would work in America. But in the same region, social ties are such a major component of human activity, that these otherwise artificial cities do not suffer at all, as the social interactions quickly fill horizontal and vertical spaces. The artificial becomes legitimate.

    But would it make a difference to utilize the town-house, mid-density approach in this instance? Sure, you can do that. But it doesn't matter. Eventually the local family and value systems would infill empty spaces and create denser communities. I would even go so far to argue that in many Islamic communities, the notion of designing to the interest of the individual is absurd, given that all social and cultural production takes place at the scale of the family or even through broader tribal connections. In this instance, urban planning ultimately can only inform the spatial distribution of resources, but that distribution will later be modified by use. What we attempt to design becomes arbitrary as local values and interests will conform the landscape accordingly.

    Every time we intervene, we layer assumptions and impositions. Often those assumptions and values will correlate with what is on the ground, and everything works out fine. If they don't, the outcome is simply an inconvenience. That inconvenience may have little consequence in the suburbs of Missouri, but in areas of high demand, such as low-income neighborhoods or where I work in active war zones, those inconveniences can result in serious injustices. All such injustices can be overcome in time, but when there is no time, one cannot take comfort in applying assumptions.

  7. Excellent points, so far as they go. However, to gain traction for your ideas and the attendant publicity and buy in from the profession and the public, it has been necessary to package a set of good ideas as a new direction in planning, sometimes in opposition to older styles. The question to consider id whether this process has led, over time, to better planning and better outcomes? In general, in our modern age, I would think so, even if rather imperfectly. Given that human nature is rather resistant to change, and we must work with the resources at hand, planning seems to be making functional improvements overall. Less than we might, hampered by groupthink, and constrained by many forces. Some planning concepts do need to be implemented ensuite in order to work properly. But worst of all would be for the clamor of democracy to be silenced so that planners might dictate an integrated and organic vision, freed from mundane constraint and crude reality.

  8. While I may agree that urban planning these days has become a bit chaotic and less focused on sustainability, I still believe there are a few entities out there whose property management is gaining the most utility from the fewest of resources, with maximum positive returns in terms of increased sustainability. Still, it is good that you are refuting a trend that could cause more trouble than it's worth.

  9. I had a planning theory professor from Zimbabwe while in grad school. He would relate this story about defending his dissertation on a Zimbabwean planning matter. One of the American panel members inquired about the impact of modernism. Duh... modernism didn't spread to Zimbabwe.

    We are ALL subject to zeitgeist. I'm not defending it, but its pervasiveness and surreptitiousness make it terribly hard to detect. Moreover, what do you do when the rational planning model cannot be applied?


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