Seeking Urban Planning 2.0


I love watching movies about the future.  I'm not exactly a major science fiction fan, but I  love to see other people's visions of what the future of cities could be like.  As a boy, I had a Back to the Future poster on my closet door and I lusted for a hovering skateboard.  I knew from an early age that I was to graduate high school in the year 2000, which even in the mid-90s tempted my mind with thoughts of glass sidewalks and gravity-defying cars.

So now, where is my floating car?  

I can't blame urban planners for our lack of aerospace transit options, but when I look at the evolution of tools for urban planning and development in comparison to the rate of growth in other technical fields, I'm struck with pangs of jealousy.  Within a matter of years, telecommunications have undergone a revolution.  Sustainable architectural technologies have leaped forward.  We can travel further, faster, and quieter than ever before and to any part of the world.  All I need is a laptop and a decent web connection to receive an education, start a business, market it, manage it, and sell it.  But regarding the decisions we make to improve our cities, the change has been slow moving.  Our modern cities very much resemble cities of 100 years ago.  Certainly they are cleaner and more efficient, but if you remove all the sleek products, they are more or less the same in organization.

Today the major obsession is big data for urban management.  We all want maps and data on everything in the city so we can cut down traffic, reduce taxes, improve utilities, and target infrastructure projects. Excellent.  To obtain this data we relay upon a variety of digital tools, which means we have to rely on computer scientists to produce the tools, manage them, and conduct much of the analysis to explain the data.  Consequently many of the best GIS users today are programmers not geographers.

The better urban designers are also often trained as architects.  They have a more specific knowledge of materials, spatial form and the construction process.  Engineers remain essential to make certain that everything has the structural capacity to function.

So with the influx of computer/data scientists and the strong role of architecture, what is today's urban planner left to do?  Mobilizing community engagement and employment within local legislative powers tend to be the two primary areas where urban planners work.  But why such a limited scope of work? 

Most urban planners I know work in one of the above positions.  I recall once meeting a planner who went on to get a JD and then worked doing rule of law in Afghanistan.  He said he would "never go back to urban planning" but I was shocked!  Building governance and law in Afghanistan is an excellent task as urban planner.

I suspect that one reason for the lack of vision and the slow growth of the profession is because the lack of imagination within urban planning education.  Many schools train their students to be mid-level bureaucrats, GIS technicians, and community workers.  They are not trained to be creators.  They are trained to be strategic.  The strategy is based upon a directed, assumed, or commonly determined vision. Within the pursuit of the strategy, many of the tactics are antiquated. In graduate school I was taught how to measure the quantitive impact of industrial job creation in a community, a rarity in today's economy.  Classes covered business incubators, industrial clusters, zoning laws, city accounting and historic preservation law.  But there were no classes that explained how a business functions, how to be an entrepreneurs, how to craft a vision for the city, how to write a computer program, or how to build a database.  There were also no specific classes on urban security, immigration, or food production or similar pressing issues.

When I left grad school I began targeting the world's hardest problems of refugee camps, urban violence, and war.  Fortunately, before pursuing planning, I started my career as an artist where I learned to create.  In graduate school,  I then acquired the ability to be strategic.  Yet it was clear that I didn't have the tools I needed.  I then went back to school for an additional year in Egypt to study international law and migration. That helped... but only made it more clear that more work needed to be done.  In the last couple years  I've spent countless nights reading books about business, working on business plans, and conducting exercises on codeacademy.com until the early morning hours.  Unfortunately, while I have some tools now that are more relevant to the problems at hand to create markets and work with information, I still have much work to do and these tools are far from sufficient.

If we are to make our dreams into a reality, we need to start training our urban problem-solvers and change-makers with more relevant tools. It doesn't all need to be digital.  They could be simple and organic tools too.  What matters most is that our tools evolve to reflect not only the demands of the present, but to better identify and pursue the opportunities of the future.  Until then, our cities will remain far removed from the possibilities of our dreams.