Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Tales of a City Planner

Theory vs. Reality

One of the coolest things about my profession is planning theory. Studying how people live and interact with spaces has always been fascinating to me. Planning theory is an open conversation that almost anyone can have about how they experience the urban environment. You do not need to be a City Planner to enjoy Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. You also do not need a PhD either to discuss planning theory in depth. As one former co-worker told me, “this aint rocket science.” But the application of planning theory to the real world is…complicated.

One of the new theories that is all the rage in planning right now, is
New Urbanism. To give you a quick summary of New Urbanism, it is the application of how main streets used to be planned, focusing on walkable streets and designing buildings with a pedestrian scale. New Urbanism seeks to replace the strip shopping center with large parking lot for a main street that pulls buildings closer to the street for easier pedestrian access. In a nutshell, New Urbanism seeks to create a sense of place.

As a planning theory, New Urbanism sounds great, what planner wouldn’t want to implement these guidelines to create walkable, auto-independent neighborhoods? What planner wouldn’t want to chuck their 300+ page zoning code for the simplicity of New Urbanist principles?

Well, the ultimate goal of New Urbanist principles is to help create a simple code that encourages land uses that we want to see instead of matrix of prohibited land uses, the process of determining that code is not simple at all. As life would have it, in trying to reduce the number of regulations in the code, applying New Urbanist principles can actually increase the regulation of land.

How can that be? Obviously some planner must be doing something wrong. Well when applying new urbanist principles many agencies create several standards of aesthetic design of how a building must look and how it is placed on the site. If a developer and property owner cannot conform to the new principles, then they risk having their building permit rejected. The trade off for the developer is that decisions on aesthetics are no longer made at the whims of a planning board and agency and for the public, planning decisions would not longer be done in a piecemeal fashion.

Sounds rather strict but fair, right? What would be the problem in creating a more consistent system on a more holistic level? The problem is that almost everything built in cities within the last 50 years was built in a piecemeal fashion…and I mean everything.

Streamlining sidewalk widths, I discovered there were over 10 different widths within my plan boundary (in fact some blocks had multiple sidewalk widths).
Regulating the distance of lampposts for better lighting, I discovered there was no rhyme or reason for the existing distance between lampposts.
Planters, everybody is going to make the planer the same size right? Wrong, I discovered my plan boundary had multiple planter sizes.
Awning size, how do you determine the correct size and position when every other store has different size, shape and color?

So what’s your decision? What arbitrary number do you choose to sync your new urbanist principles with existing conditions and be able to justify that number which will surely disenfranchise some property owner? Remember, these numbers have to hold before the critical eye of development attorneys. Complicated, right? And this was the easy stuff, I’m not even getting into the major details such as limiting building height, parking restrictions, reducing street widths and pre-determining building placement on lots.

While new heights and distances maybe arbitrary the existing dimensions of a piecemeal town or study area are not. Most of the times there are several concrete reasons of why there are different sidewalk widths of a town. In many cases, government may have mandated changes at the time of development or permit. Why does this matter? Well the most successful block in your town or plan boundary may employ none of the guidelines of your new urbanist principles and may have to be redesigned to meet the new standards. Or your town of plan boundary may include an historic district right smack in the middle of an area, planners have highlighted for increased density.

What do you do? If you force new regulations on the most successful block and historic district you will most likely destroy the sense of place that you were trying to create. On the other hand exempting the two areas will make your overall town or plan boundary inconsistent. What was a simple planning matter will now become a major political battle in which major constituents will let their opinions be heard to local politicians who must make that call. The argument of who is better equipped to make a major planning decision, the planner or the politician will be left for another blog post.

To repeat my former co-worker, “this aint rocket science.” However, planners are left to make a series of judgment calls of critical importance. Some judgment calls are easy, while other calls are complicated and will have unforeseen consequences for years and maybe decades to come. I hope you have enjoyed reading the complications of implementing planning theory. For any planner reading this, I know you can sympathize and I would like to hear your comments. For any planning student, I hope you learned how complicated implementing theory is and for everyone else I hope you learned more about the city planning process.

Thanks for reading!


Kirk Mantay said...

After 12 years of working in environmental planning & management, I can say that 3 things are important to be successful (not just "get by").

1) Meeting the minimum qualifications on paper

2) Having well-developed inter-personal skills

3) Having a very detailed and solution-oriented understanding of "how to actually get it done." There are far too many people in environmental, urban, and rural planning who are capable of only thinking in the theoretical, as in "let's pass this plan, and then it will just magically be." Being a good planner - as you have discussed here in detail - means understanding what all these great "plans" and "proposals" and "projects" really mean on the ground. Maybe a block is just "the wrong site" for increased walkability (in your work), or to restore a big muddy swamp (in my work). What are the implications (to real people and places) of actually putting these theories on the ground? So many planners refuse to think about it - if it's good theory, it's good practice. In my work, restoring wetlands where they've been drained for farming is a great theory - but if done haphazardly, it can put farmers out of business. Same thing for walkability and urban planning.

I think that's a great theme that's emerging on your blog - how do you ACTUALLY get things done, and what are the REAL effects of putting these great plans in place? Can you imagine if the Baltimore planners had thought of that before building the high-rise projects?

Toure Zeigler said...

I'm definately all about getting things done and getting things done efficiently. But it is a challenge because while I do feel that getting mired in the details of implemeting a theory can sometimes be a waste of time, I don't want to shortchange a critical idea and have a half ass proposal that gets implemented.

But I think that is the balancing act of planning anything on a large scale. These gives and takes make it difficult to define success as a planner. Sometimes I feel my job is not about making things better, it's preventing the worst.

And I think some planners fail to realize is that inaction can be as damaging as a bad plan. Holding on to a theory like a dogma is not heroic if you fail to get anything accomplished.

Robbie said...

Thanks for the blogs. They are informative and enjoyable reads.