Monday, February 28, 2011

Because you can’t plan everything

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry © John Steinbeck

A few works ago, I was working with several planners in trying to draft a new zoning process for a particular area. This new zoning process detailed everything from building heights, pavements widths, awning size, the minimum distance between building entrances and other very small but important design features. We proposed general ranges of design requirements so that this new zoning process did not become too stringent. But one of the planners wanted the building and lot requirements to become more and more precise without any flexibility for the new design standards for proposed buildings.

Now, I understand that no matter how great a zoning process we come up with there are always going to be changes through variances, special councils, legislation or because the higher ups just felt like doing something different. So when this zoning process was becoming more and more rigid and inflexible on every single building detail, I blurted out, “we can’t plan everything.”

My co-worker retorted back:
“Sure we can, that’s what the zoning code is there for.”

Oh, if only our current zoning code were a sporting stat. I would have gladly shown my co-worker that on any given day, we are 6-16 from the field in protecting the standards of our mighty zoning code. We planners, are the Pittsburgh Pirates of the zoning code. We are understaffed and the organization barely funds team equipment and half of us don’t know how we up ended up here. But we play hard against our developer opponents who are the New York Yankees, whose players more than triple our salaries. We play the Yankees really tough but they always manage to pull out ahead of us in the end.

Planners have to compromise in order to move their vision forward. And the compromises may not always relate to money or influence. We make compromises and changes in our plans from everything historical landmarks, ornately designed buildings and cultural institutions that define neighborhoods, all of which may alter the grand scheme of our plans. And that’s ok. That’s what makes cities real.

I’ve been to many urban communities that were full of high-rises that were meticulously planned for blocks with storefronts on the first level, garage parking tucked away and perfect spacing between ornate streetlights and street trees. And you know what, those places didn’t feel real. Were the communities densely populated and efficiently ran? Yes. But did they feel like a real community or a city? No. I’ve also been to gentrified city neighborhoods were 80% of the neighborhood was perfectly redesigned but the other 20% stuck out like a sore thumb. But you know what, that 20% felt like the most important buildings in the neighborhood because those places were the old burger shop, the historic theater, the church, and old apartment building that’s now an architectural relic. They became the placemakers of how people remembered that specific twenty years ago and how they will remember the neighborhood twenty years from now.

You can’t plan everything. You have to allow freedom of expression through design and reinterpretation of design. The great Frank Lloyd Wright was such an eccentric about his designs that he also designed the furniture of the house he designed along with the clothes he thought people should wear while in their own home. He would come back to these houses and if you moved the furniture to your own liking, he would move the furniture back. So what’s the limit supposed to be? As a planner I see requests from individual owners to modify their houses all the time. If the modifications are acceptable should I allow the changes or should I fight for the protection of the zoning code and yell out, “We Must Protect This House!”

So if our best plans get laid to waste, does this mean we should make up stuff to defend on the fly? *coughs* it feels like it sometimes *cough* *cough* Well the answer to that is like the answer a city planning professor once told me when asked about his greatest accomplishment as a planner. He said, “I stopped a lot of bad plans from happening.”

So while the best laid plans can go awry, we can still prevent a lot of bad plans from happening. Thanks for reading!

Planner Speak

Talking to a Planner from Robert Voigt on Vimeo.