City Planners Need to Adapt to a New Model
To read a set of plans leads one to the inescapable conclusion that the practice of city planning has escaped reality. Its highly stylized form, apparently reflective of a settled professional culture, is first and foremost a political document disguised as a physical plan for a specific locale. Alexander Garvin captures the cynical nature of it all in his new book “The Planning Game.” Having been a professional planner and a real estate developer, his book is about politics and the importance of “playing” well so that new buildings get built. There is no discussion of the city’s economy. The index entry under “economics” takes the reader in every case to a discussion of the financing of projects. The book rests on the fallacy common to all contemporary urban planning, namely, that the built environment will make the economy happen. Just as with international development strategy, the artifacts of a successful economy are presumed necessary conditions precedent to a successful economy emerging.
In fact, the “build it and an economy will come” fallacy is but one flaw of contemporary urban planning. The much larger problem is that the typical plan is really a “retro-static” document, at least for cities not experiencing economic growth. It sets an implicit idealized state in the past usually the city’s high water mark in population. Detroit remains hopeful that someday 2.3 million people will live there once again. President Obama and countless others before him have declared such goals. Why not plan accordingly, even if the formal plan never mentions a credible strategy to reestablish an economy that would require and support 2.3 million people?
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