On the role of planners

December 19th, 2012

I had a conversation with a friend a couple months ago that shed some light on what I think is probably a fairly common misunderstanding about the role of urban planners.

A city is a tremendously contentious, political being, one with millions of people and millions of ideas about what the city should be. Almost as many people are frustrated with some aspect of what the city actually is and hundreds or, more optimistically, thousands of people take it on themselves every day to be advocates for particular issues, like bicycling, businesses, street lighting, civil rights, transit etc. These people often become masters of their issues, knowing all there is to know about bicycling, for example, knowing all that goes on in the bicycling community, what people are saying and feeling about bicycling, what exactly they say they want from the city. These people quite naturally develop specific ideas about what the City should do about these issues, and they tell the City as much. These suggestions are heard by politicians and by planners. Politicians don’t generally have a specific area of expertise, but planners do. They’re really¬†systems administrators of a sort. But the system isn’t a computer network, it’s a polis, a city in the lowercase sense; the whole interconnected web of real relations between people and places and all of the ‘applications’ or various uses of a city. To be clear, they’re not the city manager(he manages the municipal entity of the City, the City that has a bank account in it’s name). Rather, planners might be closer to what could be called city administrators.

Planners at their best1 don’t give a community merely what it asks for just a sysadmin doesn’t install just any program a user requests. Indeed, any unchecked program could be malicious(possibly causing stress or compromise of the whole network), or simply erroneous and dysfunctional, no matter how useful it could be for that one user right now.

Instead, planners give a community what it needs, and indeed what it wants at a deep level, whether they have asked for it or not. They establish systems through which things can happen which they haven’t necessarily foreseen, systems that are adaptive to change, and resilient to challenge.

And that’s not patronizing. It’s like parenting. You don’t let your kids have everything they ask for and you don’t favour one child over another. Planners don’t do that for citizens either.

I think a lot of people approach planners with very specific suggestions, thinking they’ll be duly considered, and possibly completely implemented, that their suggestion might be something the planner had never thought of. Typically the suggestions only address the concerns of the community that the suggester represents. “Why don’t you build a streetcar between my neighborhood and my office” is a typical if highly exaggerated example. Or perhaps “High meter rates are bad for my business and they shouldn’t be raised!”.2

Right. Got it. We’ll just not raise the meter rates then. Glad you chimed in with that insight. I wouldn’t want to unthinkingly impinge on your business as I blunder about.3

Planners hear these pleas for specific things and try to pick broader themes from them.

You can see this selection of broader themes and desires at work really clearly in Cincinnati’s new master plan. The plan actually makes surprisingly few concrete suggestions, but rather lays a nuanced framework of common desire on which specific plans can be firmly based. Really, the master planning process was just an elaborate exercise walking the general public through the process of saying and understanding what they really want. And the document reflects that. It makes no mandates, but serves as a justification for proposals that are in line with it, a point of contention for proposals discordant with it. It states some extraordinarily broad goals like “preserve or create a pedestrian-scaled city”, “strengthen community organizations” and “build on our assets”. These represent the consensus of the city.

Everyone has some specific ideas about what each of these mean, and almost every one of them will be in at least indirect conflict with almost every other idea, often even within the same person’s head. The broad goals having been established, it’s the job of planners to devise a means of achieving the goals with efficiency and fairness and balance. This is where the technical knowledge of the sysadmin is important. We have to know how to achieve the goal in reality. We all want a secure computer, but we don’t all know the best encryption protocol. We also don’t all know the best way to amend a complex transportation system, or help entrepreneurs have a flourishing environment at the same time that we’re collectively working to systemically reduce poverty and crime on shrinking budgets through incremental changes to the built environment.

And I think this is where the misconception starts. People live in cities. We all use transportation and encounter poverty every single day. We’ve each lived in our own city, our own neighborhood, our own community for what feels like ages. And we each know it damn well. We(the advocate citizens) know the details of our issues better than anyone, just as I know the arrangement of files on my hard drive like the back of my hand. But what we don’t generally know is that context that each of our experiences sits in, and the acute essential conflicts we have with some others in the city, and even with ourselves. Unless, you’re computer scientist, you probably don’t have the faintest idea how a computer4,the context of most of today’s communication, actually does anything.

One of the general goals from the master plan is to encourage the use of non-automotive transportation. Another goal is to promote and encourage local businesses. Most people you ask will agree with these goals generally, but if you present them with any possible discouragement to using a car, they’ll attack the idea on the grounds that it will hurt business. They’ll attack a plan to help business with a claim of necessary fiscal responsibility, and they’ll attack an attempt at fiscal responsibility with an insistence that not a single police officer can be laid off. People don’t collectively know how to manage city, and don’t individually know how to balance their own desires with the ambition of others. Enter the planner.

The sysadmin doesn’t want to reorganise your home folder, but she does want to make sure you’re accessing some sites with SHTTP from now on and that you have limited access to the network drive. Similarly, the good planner will want to cause a minimum of disturbance to any one person or group of people, while at the same time advancing everyone toward their stated or implicit goals. Where those goals are in conflict with one another, as they almost always are, the planner must mediate the conceptual conflict and decide which path advances the greater good.

So this is why I’m sometimes accused of succinctly dismissing people’s well thought out urban planning suggestions(they should put a shuttle at X and a parking garage at Y because Z). It’s not because that doesn’t make perfect sense inside the relatively narrow context of that person’s experiences, rather that it doesn’t make sense in light of the conflicting implicit desires of others, and reasonable ways of achieving those consensual common ends. You should trust an expert to know you how a computer network functions and you should trust a planner(again, at their best) to know you how a city functions. Not what you should do with it, but how it actually works and thus how you and the other 2,000,000 users can get the most of what ya’ll really want out of it.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. I’m going to speak from here on out of planners-at-their-best or ideal planners. We’ll leave that messy planners-as-they-actually-are stuff for another and more depressing post.
  2. Or to keep with our analogy, “Why don’t you just let me plug my home computer into the office network so I can get my work done in a more comfortable setting?”¬† — because you could introduce malicious stuff into the system, perhaps intentionally, compromising security and a stable computing environment for dozens, or thousands of other people!
  3. This is sarcasm.
  4. Start with this link and see how deep into wikipedia you can dive before your brain hurts.

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