Aug 25

Urban Planning is an Oxymoron

From the time that architects gave over urban design to urban planners (circa the post WWII era), cities and towns in North America became, for the most part, less interesting, less diverse, less walkable, less sustainable places while at the same time becoming more unsafe, more corrupt, more segregated and more car dependent. Urban planning is, in my view, an oxymoron. 

Changes in the global and local economy make such plans obsolete before they can be written up or described. The unstoppable encroachment of the Internet (it is eating industry after industry) is speeding up these changes which has profound yet unrecognized implications for the spatial distribution of cities, towns and counties as well as the built form. Master plans, official plans and zoning ordinances/bylaws that go along with those put a straight jacket on urban development which produces unimaginative, energy gobbling places that no one actually wants to live in. Mono-cultured suburbs with no stores that a person can walk to, no points of interest, no jobs of any sort are horrible to live in and worse to get to.

The last image I show above (I will talk about the others shortly) is a map of Glen Cairn South, a suburb in my hometown.Those curvilinear street patterns that modern urban planners like to use sometimes require eight right turns to get to your house and eight left turns to leave and every trip is a car trip. Why eight? Because a friend of mine and a former councilor for the area had to sell his home there because he and his spouse were being driven crazy counting, that’s 1,2,3,4…8 every time they left home and 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 every time they returned. It’s no wonder that children feel disenfranchised in such places and adults are going bonkers.

The other photos are of the Renaissance Center (plunked down in what’s left of downtown Detroit as if each building is an unapproachable alien spaceship (also shown above) protected by an all powerful robot (Gort) on the day the earth stood still) and the Brewster Projects (also in Detroit), a disgraceful mega project that displaced more human scale development that preceded it. It is being torn down this year as part of Detroit’s goal of demolishing 1,000s of homes and businesses in the more than two thirds of that city that is abandoned.

Instead of renovating and rehabbing the built form of the city as it existed in the 1930s and 1940s, urban planners clear cut areas for highways and skyscrapers producing Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia and hundreds of cities and towns not only in the U.S. but in much of the world that are crap.

Who said and when did she say?

“Cities are an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success, in city building and city design.This is the laboratory in which city planning should have been learning and forming and testing its theories. Instead the practitioners and teachers of this discipline (if such it can be called) have ignored the study of success and failure in real life, have been incurious about the reasons for unexpected success, and are guided instead by principles derived from the behavior and appearance of towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities – from anything but cities themselves.”

It was Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities published in 1961 which means she probably wrote those words in 1959 or 1960. Jane was brilliant; a self-taught New York born urbanist who could see what urban planners were doing long before neo-urbanists called them out beginning in the 1980s. Brava, Jane. Jane spent the last years of her life and career as an exile in more livable Toronto.

If one were to remove Gort’s robot suit, one would uncover a master-of-the-universe planner wielding not a laser weapon but zoning codes backed up by bylaw enforcement officers with police powers.

Urban planners are not believing the evidence in front of their own eyes that they are actively making their cities and towns worse. These pin headed bureaucrats do not use the scientific method: hypothesis, experiment, evidence collection, analysis, peer review, publication, independent verification after which the conclusions, no matter how controversial, must be accepted. They are motivated by a need for control and an even greater need to build their careers and their vast bureaucratic apparati; it’s all about position and power– and the money that comes from that. They are fearful lest they be discovered as charlatans, being as they are high priests of a failed discipline. They should be shown the door if you want to rebuild your city or town.

Towns and cities are organic entities that will flourish via application of building codes, safety codes, health codes and performance zoning where everything is permitted unless expressly prohibited instead of a place where everything is forbidden unless approved by all-seeing, all-knowing urban zoning codes and their masters– urban planners.

If you want safe, exciting, vibrant cities and towns that combine work, play, learning and entertainment, this is what you must do– burn (as Howard Kunstler says in Home from Nowhere) all your zoning codes. To get mixed use places where kids can walk or bike everywhere, where teens can get starter jobs, where different socio-economic classes mix together and learn from each other, where you get amazing densities from structures that are no more than three of four stories (with a few that are 8, 10 or 12 in places), where streets are on a grid, where on-street parking is permitted, where all roads share some of the traffic so there is no one road that must take it all, where every place is connected to every other place, where left turns are always permitted, where there are no one way roads which make it impossible to get there from here, where young people can afford to buy their first home, where elders remain in their communities forever and are not parked in lonely vertical warehouses waiting to die, where granny flats built in the rear yard help families pay the bills and stay together, where in-home businesses and in-home apartments are allowed everywhere, where offices, light industrial, residential, entertainment and shopping are all mixed together, where all buildings relate to the street and open onto them, where six meter (landscape) buffer zones and double-loaded parking aisles are banned, where there are build-to lines not setbacks, where there are minimum densities not maximums, where there are density bonuses for adding residential and leisure uses to office areas, where instead of minimum apartment and home sizes, it is left to the market to provide, where parks are safe not sterile no-places and instead include active uses (shops, teahouses, artist and farmer kiosks, w/cs that work, wine bars and homes) so that they are integrated into their communities and there are always eyes on the park… If you want this and more, sorry but you will have to de-hire all your urban planners.



More on Highest and Best Use

More on Livable Cities

More on Leisure is the New Infrastructure 

More on County of Renfrew Reborn


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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.