In Is Urban Planning Having an Identity Crisis, written by Anthony Flint and published by City Lab on July 17, 2015, the value the urban planning field is providing in its current state was called into question by those who provide it – urban planners. The author attended a conference held by the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) and wrote about his observations. Flint states, “Global urbanization carries multiple complexities, with loads of unintended consequences and unanticipated outcomes, whether in Cleveland or London or Bogota. If the future is not linear, planning in a linear fashion is the equivalent of banging one’s head against the drafting table.”
Three main ideas were woven into the article that represent gaps in the process of planning or tension between opposing approaches:
1. Flexibility in the planning process – In general, the planning profession continues to operate as if the planning process truly has control over all the elements indicated in plan documents. In reality, many projects are not able to receive funding for one reason or another. The needs for a given project change due to various circumstances. Political will might decline related to a plan component. The fact is, things change, and cities are fluid places. However, the planning profession has not adapted in such as way as to design this need for fluidity into the planning process.
2. Top-down vs. bottom-up approaches – Federal, state, and local governments sometimes try to directly enforce elements of plans with top-down authority. This generally will happen to a lesser or greater degree, especially in terms of zoning requirements. The author mentions Tactical Urbanism as a strategy for truly bottom-up planning to take place in short length of time. There is a spectrum of top-down to bottom-up approaches, and rather than an either/or solution, a mix is generally required to connect with the local context and culture while being effective in the long term.
3. Responsibility for planning decisions - The conference organizers asked the question, “Who should take responsibility for how the cities and regions are being changed?” The context around this question appears to be more prevalent public-private partnerships and work being outsourced to the private sector. That question requires taking a hard look at what is meant by responsibility. There are few international cities that actually communicate to the public what they are doing, why they are doing it, how the decisions were made, and the current progress in a clear, less technical fashion. Without this level of communication, the public cannot hold others accountable for specifics. Furthermore, the field of planning often has a highly collaborative decision-making and implementation/delivery process, therefore responsibility becomes diffused. When mistakes are made, specific professionals are generally not held accountable (nor were they in the past), regardless of the level of private sector involvement.
A solution was offered in the way of the so-called “new approach.” As explained by Flint, “The new approach, so wonderfully theoretical and avante garde, incorporates understanding of complex and self-organizing systems.” Jane Jacobs’ contributions in this area were referenced. More information on her conception of urban complexity was provided in a previous article posted on May 23, 2015 titled The Promise of the City: Connecting the Built, Natural, and Unseen.
While many planners would agree with the author’s views as well with the purpose of the conference, the missing link is changing how we work. We may, on one hand, agree with all of this with passion while, on the other hand, go back to work and conduct business as usual. If we want to be more effective and change our approach, we need new methods and tools to be able to plan in such a way that 1) designs for flexibility, 2) joins top-down and bottom-up approaches, and 3) increases responsibility for decision-making. We need these tools and processes to have clear purposes, be relatively easy to use, and allow for an integrated process.