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.
Life is one series of decisions after another. We make decisions for ourselves, with our families, and even on behalf of large groups of people we do not personally know, as many professions require. Decision-making authority on behalf of others is an incredible responsibility, and many professionals are tasked with such decisions each day. What is their process for understanding the scope of the decision and informing themselves with the relevant information? What will be the results of the decision, how will the results be measured, and how will the course be altered as both positive and negative results are demonstrated?
For those of us working to improve cities in the short and long term, the key to decision making is acknowledging the continually changing nature of the city. Day to day, the challenges are changing. The people are changing, moving in and moving out, remaining in place but growing within themselves personally, and that makes establishing what will work best for them a changeable element as well. Given change as an immutable fact, we act while taking into account the following: 1) comprehensiveness, 2) relevant information, and 3) collaboration.
Comprehensiveness can be thought of and understood many different ways. Some resonate with the ideas behind complexity and complexity science, while others think of systems engineering or even the concept of synergy. A more colloquial way to think about it is in silos. Regardless of the degree of specialty within a profession or the narrowly stated scope of work, certain situations call for a look within, around, and between institutional, subject matter, and intellectual silos for sound decision-making. For cities, this is critical, due to their nature as a system of systems. “Synergy means behavior of integral, aggregate, whole systems unpredicted by behaviors of any of their components or subassemblies of their components taken separately from the whole” (R. Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, 1975).
“Lack of knowledge concerning all the factors and the failure to include them in our integral imposes false conclusions” (R. Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, 1975). When a comprehensive approach occurs, honing in on relevant information becomes the key task at hand. In this age of information, that has become even more of a challenge. One must be laser focused on the issues of primary, secondary, and tertiary importance, but how can these be established? For cities, information breaks down into two large categories: 1) technical knowledge and 2) human-centered knowledge. The former connects a variety of subject matter areas and expertise. The latter includes understanding what the residents being served struggle with day to day. One type of knowledge can never compensate for the lack of the other, and both are of equal importance. In terms of data connectivity, they must come together to influence decisions.
The more comprehensive an approach, and the more relevant information is required, the more true collaboration comes into play. Collaboration can be obvious or subtle, forced or voluntary – even physical or virtual. Take transportation issues for example. Obvious collaborators would be traffic engineers, public transit planners, and the like. Less obvious collaborators could be senior citizen centers, public school leadership, or housing real estate developers. Of course, when one thinks of transportation as enabling the entire population to make trips for a variety of purposes, these collaborators are as obvious as the engineers. After all, the leadership at a senior citizen center or a public school would be the experts in where the people live and how they are getting to their critical facility. The knowledge they have might not be technical, but it is human-centered. Likewise, some of the more obvious collaborators are informally/formally forced to cooperate by coming together to discuss funding, engineering, and schedule details, for example. Sometimes the richest collaboration is between those for which there is no mandate. These groups come together because of shared interests and mutual stakes in the outcomes. They work to build trust over time and make concessions for the larger picture when necessary. By having honest, and sometimes difficult, conversations, they realize few factors are black and white, and they find a way to meet in the middle on one initiative after another.
Cast of characters
Decision-making for cities involves a long cast of characters in the USA. The public, as the reason for the city, is the central focus. From this center, there are organized communities of various types, advocacy groups, and the elected officials tasked with representing the public. All of these groups represent the public in one way or another. While elected officials are one part of government, there is a great deal of technical staff to assist with decision-making. This is reflected in city-level, metro area-level/regional, state-level, and federal staff representing a host of concerns for the natural environment, built environment, social services, etc. Some examples include Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Association, the Federal Transit Administration, and Department of Health and Human Services. Not for profits/nonprofits/philanthropies provide a wealth of critical needs, as do the business community and private sector. Understanding the individual stakes of various people/groups while combining their interests with technical needs and preparation of cities for the long term is no simple task, as likely anyone who takes part in public meetings on urban planning topics can attest.
Tactics, Measurement, and Adjustments
After the key problems of a given city/metro area have been understood comprehensively, responsibilities between various groups for implementing tactics break down to achieve the needed results (specific solutions to problems). The tactics vary widely, but in general they include policy, law, projects, programs, and services. Some elected officials, for example, may be responsible for enacting laws and policies, but they may also have decision-making authority for funding related to projects, programs, and services. Those responsible for implementing policy, law, projects, programs, and services each have different ways that performance is measured in accordance with anticipated results.
While technical staff plays a critical role, they are generally not the ones held directly accountable for decisions in the urban environment. Oftentimes, the elected officials are the ones who have the most directly accountable relationship with the public. Therefore, it is critical they have the tools and means to understand how complex issues are connected as related to their constituencies.
The changeable nature of cities means the need to change course is a fact, not a possibility. When precise indicators are monitored to understand if results are met, both good and bad news will be delivered. When trying our best to understand a multitude of factors, we speculate, we guesstimate, and we make the best technical response we know. However, no one has absolutely perfect, infallible information about the situation and the people affected. For that reason, from the moment implementation begins, measurement begins. Decision makers must be prepared to adjust the implementation in the short and long term as new information comes in. Structures should allow for pivoting and making incremental adjustments – the popularity of seed funding and pilot projects indicates our quest to put a toe in the water first.
Interestingly, even though decision makers and technical staff are all serving the same function, improving life in the short and long term for people, they often don’t strategize, collaborate, and act as the system they are. Policy, law, projects, programs, and services for the public often have entirely separate processes for consideration and implementation. And yet, they are often tactics working towards the same goals, for the same people, and paid for with the same taxpayer funding.
Power, Incentives, and Accountability
As Buckminster Fuller stated, “Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it” (R. Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1963). Looking at all these players as a system with a variety of power types and levels, personal and professional incentives, and accountability levels can help clarify a more ideal situation for relationships. Technology-enabled solutions can play a significant role in designing and building cities with 1) comprehensiveness, 2) relevant information, and 3) collaboration.
“There’s a built-in resistance to letting humanity be a success. Each one claims that their system is the best one for coping with inadequacy. We have to make them all obsolete. We need to find within technology that there is something we can do which is capable of taking care of everybody, and to demonstrate that this is so” (R. Buckminster Fuller, Norie Huddle interview, 1981).