I Used to Believe Planning was R&D for City-Building


Frequent readers here may have seen me write about my experience growing up in 1970s Detroit. I’ve often said that seeking ways to improve the city and not abandon it, is what propelled me into a career in urban planning. I wanted to be a change agent for cities. Today, more than thirty years into my career, I’m proud of the stature cities have gained over that time; I’m proud of my contribution to it. However, I feel as if cities have risen in prominence in spite of the efforts of planners, not because of them.

When I finished grad school in 1990, there were two things I generally believed about urban planning and its role in saving cities. First, I believed that urban planning was the primary professional vehicle for creating change in cities, at least the change I was looking for. Planners were thoughtful, introspective advisers to elected officials who devised policies to make cities better places. Planners were the ones who knew the inner workings of cities and sought to maximize their unique strengths to make them stronger and more equitable places.

Second, I believed that the practice of true urban planning policy innovation and development happened in the private sector. I believed there was a symbiotic relationship between the private and public sector by which private planning consultants would independently develop ideas, and later get hired by local governments to implement the ideas as new urban planning policies. I viewed public sector planners as limited in their ability to push innovative policies forward because planners had a broad time horizon to consider (comprehensive plans look 20-25 years into the future!). Elected officials and the voting public have much shorter time horizons – the election cycle or just day-to-day living – and couldn’t always be concerned with broader, expansive policies that didn’t promise immediate impacts.

I crafted my career plan with those principles in mind. I would start my career in local government so I could learn the ins and outs of planning policymaking (I started at the City of Chicago). I’d eventually transition into the private sector and pursue a “best practices” approach to what I’d learned at the local level (I stopped at a handful of private consulting firms, most prominently Camiros, Ltd.). Then I’d ultimately start my own consulting practice and promote my own brand of effective planning policymaking. In other words, I viewed urban planning as the research and development arm of city-building.

Is that a valid view of the role of urban planning today? If not, should it be? Or has urban planning simply become the public interface of private actors in city-building?

A look at recent trends in urbanism might give us some clues.

Read the rest of this piece at Corner Side Yard Blog.

Pete Saunders is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urbanism and public policy. Pete has been the editor/publisher of the Corner Side Yard, an urbanist blog, since 2012. Pete is also an urban affairs contributor to Forbes Magazine's online platform. Pete's writings have been published widely in traditional and internet media outlets, including the feature article in the December 2018 issue of Planning Magazine. Pete has more than twenty years' experience in planning, economic development, and community development, with stops in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He lives in Chicago.

Photo: A scene from the game Cities: VR. Source: vrscout.com