Where Are the Star Planners?

Robert Goodspeed's picture

I recently discovered the Greek urban planner Constantinos Doxiadis (1913-1975) through a biographical sketch by Ray Bromley in a collection of essays. An energetic polymath, Doxiadis launched his career overseeing postwar reconstruction in Greece after WWII. Through involvement in the United Nations he developed an extensive international network of contacts concerned with urban development.

In 1951 he founded a consulting company in Athens, and by 1963 Doxiadis Associates had offices on five continents and projects in 40 countries. His firm's work ranged from designs for individual buildings to campus plans, large-scale studies of urban growth, and even plans for entirely new cities. Doxiadis also founded a technical institute in Athens, and published widely on the topic of the function and structure of human settlements, a field he termed "Ekistics." During his life he became something of an international celebrity, bringing together intellectuals and political leaders for annual conferences in urban issues in Greece.

His fame has faded since his death of Lou Gehrig's disease in 1975, and Bromley rightfully critiques the realism and impact of some of his plans and theories. His most famous idea is perhaps the ecumenopolis - the theory that cities would fuse to become one single worldwide city at some point in the far future.

Despite his flaws, one cannot help but be struck by the comprehensiveness of his vision and his success in stimulating interest in urban development. While the field of architecture can name dozens of starchitects, one is hard-pressed to name a contemporary well-known planner -- particularly with a global orientation. In today's 'planet of slums' (to use Mike Davis' term) where we face severe poverty, pollution, and resource management crises, we need big thinkers as much as ever. If we hope to achieve sustainability, we must be able to envision the solutions not simply as theories but cities and regions livable for all.

Robert Goodspeed is a PhD student at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.



We fall back on the same two models: Moses and Jacobs

The idea of a star planner is problematic. What would make them a star? Producing great plans, or getting them implemented? Who would they be a star to? Who would their stardom serve? As a current student it seems like planning history, and planning theory represent an education in an ongoing struggle between ambition and hubris on one side and humanism and paralysis on another.

All these questions raise the inherent contradictory traditions of planning: architecture and social science. Does planning beautify the built environment or serve and protect the human community? And who in the local area/region/state/society can claim to define and circumscribe those terms. If planning is meant to make either of them "better" who gets to define better and worse.

Maybe we're better off without the stars, they seem to have caused too much trouble for us in the past...

Robert Goodspeed's picture

The Uses of Fame

You raise some interesting points. However, to use your dichotomy, it seems to me we are too close to paralysis in many areas.

Stars can generate interest in the field, challenge practitioners' conventional wisdom, communicate to a broader audience, and most importantly rally political support for planning and public infrastructure.

Star Planners vs. Household Names

It is important to distinguish between Star Planners and folks who are household names that are planners. If you are looking for planners who can generate interest in the field, challenge practitioners' conventional wisdom, communicate to a broader audience and rally political support, then look to the dedicated planners who are working behind the scenes. Glory is not something that we planners are good at - and heaven forbid a plan go out to the community with an individual planner's name on it! I've had the honor to work with many planners in different parts of the country who fulfill the above requirements (local heroes, yet not a national household name). I would take any of these awesome local planners doing a great job than a *star* for the industry any day.

The screaming void

I remember meeting Ian McHarg in grad school. Wow--I didn't actually agree with alot of what he talked about, but he had ideas, and he communicated.

Forget the stars. The "planning profession" has a screaming void in leadership. What is our vision? What are our New Ideas? Who is our Advocate?

Who is standing on the mountaintop, leading us to create really cool places to live???

...then again, if not us, then who else...

Are planners wasting time?

It seems that all of the genuinely 'cool' urban places on this planet were established and matured before planners or planning. Maybe, just maybe, we are all wasting time and money. New urbanism communities look and feel phony, historic preservation only delays the inevitable, and zoning is a hopeless tool.

Planners' time.

It seems that all of the genuinely 'cool' urban places on this planet were established and matured before planners or planning. Maybe, just maybe, we are all wasting time and money. New urbanism communities look and feel phony...




Robert Goodspeed's picture

great places do take time ...

... and a host of deliberate decisions by government officials, business people, and citizens, about what to build and how to manage urban spaces. Sounds a lot like planning to me ...


I don't know. There are so many plans, but fewer opportunities for the big kinds of master plans that Victor Gruen did, or Ian McHarg etc. Although the big firms like Wallace Roberts and Todd (which used to include Ian McHarg) and others still do big projects, or at least master plans.

Atlantic Yards is a big plan. The Jets Stadium proposal was a big plan.

A problem is that by its very nature, the planning profession is constrained. If you believe in the structure of "societal guidance" and so forth laid out by John Friedmann in _Planning in the Public Domain_, government is focused primarily on system maintenance and somewhat on change, and not on transformation.

Planning processes are managed and contracted by government. That includes public participation processes, which are significantly constrained by the scopes of work created by the contracting agencies.

Creativity and wow thinking... does it come out of the planning office?

Besides, in a city like DC, I joke that we have an Office of Land Use, not an Office of Planning, since so many other government agencies including Transportation, Schools, Libraries, Parks and Recreation, Fire & Emergency Services, in theory (they don't do it) Health and wellness planning, are done for the most part independently of the Office of Planning. (Actually, transportation planning and the land use planning people work closely together, but the Zoning Commission does not work closely with the planning unit of transportation, although it does with the OP.)

Upon graduation with a new degree in planning, I'd rather get a job with a consulting firm I think. It would have to have more breadth and cover more interesting stuff than the typical government planning job.

From dictator to busybody?

The trouble is that Big Ideas and New Towns went out of style. Partly it was that the post- World War II planners fed off socialism, social engineering and big government activism.

But when the concept of State planning was found to be a failure, planners then hung on to small-time community/municipal ‘democratic’ activism. There is certainly no place for ‘star planners’ when planning is policy-making about land-use and regulating it.

Even when justified by ideas about the common good of the community, planning in this sense is ultimately about trying to control other people’s actions and limiting their choices; good or bad, planning here means bureaucratic supervision over what individuals or businessmen can or cannot do.

But Ebenezer Howard realized his ‘Garden Cities of the Future’ without recourse to a tax-and-spend government; he was able to attract private funding. The developers of his new towns did not forcibly relocate land owners or squatters. The people and businesses that relocated to the early new towns paid good money to do so. Planners like Unwin and Parker created new choices and range of opportunities – they were not busy-body planners trying to forcibly mould people or existing neighbourhoods to their ideal of the common good. If anything they were enemies of the bureaucracy of their day.

I like to see more of this type of ‘star planner’

The Star Planners

When Andres Duany dominated the discussion of post-Katrina planning, and when Peter Calthorpe was pulled in to do the regional planning, didn't they establish themselves as two star planners - if they weren't stars already?

Hasn't Calthorpe advanced a comprehensive vision of the regional city?

Charles Siegel

The Star Planners

I think it's fair to say that Peter Calthorpe is already established as a star planner.

Also add William H. Whyte, Jane Jacobs, Allan Jacobs, Frederick G. Todd and Larry Beasley to the list.

Depending on how you count Frederick Law Olmsted (his prowess in landscape architecture ought to qualify him as a proficient parks planner), I would also consider him a star planner.

And James H. Kunstler, too, for planning studies - his books are spot-on.

But sadly, half these stars are no longer with us.
So who else (that's living) is a star planner?

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."

He may not be contemporary but any discussion of star planners has to include Daniel Burnham.

I'm on the fence when it comes to Goodspeed's piece. Do we need stars in our profession? Our profession could probably use a star or leader like Burnham that stirs up the pot and changes public's perception of places. Then again we could have Starchitects like Daniel Libeskind design places like he designs buildings. Yikes!!!

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