Pointing the Finger at Planners

In allowing places to be designed for cars before people, city planners are primarily to blame for creating an "autocentric" America, according to this article.

"For the past six decades, [city planners have] swallowed the premise of the asphalt nation whole.

It's city planners who've long uncritically accepted the notion that cars should be the focus of our urban design, turning the built environment into one big playground for motor vehicles. It's city planners who've allowed draconian parking requirements, rather than intelligent land use, to determine what gets built - a policy that literally puts humans second to their cars.

But don't take my word for it. In his book 'The High Cost of Free Parking,' UCLA urban planning Professor Donald Shoup flatly states:

"'Parking requirements create great harm: They subsidize cars, distort transportation choices, warp urban form, increase housing costs, burden low-income households, debase urban design, damage the economy, and degrade the environment.'"

Full Story: U.S. urban planning priorities out of whack




As much as I think that many of the planning restrictions imposed on society are just plain morally wrong and counterproductive, I would definitely not point the finger at planners. Most planners are just operating within the rules imposed by the governing body of whatever jurisdiction they happen to be working in... the fault lies with the elected officials and special interests that foisted the structures in place on everyone (if one really had to point a finger at all as I doubt there's a grand conspiracy behind "autocentric" America).

Michael Lewyn's picture

but sometimes right

Certainly the elected officials and special interests are partially to blame. But having said that, many pro-sprawl regulations are so obscure that elected officials probably don't know very much about them (or at least don't know much about the details) except when there is a controversy.

Until I started teaching at law schools and actually researched this stuff, I didn't know that there was such a thing as minimum parking regulations. Given that many elected officials have lots of issues to juggle, I doubt that a typical city councilperson knows more than I did.

And even when elected officials are vaguely aware that concepts such as setback rules, parking regulations, etc. exist, planners are responsible for the details (e.g. how much parking to require).

Planning doesn't happen in box

While some blame can be placed on planners for encouraging the "asphalt nation" it is completely off-base to place the entire blame on them. It is not as if planners are behind closed doors cackling an evil laugh and conspiring to devise planning methods to encourage fat, unhappy, gas guzzling americans (although it may be easy to blame planners as they are the individuals that utlimately take the responsiblity for soceity's ideas on how communities should be laid out).

I would generalize that planners are typically well intentioned and interested in planning communities that respond to thier citizens needs and wants while not becoming cross ways with the local political will. Furthermore planners are making decisions based on regulations devised from comprehensive plans that were compiled by focus groups comprised of citizens interested in planning in general or interested in ensuring thier particular interest is represented, be that industrial, commercial, resource management etc. So it is not as if zoning regulations just appear out of thin air and have nothing to do with the community in which they are meant to regulate, as this article may allude to.

It is my contention that community development happens on a linear time contiuum, and it is not that helpful to compare American cities to European ones for several reasons. First it is like comparing the sophistication of a middle schooler to a middle age individual about to retire. Of course the middle schooler will be not be as advanced as the "soon to be retiree", simply because of age.

European cities have been around for centuries, their layout has played out over centuries of hamlets, fiefdoms, towns, cities, metropolis's, wars, famine, foot traffic, trains, planes, financial systems,monarchies, democracies etc. The societal changes during the lifetime's of those cities has been immense and each change has left a different mark on the city and how it is laid out.

In comparison to most American cities which have only been around for several hundred years, they haven't the opportunity to undergo the immense changes that have molded European cities.

Second, Europe did not have a formal land planning agency in the early stages of development like many American cities. American planning seems partially based on the idea that haphazard development is not appropriate for a democracy, which leads to..

Third, private property and its bundle of rights is a completely American notion that seperated the US from Europe and is guranteed by American law and continues to shape Americans ideas on planning.

Fourth, American lifestyles are different and have differing objectives that thier European counterparts.

I could continue to go on, but I won't... I'll wrap it up by concluding that American cities are relatively young, as is the planning profession in comparision to many of the world's cities, of course there will be mistakes, and most of those mistakes can be blamed on society as a whole rather than one group of individuals that is burdened with the job of representing what appears to be best for society at the time. Vehicles are a relatively new phenomena over the course of human history and thier developments, of course it is going to take awhile to get the kinks worked out. But who do you think is working to get those kinks worked out?

Assumes that planners actually have power

This article assumes that planners actually have enough power to make the final say in matters such as parking, densities, setbacks. It does not take into account elected officials, as already mentioned, nor:
- Business and financial interests, who desire a standardized product and a quick, predictable profit
- The "people" in their roles as consumers expressing preferences with their $$$ (hence influencing the above) and in their roles as voters and advocates (hence influencing the further above)

Of the four parties identified, planners have by far the least power and influence.

In the unnamed municipality I work for, planners have been making herculean efforts to lower parking requirements over a tidal wave of grassroots opposition claiming to "protect the neighborhood" (from... walkability, affordable housing, and less traffic, I guess). So contrary to Michael Lewyn, yes, many people and elected officials DO know what the parking requirements are and will fight tooth and nail any attempt to change them. Now, I am fully aware that planners share some of the blame for sprawl, but let's spread the blame to everyone else who deserves it.

If Only Planners Had Such Power

With all due respect, Arrol Gellner is way off base in his article (I read the whole piece). If only planners had such power.... But as so many others have pointed out here, we don't. The decisions are made by folks who are not trained in planning... your elected officials. Blame them. Planners can only offer proposals and guidance, but the decisions rest in the hands of our elected officials, largely at the municipal level. If only there were some mechanism to support those planners who are willing to really go out on a limb for the sort of planning Gellner suggests would be better.

We could have had such a mechanism from APA/AICP to provide some support to planners who stick their necks out and forcefully advocate for the sound, ethical planning principles that author Gellner supports. But when I tried to establish genuine planners support during my last term as AICP President, the APA President did all she could to stymie and sabotage the effort, as did many members of the APA Board of Directors. Despite funding being allocated, they managed to rip out the guts of the proposed effort and delay approving it so long that my term was over before it could be implemented.

Frustratingly, now that the planning equivalent of the McCain-Bush folk have total control of APA/AICP for the foreseeable future (in large part due to changing election rules and bylaws to favor the self-perpetuation of the oligarchy, as Frank Popper puts it), it doesn't look like we'll see anything from our professional organizations that would help planners engage in the sound, ethical planning that author Gellner would like to see.

Daniel Lauber, AICP
AICP President 2003-2005, 1992-1994
APA President 1985-1986

Parking Standards ?

We obviously cannot pave our way to better cities either for parkinfg or for access and circulation

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