When Planning Matters

Samuel Staley's picture
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Why plan? That's an important question for a planning skeptic like myself. I'm not at all convinced that conventional public urban planning has much value, despite (or because of?) spending eight years on a city planning commission. Yet, I don't consider myself an "antiplanner". I'm happy to leave that role to my friend and virtual colleague Randal O'Toole at the Cato Institute. (He even runs a blog called "The Antiplanner".)

Urban planning has a role even though, IMO, on balance, its application has had a negative impact on communities and cities. Notably, even the free market (and Nobel Prize winning) economist F.A. Hayek recognized a role for planning in his classic book on political economy The Constitution of Liberty.

The question is: what is planning's role and, perhaps more importantly, how has this role changed or shifted in modern times?

APA research director William Klein provides some food for thought in the November 2007 issue of Planning magazine. Klein's view is that planning matters because planners are "uniquely positioned" to be "key players in what I [Klein] call the five stages of intervention." (The term "intervention" is telling because it implies the need to correct or redirect, assuming the current direction is inappropriate. But that may be the subject of another blog post.)

The important point Klein seems to make, IMO, is that planning (and planners's) role is(are) primarily strategic, not administrative. In bullets, his "five points" of value for planning are in the following areas:

  • Visioning and goal setting;
  • Plan making;
  • Management tools;
  • Development review; and
  • Public investments;

While I don't have the space to analyze these five points in a great deal of depth, Klein's descriptions for each area rely a lot on activities that frame, influence, and guide activity (public and private) rather than dictate or prescribe it. I think this distinction is not just semantic, and, for the most part, I agree. Planning is most effective when it is focused on strategic areas with identifiable public interests; it's when planning strays from these areas that it tends to fall flat.

As long as the public sector is responsible for providing significant public services and allocating critical levels of resources within a community, public planning will continue to play an essential tool. But, this activity should be strategic rather than administrative, creating a framework in which other activities take place rather than dictating specific types of outcomes.

Clearly, some administration is required to implement plans and policies, but often the creation and administration of plans overshadows the strategic benefits of planning. In fact, I believe that one of the primary sources of conflict and resistance to planning comes from the prescriptive nature of plan implementation.

Planning (and planners) cannot create the demand for a product or service, but they can provide an environment in which existing or emergent demand can be met.

TOD ordinances are a case in point. I have yet to see an example where a TOD ordinance literally created the demand for high-density housing, office space and mixed uses. In virtually every case I've examined in any depth, including the Arlington (VA) Metro Stops, planning created a policy framework that allowed investors (usually private) to capitalize on existing or emergent demand in these areas. (Often, by clearing away the clutter of existing zoning and reducing the regulatory burden for this kind of development.) TOD ordinances enable, but they don't create.

In this context, comprehensive plans serve a useful purpose when they provide guidance and strategic direction; they fail when they are administratively implemented as long-term master plans. Master plans often play an important in new developments (particularly large ones) because they establish the essential "DNA" of a community; they strategically guide investment as part of a community's endowment of core infrastructure. But they don't (and can't) control how the community evolves; that's an organic human endeavor, not an administrative one.

I don't have the answers for making cities healthy, livable, and sustainable. Like most analysts, I'm a lot better at pointing out what doesn't work than providing a suitable replacement. (Although, I think I've made some significant progress on this end through my work on market-oriented alternatives to planning that can be found here and here.) Nevertheless, the more public planning focuses on the larger, strategic points of intervention, and the less on trying to achieve specific market outcomes, the more likely it can facilitate a healthy evolution of communities.

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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