Make a lot of creative, small plans

Scott Page's picture
The surging housing market and development pressure in Philadelphia has resurrected what was once an all but dormant profession - planning. Meeting after meeting is being held with community leaders, politicians, developers and others to discuss the current lack of planning in the City in the wake of this widespread change. The concensus of each meeting is that the City needs a Master Plan. Further, there also appears to be a major call to finally empower the planning commission which has, for years, been cast aside as a step-child of City governance. This article in the Philadelphia Weekly is the most recent call to planning which comes with a fantastic Philadelphia as Tower of Babel cover graphic (below).

Now, this might seem odd coming from a planner / urban designer but I have my doubts about this. Don't get me wrong, I want to promote the value of proactive planning as much as the next indoctrinated professional, but the era of top-down planning is over. In its wake is a collage of community efforts as well as private initiative that are asserting themsleves forcefully onto our cities. There are certainly issues with this approach - where is the coordination? where are the big ideas that span across neighborhoods? when are neighborhoods, who are often led by people without design or planning experience, gaining too much power and negatively impacting the larger community?

The alternative as its espoused in local discussions is to create a comprehensive plan with a lot of flowery words about community participation. The reality is quite different. Many community residents do not trust city government and who can blame them after years of deterioration? Further, planning commissions often have their hands tied by politics where power over planning is often consumed by the Mayor and local Council.

Finally, and here is where we get to technology, communities are inherently more empowered than ever before. Where we planners were once a kind of data guru - collecting and distributing information that often could not be accessed by residents - we are now editors. Information on demographics, sales, and in some cases land use and other parcel based data, are now readily available. Further, the use of hand-held PCs and the like allow many residents to generate their own information (and of course the Google mash-ups among other on-line tools). Communities are now out in front of many issues and demand a level of participation and engagement not really possible by a City-wide plan.

I don't want to sound overly dour on the role of planning commissions as I do think there is a very valuable role for them. Its just not planning in the traditional, Ed Bacon way guided by room size city models. Many cite Chicago as a leader here and I agree but precisely because they make a lot of small plans. Thats right, the City that had Daniel Burnham, the originator of the phrase "make no small plans" has turned the other cheek. Their success is guided by strong policy and vision - largely through a strong Mayor - but also a framework through which a whole array of smaller plans are created and implemented. This is the exact point made by a member of Mayor Daley's office at a recent lecture in Philadelphia.

It would be great if Philadelphia created a master plan but only if its viewed more as a 'sketch' than a strict form of control. It should be designed, above all, to provide an over-arching vision and identify all of the ways that the City government can make grassroots efforts more effective. Tied to this last point is addressing the zoning code in a way that balances transparency with community input. These are no small tasks. The next year in the run up to the Mayoral election should be an interesting time for planning in the City.
Scott Page is the founder of Interface Studio, a collaborative design office based in Philadelphia.


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