Beyond the Priesthood

In 1995, author and planning authority Peter Katz wrote an article scolding planners for being "planners who talk" rather than "planners who draw". The original article generated much controversy, and appears here with a postscript added by Katz that reveals a glimmer of hope for the planning profession in the U.S.

"We found it impossible to do good buildings in the suburbs. No matter how hard we tried, we were constantly defeated by the uncoordinated surroundings of parking lots and arterials. Ultimately we came to realize it wasn't an architectural problem we could address within our site, but rather a planning problem that had to be resolved at the scale of the entire community."

That's how Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk described the realization that led her and husband Andres Duany to the practice of planning in the late 1970s. Since then ― together with architects Peter Calthorpe, Victor Dover, Joseph Kohl, Elizabeth Moule, Stefanos Polyzoides, Mark Schimmenti, Daniel Solomon, and others ― they've forged a new approach to the making of communities. First called neotraditional planning, the approach has since come to be known as the New Urbanism.

Hands drawing plans.

Importantly, the 15 contributors to the book The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community, which I completed in 1994, are all architects. At the time I didn't find that odd. It seemed logical that designers of the human habitat should be equally comfortable at the scale of a kitchen sink or an entire metropolitan watershed.

Since then I've come to realize how heretical the notion of physical planning by architects is to those who've come up through the complex world of professional planning-a world of policy, statistics, law, and social programs. The New Urbanists refer to themselves as 'planners who draw." They call the others "planners who talk." The differences in product and process are stunning.

The bigger question that fascinates me is this: How did we stray so far from the physical planning concepts that served professionals so well in the early part of the last century? What led us to think that we could define our communities primarily through words and numbers and let their physical form be determined primarily by policy-makers, regulators and developers? If one looks at the places we've planned over the past 70 years, the answer becomes self-evident.

My conclusion is that since about 1938 planners haven't been in the business of planning; they've been reacting. They've been processing permits, holding meetings, and trying as best they can to respond to the proposals of developers on the one hand and the protests of citizens on the other. In such an adversarial environment, it's not surprising that planners would hesitate to be proactive. When bullets are flying, conventional wisdom suggests that one should lie low. But I'm not convinced that's a viable strategy these days because the conflicts aren't going away. If anything, they're growing worse with each passing year. In his book Community and the Politics of Place, former Missoula, Montana, Mayor Dan Kemmis writes about "the procedural republic," a method of government that has replaced the sort of face-to-face citizen interaction we associate with an earlier model of American democracy: the New England town meeting.

In my view most conventional planners seem to be the product of, and servant to, the procedural republic. Carefully mediating between the conflicting rights of various individuals and groups, they persevere through an endless hell of public hearings-a forum where Mayor Kemmis notes there is precious little real "hearing" going on.

The alternative, and the source of my optimism for the future, is the New Urbanism with its use of participatory planning techniques that deliver tangible physical plans. When neighbors see and discuss what's being proposed in visual rather than statistical or policy terms, they're often able to transcend their usual NIMBY concerns. Visionary planning efforts from Palo Alto to Providence are achieving success by engaging citizens in this way. One caveat though: Although the term "participatory" is frequently uttered by planners, I find it often consists only of multiple meetings and requests for "input," with little credence ever given to the actual suggestions of citizens that might bubble up from the process.

My sense is that much of the planning profession still regards itself as a kind of "priesthood" with its processes and documents closed to all but a select few in its inner circle and shielded by layers of complex data that grow thicker with each new wetlands ruling. The New Urbanists question this approach and are trying another way.

Photo: Peter Katz

I wrote the above article for APA Northern California's monthly newsletter Northern News in 1995. It was reprinted in the same publication March of this year. In preparation for the publication here in Planetizen, I've written a postscript:

Many exciting changes are under way in the world of planning. To me, the biggest and most encouraging change is the transition of New Urbanism and its close cousin, Smart Growth, into the mainstream. Indeed, in more progressive communities, such terms have become synonymous with "good planning."

In the mid 1990s, New Urbanism was primarily a topic for debate. I remember packed rooms at various local and national planning functions when architects Peter Calthorpe or Andres Duany took the stage to debate more-established figures in the world of planning, architecture, or real estate development. Today those confrontational early days have given way to more pragmatic "How do we do this?" discussions related to implementation. Seminars on form-based coding and the charrette process fill classrooms and hotel meeting rooms around the nation.

Practitioners who master these techniques are discovering that decades-old planning logjams can be easily unstuck by incorporating these methods. But far more than implementation is changing: Plans are moving forward, in large part, because citizens are more comfortable with New Urbanism's fine-grained mix of uses and housing types, and a scale of development that's geared more toward pedestrians than to the automobile.

Indeed, my sense is that citizens are actually quite a lot smarter than the priesthood has been giving them credit for all these years. My colleague Ron Thomas, a professor of planning in Georgia, and an early pioneer in the art of facilitating community visioning processes, expresses a more positive view; he says: "Give citizens good choices and they'll make good decisions."

But probably the biggest change that New Urbanism has brought to the profession is that some planners are now seeing themselves less as regulators and more as change agents, helping stakeholders to achieve a better outcome than what the status quo customarily delivers -planning as usual. Our greatest need now is for information, resources and leadership to support planners in their new role.

I'm heartened to see, locally and in my travels throughout the US, this emerging breed of professionals begin to question and frequently discard the notion of "planning as usual." Instead they are challenging themselves, fellow staff members and their consultants to achieve a more visionary, yet no less pragmatic, approach to the making of great places.

Peter Katz is the author of The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community, McGraw-Hill, 1994, ISBN: 0070338892. He was the founding executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism and the founding President of the Form-Based Codes Institute.

In 2009 Katz assumed the position of director of Smart Growth / Urban Planning for Sarasota County, Florida.



Make it happen

In the 1980s I visited the University of Iowa to look at their Master's program in planning. They proudly showed off their room full of empty drafting tables, saying that planning was no longer about drawing but about process. At that time I think planners had gotten frustrated with drawing plans for things that never got realized because there was no way to make them happen. I'm encouraged that your way of bringing ideas and people together can actually achieve good results.

Peter Katz and many, though

Peter Katz and many, though not all, of the New Urbanist mandarins, have edged away from their rhetoric demonizing city planners. This is progress. As many New Urbanists have come down from the temples, albeit with CodeBooks firmly in hand, they've had to grapple with the complexity of real world planning and interests in the United States. In the past, New Urbanists thought that city planners' job was just to take their vision and make it so, whether the citizenry had any desire for it or not. This process came to its apotheosis when New Urbanists drafted a Dead On Arrival lofty design plan for New Orleans that didn't bother to say where its citizens should live (on a practical level, some New Urbanists developed more indigenous prototypes than FEMA trailers for housing that could be built relatively quickly in New Orleans.

New Urbanists certainly have a lot to crow about in developments of the last 10 years. Everybody is co-opting their rhetoric, a sure sign of success. But Peter Katz' book was entitled "the architecture of community" which is exactly what New Urbanism has not produced. It has produced good housing--attractive, urban, transit-oriented housing (though it might be nice if New Urbanists recognized that not all transit in America is going to run on tracks). And it has produced them for a small sliver of the population--generally young, affluent, childless adults. New Urbanists actively cheered on the demolition and non-replacement of public housing in the urban program with perhaps the most Orwellian name in recent history--HOPE VI.

But there's a lot of territory between public housing and million dollar condos, and with few exceptions, New Urbanism hasn't been able to fill it. In many ways, architects, for all their pretensions, are even less in control of their fates than planners are. So it's wrong to solely blame New Urbanists for this state of affairs. What they can be blamed for, again with some shining exceptions, is not recognizing that it's a problem.

Planning is, in fact, largely about process. It's a pain in the ass, things would move so much faster if I could just demand what I want and make it so. Planning is about the incredibly difficult process--seemingly getting harder by the minute--of building a community consensus on physical and social change. We'll see how Katz' views evolve further as he has to tackle myriad problems in a big Florida county.

Let me shift from the procedural to the substantive. The U.S. "solved" what Rosalynn Baxandall cites as a core problem--how should we house the working class. It "solved" it with sprawl and minimal but rising housing standards after World War II. Europe and Asia generally solved the problem with more collective housing forms. But the previous American solution was shacks and tenements, letting lousy housing trickle down to the poor.

That "solution" is of course no longer viable for many reasons, if it ever was. But again, the question is whether New Urbanists recognize it as a problem. It's not going to be easy to do, but planners and architects need to recognize the centrality of the task

I don't want to be excessively harsh on New Urbanism, there is a value in buildings that are examples, even if they are for the elite. Architectural fashion tends to trickle down, so it's overall a good thing that developers are at least trying to build urban housing. Even the myriad examples of greenwashing (and here the New Urbanists are probably less guilty than others) are a backhanded tribute to new urbanist ideals--hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

I also think that the new downtown neighborhoods are, on balance, good things. Here in Oakland, California, there are an awful lot of unsold condos sitting around. But the addition of thousands of new residents was achieved with significantly less displacement than critics initially feared. The most inspiring example, to me, is the transformation of downtown Los Angeles. Eventually most of those empty condos will provide good housing for someone, even if it's a much less elite crowd than they'd hoped. Unfortunately, housing progress in the U.S. is often achieved through wrenching booms and busts (such a bust was why African-Americans were allowed to move into Harlem, in housing that was definitely not builtfor them).

New urbanism as cult--bad. New urbanism as "Only we have the way, get out of the way"--bad. New urbanism as the new City Beautiful--some bad, more pointless. New urbanism as a critique and vision--largely good. New urbanism when it engages with real urban life--definitely good (and at least here in the Bay Area there's good, solid, community-grounded new urbanist work). New urbanism is not, the only reason urban discourse has improved a lot in the last 10 years. But it is a reason. And Peter, don't worry. You're going to spending plenty of your time looking at drawings and other visual materials.

Priest Class


Actually, planners are the antithesis of a priest class, which is an exclusive, closed group, such as architects or engineers or attnys. Planners are open and inclusive. They are all that a priest class is not. They are facilitators of others: of creators, of drawers, of deciders, of other talkers, of builders. Someone has to be the cat-herders around here.

planners and architects

In spite of Peter's sometimes "over the top cheerleading" for the the New Urbanists, the movement deserves all the credit he suggests for re-transforming how architects, developers and planners approach the design of communities.

And the most wonderful change over the last 15 years has been the tranformation of the new urbanists to the realization that "planning" is more complex than architectural codes and drawings, and the equally astounding change in planners to realize that talk and policies needed to be made "architectural" to be understandable and implementable.

His reference to 1938 unfortunately obscures the major contributions of those urban designers (architect/planners) of the 1960's and 70's such as David Wallace of WRT, Paul Davidoff , Ian McHarg, and especially Gordon Cullen, the quintessential drawing master and planner of British New Town fame. They did keep the flame alive during the years prior to the early 1980's and Seaside. See "The Evolution of American Urban Design " and "Gordon Cullen, Visions of Urban Design" both by David Gosling.

The future does look brighter.

Good piece, Peter!

I always appreciate your insight. Coming from outside the profession gives you a different and very valid perspective. Planning should, but does not, encompass a broad range of practice.

Process is important, but not an end unto itself. And the process often is bogged down in positional arguments. CEQA is a good example. Drawing communicates better than words and is a virtually unknown tool. Planners--land planners--know practically nothing at all about transportation, a fatal flaw. And "environment," broadly drawn, allows us to consider the effects of the proposed action on the community.

I think planning school is a major part of the problem, as its vocational emphasis narrows the mind, rather than broadening it. As a geographer, my education has provided me breadth and a good eye for observation and analysis, but I lack drawing skills. (You should see my maps, though!)

Planners vs. Architect

Peter Katz ends his postscript with the following statement:

"Our greatest need now is for information, resources and leadership to support planners in their new role."

Particularly given the earlier statement:

"I've come to realize how heretical the notion of physical planning by architects is to those who've come up through the complex world of professional planning—a world of policy, statistics, law, and social programs."

it sounds like he has come almost full circle. As pointed out by others, there were plenty of drawings, architects, and physical plans, even in the 1960's and 1970's, the so-called low point of American urbanism.

While it is true that urban design ideas have evolved in no small part thanks to New Urbanism during the past three decades, this is only one part of the planning puzzle and urban design will ever evolve in democratic societies that are networked. Here the shape of the land will be driven by more process, law, statistics, new ideas and technologies and trying to craft a nexus between the physical world as we experience it and the environment - in the most holistic sense - that we wish it to be.

Architects are an important part of the equation for solutions, but only part of the equation. And there is plenty of room for all, from the citizen to the professional planner.

Finally, I think it is precisely the "hell" of process that has arrested the progress of both architects and planners in many cases, and all of us who plan for others should be mindful that democratic input does not and should not always lead to the implementation of planning designs - even when they are done by well-intentioned New Urbanists.

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
Book cover of Insider's Guide to Careers in Urban Planning

So you want to be a planner...

Check out our behind the scenes look at 25 careers in the Urban Planning field
Starting at $14.95

Create Your Own Paper Block City

Urban Fold is an all-inclusive kit that allows anyone to build the city of their dreams with a few simple folds.