Mr. Schramm is Right; Mr. Schramm is Wrong

Norman Wright's picture
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All economics and no philosophy can make a planner a dull boy. In that sense, Carl Schramm’s recent article in Forbes magazine [link] is absolutely right—but only to a degree. I’ll do my best to explain why.

#1 Reason Carl Schramm is Right: Calling out fads.

Don’t you love it when someone thinks like you? Mr. Schramm rightly sees that a lot of plans chase ideas that are quite faddish. The idea of the “creative class” is interesting but overemphasized in current plans (overemphasis is the indicator of a fad); the same goes for local food and arts districts. Why do we invest enormous amounts of our precious resources (i.e., our attention) into these things? The cold (economic) answer is the zeitgeist. It has less to do with value and more to do with popularity.

Here’s a wager: ten years from now, we will see at least ten city plans with a strategy to address whatever issue comes from the most recent, most popular documentary.

#2 Reason Carl Schramm is Right: Showing how fads muddle our priorities.

But let’s offer some nuance: just because something is being treated as a fad doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Local food is important; the arts are crucial; the creative class is a substantial force for economic growth. Are any of these things a higher priority than poverty?  No. These things aren’t as helpful as good, affordable transportation. Mr. Schramm points this out and he’s right. We must keep our priorities straight otherwise we end up with pseudo-improvements.

Case in point, I’ve seen a lot of nice farmer’s markets with no sidewalks for people to easily, cheaply access them.

#3 Reason Carl Schramm is Right: Critically reviewing our plans

Our profession has a serious flaw. We have no reliable source for the candid, consistent critique of our plans. We award great plans but we don’t scold bad ones. Why is that? It’s because we planners don’t have a consistent logic for what makes a great plan (and conversely, a bad one). Carl Schramm does. As an economist, he views plans through the lens of a classic school of thought. We, the planners, don’t have a classic school of thought. Carl Schramm shows why we need it.

Or maybe we don’t. Because with all that said …

The One Reason Why Carl Schramm is Wrong: the Hammer and Nail

Mr. Schramm writes: “Remember, architects do a lot of city planning. To a man with a hammer ever problem is a nail.”

Oh sweet irony! This good, brave gentleman falls for the same trap! Later, Mr. Schramm emphasizes the need for us planners to examine poverty, unemployment, and the greater local economy. He calls for us to “… see cities first as the economic communities they were at their beginning.”

To an economist, every city is an economic community. A nail to their proverbial hammer.

Does anyone else find this fascinating? A brilliant economist says that we should not think like architects but, instead, we should think like … brilliant economists.

The truth is that we planners should think like both and mix in a few other schools of thought (namely, psychology and philosophy). It’s all part of A GRAND DESIGN that I’m slowly developing. I call it The New Normanism. You can buy the t-shirts, coffee mugs, and franchise rights at my website, hasty-idealogues.com

Joking aside, Carl Schramm is much more right than he is wrong. In fact, he’s not really wrong so much as he’s tilting a wee bit into the “less right” category. We absolutely must embrace the more rational, economic thinking of his wonderful, beautiful profession. We need to weigh trade-offs, measure cost as well as benefit, and apply so many other models of economic thought.

And here’s some good news: we are! This sort of thinking is part of what wonderful people like Charles Marohn, Mitchell Silver, and many others are providing. But that’s not all they are providing. They are also providing other models of thinking built atop a foundation of sweet, succulent pragmatism.

We should all do the same. The City is the height of complexity; it is a multidisciplinary problem that requires equal—equal—parts economics and aesthetics, science and the art.

The GDP of Mayberry

Consider the fact that we never knew the GDP of Mayberry, North Carolina. Somehow we didn’t care. The town seemed alright. Yes, the deputy woefully misallocated his resources (chased rumors), the education system was understaffed (one teacher), and the local economy was awful for the construction industry (nothing was ever built). But these inefficiencies within the local economy were tolerated. Why? Because the town’s leadership (the sheriff) analyzed the problems through multiple models of thinking (romantically known as “common sense”) and balanced them against a qualitative rationale (i.e., a philosophical, heartfelt framework). This approach is marvelous for figuring out what is truly a problem and what isn’t. Economics alone won’t deliver that.

Indeed, economics, when left alone, is dangerous. For example, I’ve heard economists say we should privatize parks. This is crazy to regular folk. Why? Because an economic problem isn’t always a real issue.

(Here’s some more nuance: economists are good, important people who—like all of us—sometimes forget that they are but one variable in the overall equation.)

So to Carl Schramm’s larger point: do our plans need to focus on our economy? Yes. But only to a degree. Do we need to apply economic thought to our decision-making? Absolutely. But again, only to a degree.

The brilliant Carl Schramm is right; we need more than the architect’s hammer.

The brilliant Carl Schramm is wrong; we don’t need to replace one hammer with another.

Norman Wright, AICP, is the Director of Development Services for Columbia, Tennessee

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