Planning for the Unplanned

September 12, 2005, 5am PDT | Dr. Aseem Inam
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How can cities plan for the unplanned, or those crises that cannot be precisely anticipated? Considered in the context of the recent tragedy in New Orleans, Aseem Inam compares disaster management in large urban metropolises and sheds light on how and why some planning institutions work better than others in difficult conditions.  Can bureaucracy and institutional culture actually improve responses to urban crises?

 Aseem InamHow do cities plan for the unplanned? Do we plan for recovery from every possible sudden shock? In a recent book, Planning for the Unplanned, I examine two megacities, Los Angeles and Mexico City, which are presumed examples of poor planning, such as haphazard growth, physical dispersion, traffic congestion, air pollution, severe economic disparities, natural disasters, and humanly created crises. I assess how and why some planning institutions work better than others in such difficult conditions. I focus on institutional culture, using crisis as a test of an institution's strengths and weaknesses. How did planning institutions respond to the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City and the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles? Both recovery programs were successful, rebuilding housing in a remarkably short time, leveraging large amounts of resources, coordinating among a wide range of organizations, reaching out to communities, and not only restoring normalcy, but actually improving upon pre-earthquake conditions.

More than being new or innovative, both planning programs were successful because they were bureaucratic. Both relied on standardized routines, rigorous sets of established regimes, familiar programs, and institutionalized hierarchies. Also contrary to popular perception, I found that neither the leaders at the top of the institutions nor those workers at the grassroots level were the most important in the implementation of routines. The key actors were middle managers in these planning institutions because they knew the institutional structures inside out and also knew what the routines were and how to use them. They knew exactly what procedures to use and who to contact - they were a successful go-betweens between national government and the grassroots community groups. They could take shortcuts, such as appropriately modifying routines due to the urgent nature of the crises.

To test these ideas further, I then look at two negative examples of planning after the 1989 air pollution crisis in Mexico City and the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. Both programs failed because the government tried to be inventive instead of effectively using workable precedents and existing systems. In Mexico City, the government tried to innovate by copying strategies from other countries that had introduced programs many years prior and had adapted them gradually to their own contexts. In Los Angeles after the riots, the municipal government brought in a successful businessman from the distant suburbs to rebuild communities rather than linking into existing community groups and networks.

The last case study is of the recovery efforts after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on New York City. The rebuilding effort is a much more complex example because parts of it failed, while others succeeded. The example also shows a more complicated view of routines, in that it is not simply a question of whether or not to use routines for effective planning. The question is also which routines to use and in what ways. The New York example is also complicated because it is of real consequence not only to local residents and to the psychological recovery for the whole country, but of symbolic significance to the global community of cities. The rebuilding of Lower Manhattan will be a litmus test of how vulnerable megacities will practice successful planning in the future.

The research has yielded several insights, including two I will highlight: the surprising effectiveness of institutional routines, and the rich lessons of international comparative analysis.

The first major insight is that institutional routines are used for effective response to novel situations, such as urban crises. Successful planning institutions in Mexico City and Los Angeles relied on housing routines that could be adapted and implemented quickly because they were already legitimate in the eyes of the community, specialized for the task, and fit the situation. On the other hand, a lack of workable routines contributed significantly to the failure of the air pollution and economic development programs in those two cities.

A repertoire of routines - well-established and tried-and-tested institutional arrangements, policies, programs, and practices - is not only utilized for repetitive and uncomplicated situations. Routines are also the basis for an institutional approach to novel situations, including crises. For in the end, novelty is not a property of a situation so much as it is of our reaction to it; and the most standard institutional response to novelty is to find a set of routines that can be used. Problems do not have an intrinsic structure; they have a structure by reference to solutions that individuals and institutions can imagine, which is all the more reason to break problems up in ways congenial to our human understandings.

The ubiquity of routines makes public institutions appear to be bureaucratic, rigid, and insensitive -- often, justifiably so. The simplification provided by routines is clearly far from perfect. However, some of the major capabilities of planning institutions come from their effectiveness in substituting routine-bound behavior for individually autonomous behavior. Routines make it possible to coordinate many simultaneous activities in a way that makes them mutually consistent. Most significantly, routines embody collective and individual identities, interests, values, and worldviews which enable agencies to implement policies and strategies that are legitimate to their constituencies, adaptive to the circumstances, and wide-ranging in their choices. With routines, subsidiary questions can be handled summarily, and inexperienced participants will avoid major errors. Legally and psychologically, it is comforting to have an established way of separating the desirable from the undesirable. In other words, routines are a necessity.

The second major insight is in the comparative nature of global analysis. We make implicit comparisons regularly, as we make decisions based on comparisons among choices, for example among courses of actions. The principal reason for making a comparison in an international context is to shed light on how some common process produces different kinds of results in different places, or to examine why different processes produce similar results.

In apparently different contexts, the critical question is how we compare rather than what we compare. My comparative research was guided by a number of principles, such as the notion of functional equivalence. Functional equivalence implies that one should not be mislead by superficial data and labels, and suggests that instead one ask questions such as: By which institutional structures are particular types of planning policies transmitted? How much autonomy is enjoyed by government institutions? Such questions warn us of situations in which the same role may be played by different institutions in various countries. For example, in Mexico political actors and considerations largely influence urban planning decisions and policies, while in the United States private sector actors and considerations largely influence urban planning decisions.

One of the tangible benefits of an international comparative analysis is the recognition of global linkages between such megacities as Mexico City and Los Angeles. After the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the earthquake hot line run by the United States Geological Survey logged four times its usual number of calls from nervous residents. Officials in California said that the Mexican disaster helped speed completion of a new state disaster plan. Immediately after the earthquake, while elected officials' and the public's memory was still vivid, a stringent seismic retrofit ordinance was adopted. In a sense, the Mexico City earthquake may have assisted in the reduction of devastation and loss of life in the subsequent Los Angeles earthquake.

The primary purpose of comparative policy research is not to establish the universality of relationships, but to enhance the credibility of specific predictions about specific cases and to gain useful rather than general knowledge in the short term. This is particularly relevant for megacities because they are booming everywhere. In developing and developed countries alike, their growth is defying attempts to limit it and most important, the growth of cities is economically healthy and culturally beneficial. In the 21st century, the most relevant unit of economic production, social organization and knowledge generation will be cities and their metropolitan regions.

A common risk of conducting international comparative analyses is to expect only to learn and apply lessons from developed countries to developing countries, rather being open to the possibility of mutual learning, or even policy lessons which flow from the developing world to the developed world. In the case studies of successful crisis recovery from earthquakes in Mexico City and Los Angeles, Mexico City was in fact more successful in leveraging limited resources toward greater effect by producing 48,000 housing units, than in Los Angeles which produced 7,000 housing units.

These insights suggest that urban planning strategies at a global level are neither all the same and nor all different; rather, effective urban planning strategies are similar in certain ways and different in others. The key is to understand what works under what conditions, and global comparisons -- such as the one outlined in the book -- are one of the most effective ways of doing so.

Dr. Aseem Inam is an Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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