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Lacking a Coherent Urban Planning Vision? 'Build More Roads' Will Have to Do
Alex Ihnen starts a recent appraisal of planning in St. Louis with some strong words about the ad hoc method by which planning has been conducted over the last 65+ years. "The City of St. Louis doesn’t have a plan. Well, technically the city does have a comprehensive plan, dating from 1948. That’s not quite fair. Although there has been no new comprehensive plan in 66 years, plenty of planning, zoning overlays, street projects, and more have taken place. There’s even a 260 page encyclopedic sustainability plan that’s spawned an initial 29 priorities across seven categories sufficiently vague and unambitious as to be meaningless. The point is that the city doesn’t have a focused plan to direct urban development. It most surely doesn’t have an operational transportation plan."
Ihnen's argument is that state departments of transportation "are uniquely positioned to thrive in such a vacuum." So in exchange for coherent urban policies, cities like Ihnen's St. Louis instead get "build more roads"—no matter if the city's population is shrinking. "What kind of city do we want, regardless of economic development promises (guesses)? The policies of the past 60 years have failed St. Louis and cities like it. The absence of an urban political lobby, and highly fractured government, has ceded policymaking to highway engineers and their enablers," writes Ihnen.
Ihnen's argument touches on the loss of citizen empowerment, the inability of DOTs to reconsider projections for vehicle miles traveled, and the "ahistoric leaps in logic" required to generate a "build more roads" argument.
Then there's what's lost when the trend is allowed to persist: "When a city defers its self-identity to highway building, you get highways. At some point, residents of the city must understand and speak to their own interests. This type of destructive and wasteful development isn’t any city’s fate, it’s a choice. And if a choice isn’t made, a vision not articulated and fought for? Well, the highway department gets to plan your city."