Thursday, May 11, 2006

Balancing Planning with the Free Enterprise Spirit - the Jane Jacobs' legacy

Professor Ed Blakely addressed the SGLBA dinner last week on 'Sydney 2020- How we will work, live & play'. In a packed Sol's restaurant overlooking Taylor Square and the newly reminted Oxford Street (both largely deserted) we heard one of the most respected urban planners in the western world explain how Sydney needed more planning and longer term thinking.

Commenting on the emergence of the global city states as opposed to nation states of the past, he warned that Sydney was in danger of losing its global position through lack of long term planning for infrastructure such as rail, ports and traffic management. He made the point that Sydney represented about 25% of the nations GDP yet had no representation at or in the Federal Budget process. 'We have not sprawled but splattered' referring to the urban spread of Sydney and suggesting that Sydney was 'under-developed' and required intelligent urban consolidation.

Professor Blakely's major thrust was his often repeated calls for single state based planning authority and American style planning commissions to take the responsibility for strategic planning and the approval processes from smaller local elected Councils. "When a Mayor can be changed every 12 months and Councils every three years there is no certainty in the planning process or outcomes," adding that this is one of the main reasons behind the mistrust of urban planning by the general community. He claimed that in the US where unelected planning commissions are common they are overwhelmingly supported by their community because the processes are tranparent and black and white. Commissioners are appointed by Mayor's and Councils for term of up to ten years and take a long term strategic perspective. If they don't perform or are out of step with the elected leadership the commissioners can be removed by the Mayor and Council. He claimed that Sydney was being let down by multiple layers of planning authorities with often competing agendas, decentralized processes and disjointed planning and delivery on infrastructure such as tunnels, railways and major roads.

Having worked with Rudolph Gulianni to rebuild New York after 9/11, I asked Professor Blakely to comment on Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore's performance now two years into her term. His response was scathing saying 'firstly she needs to hold one seat and focus on one job only'. A reference to her being a state member of parliament as well as Lord Mayor. His view explained that she needs to be fully focused on the complex and demanding task of Lord Mayor and not be distracted by parliamentary issues. He then went on to say the Council needs to focus on the airport corridor and Green Square urban renewal zone where much of Sydney's wealth is located. He also cristicised the city's lack of engagement with the airport development proposals or the East Darling Harbour redevelopment.

One insightful question from the audience challenged Blakely's advocacy of more planning and more controls on our city. "How do you balance proscriptive urban planning and at the same time do not stiffle the free market spirit that drives and generates our great cities?" His response was to say that he did not intend to interfere in the micro planning of 'peoples kitchen extensions' but that he was an infrastructure planner.

Which gives a neat link to an article in the Wall Street Journal about the legacy of urban planning activist Jane Jacobs who died in late April. The on line article reprinted below argues that urban planners have misrepresented the central message of Jacobs to suit their proscriptive planning policies and centralisation of power. Planning cities that are livable, according to Jacobs requires a framework of public policy that allows a "great range of unofficial plans, ideas and opportunities to flourish". I couldn't agree more.

At last night's Council meeting Councillor Robyn Kemmis moved a late night motion about the Jacob's legacy; "Council notes with deep regret the passing of the distinguished social theorist, activist and writer Jane Jacobs and acknowledges her significant contribution to our understanding of the importance of community, social capital and strong and vibrant neighbourhoods to urban life."

This was of course effusively seconded by Clover Moore who I suspect subscribes to the 'plan everything' school of thought and is on the record calling for regional government and the abolition of one layer of our three tiered system. In response to the motion I talked about the Wall Street Journal article (below) and warned that over-planning was responsible for as many urban problems as was no planning at all and that what Jacobs was extolling is a broad planning framework that allowed the free markets of a city economy and society to flourish. I think my point was lost on Clover Moore.

What Jane Jacobs Really SawToday's urban planners falsely claim her legacy.


Legendary author and urban theorist Jane Jacobs passed away last week at the age of 89. Her classic 1961 book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," delivered a damning indictment of postwar city planning and urban renewal efforts, revolutionizing the way we think about and plan our cities.

A working mother with no formal education in urban planning, Jacobs became an icon in the 1960s when she mobilized citizens to fight the redevelopment and highway-construction plans of New York City planning czar Robert Moses, who wielded almost unchecked power over the city's urban development during the mid-20th century. She famously led the effort that defeated Moses' plan to build an expressway through Manhattan's Washington Square Park and West Village, which would have displaced nearly 10,000 residents and workers and destroyed thousands of historic buildings.

Given urban planners' almost universal reverence for Jacobs, it is ironic that many have largely ignored or misinterpreted the central lesson of "Death and Life"--that cities are vibrant living systems, not the product of grand, utopian schemes concocted by overzealous planners.
Modern planners have contorted Jacobs's beliefs in hopes of imposing their static, end-state vision of a city. They use a set of highly prescriptive policy tools--like urban growth boundaries, smart growth, and high-density development built around light-rail transit systems--to design the city they envision. They try to "create" livable cities from the ground up and micromanage urban form through regulation. We've seen these tools at work in Portland, Ore., for more than three decades. But the results have been dismal and dramatic. The city's "smart growth" policies effectively created a land shortage, constricting the housing supply and artificially inflating prices. By 1999, Portland had become one of the 10 least affordable housing markets in the nation, and its homeownership rate lagged behind the national average. It has also seen one of the nation's largest increases in traffic congestion and boasts a costly, heavily subsidized light-rail system that accounts for just 1% of the city's total travel. Not exactly how they planned it.
That's because these planning trends run completely counter to Jacobs's vision of cities as dynamic economic engines that thrive on private initiative, trial and error, incremental change, and human and economic diversity. Jacobs believed the most organic and healthy communities are diverse, messy and arise out of spontaneous order, not from a scheme that tries to dictate how people should live and how neighborhoods should look.

She felt it was foolish to focus on how cities look rather than how they function as economic laboratories. "The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop--insofar as public policy and action can do so--cities that are congenial places for [a] great range of unofficial plans, ideas and opportunities to flourish," Jacobs wrote.

Sadly, many in the Smart Growth and New Urbanism movements cite Jacobs as the inspiration for their efforts to combat so-called "urban sprawl" and make over suburbia with dense, walkable downtowns, mixed-use development, and varied building styles. While Jacobs identified these as organic elements of successful cities, planners have eagerly tried to impose them on cities in formulaic fashion, regardless of their contextual appropriateness and compatibility with the underlying economic order. In short, they've taken Jacobs's observations of what makes cities work and tried to formalize them into an authoritarian recipe for policy intervention.

As Jacobs opined in a 2001 Reason magazine interview, "the New Urbanists want to have lively centers in the places that they develop. . . . And yet, from what I've seen of their plans and the places they have built, they don't seem to have a sense of the anatomy of these hearts, these centers. They've placed them as if they were shopping centers. They don't connect."
Jacobs's ideas came from the heart. Her foray into urban theory was partly inspired by the failed urban renewal efforts of the post-World War II era that displaced tens of thousands of poor and minority residents and resulted in the isolation or destruction of previously vibrant neighborhoods in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

Fundamentally, there is little difference behind the social engineering mentality of those who wrought the disaster of postwar urban renewal and the mindset of today's planners trying to regulate away suburbia in hopes of master-planned urban living for everyone.
More and more, these planners are calling for the centralization of land-use control under state and regional governments, usurping the American tradition of local control over development. In the view of many planners, this command-and-control bureaucracy is needed because municipal planning is too "uncoordinated" to achieve "societally beneficial" goals like open-space preservation, mass transit and urban densification.

But if they go back and reread "Death and Life," they'll find Jacobs rightly asking, "How is bigger administration, with labyrinths nobody can comprehend or navigate, an improvement over crazy-quilt township and suburban governments?"
She went on to ridicule the idea of regionalism as "escapism from intellectual helplessness" predicated on the delusion that the problems planners are unable to solve at the local level will somehow be more easily addressed on a larger-scale, concluding that "no other expertise can substitute for locality knowledge in planning."

Politicians and planners would do well to commemorate Jacobs by revisiting her work. Despite the best efforts of well-intentioned planners, you can't "create" a vibrant city or neighborhood. The best cities and neighborhoods just happen, and the best thing we can do is to step out of the way of innovators and entrepreneurs.

Mr. Gilroy is a certified planner and policy analyst at the
Reason Foundation.

1 comment:

Toby said...

This is a tough question, and it is nice to see that at least one of the Sydney councillors is aware of it. Part of the problem that affects planning is the "death of a thousand cuts" point - councils can pass seemingly innocent measures to help noisy or vested interests with the utilitarian justification that it helps a majority. The thousand cuts problem also leads to matters like Clover's backdoor attempt to abolish Christmas (against the wishes of the silent majority), as the interests of the noisy pluralistic PC faction overrode commonsense and were forced through under the guise of a deeply insincere attempt to be tolerant of non-Judaeo-Christain values (noting that other religious value systems might call for Clover to be stoned to death rather than elected Mayor, of course).

There are two problems - one, the obvious philosophical problem with utilitarianism, that it is easy to justify anything a majority wants, and two, a moral one, since it makes the population think that its problems can be solved by state action.

Not everything can be solved by state action, and many things should not be. A dependence on state action has led to the noise ordinance problem. A deadened neighbourhood relies on the council to police noisy neighbours, and noisy neighbours act with impunity because they know council resources are stretched and it is unlikely anything will happen if they do breach the ordinance. There is then a spiral downwards as each side relies on the council, and neither side takes responsibilty for its own actions.

See Roger Scruton on the same issues with "teaching" values. Jacobs's position was essentially a conservative one - trusting in the commosense of the greater part of the majority. That is the folly of the "village" proposal - it is rampant Soviet style state action (forcing the creation of Potemkin villages to fit Clover's presuppositions as to how a city should be run - divided into rainbow Bantustans - gays here, yuppies here, hippes there) posing as organic conservatism. It is also deeply arrogant and hubristic - how on earth are the Village People so sure that their pinched view of the future is correct?

This is the fundamental truth that Burke saw, and that many councillors do not. the job of a council is to arrange garbage collection and keep footpaths clean, not to pay for Leathermen Fairs. If leathermen care enough about it, they can pay themselves.