Prague, site of the AESOP conference, where the compact urbanism and emphasis on transit reflects the European planning tradition to date. Anthony Flint

Some planners are calling for a shift away from rigid, conventional approaches toward more complex, flexible ones.

PRAGUE—Call it post-planning, planning 2.0, or maybe un-planning. And the crazy thing is, this revolt against traditional approaches to planning is being conducted by planners themselves.

At the annual convening of the Association of European Schools of Planning here, there was no little soul-searching about the practice of the craft. Europe has been an undisputed leader in attempting to guide urban growth in an orderly fashion. European Union members have not only set down rules, regulations, and policies for each nation, but created what has been called “territorial cohesion” between nations, seeking to build on economic agglomerations across cities along a high-speed rail line, for example.

But in the polished minimalist halls of the Czech Technical University architecture school, where AESOP was held, there was the sense—quite refreshing in its honesty—that despite the grand efforts, planning wasn’t really paying off. Global urbanization carries multiple complexities, with loads of unintended consequences and unanticipated outcomes, whether in Cleveland or London or Bogota. If the future is not linear, planning in a linear fashion is the equivalent of banging one’s head against the drafting table.

“We kept on believing we could control growth … by building elegant neighborhoods,” said Gert de Roo of the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, in a session I dropped in on called “Complexity, Planning, and Fuzzy Responsibilities.” Just consider urbanization in China, far outpacing anything anyone could ever plan, with instant neighborhoods of 1 million or more. “We have to rethink concepts of planning,” de Roo said.

For a planner, a simple problem is a traffic jam. You build a new bridge to alleviate the congestion, and do some follow-up observations to see if it worked. Urbanization today is so much more complicated, it requires an approach far beyond trying to make sure the world is nicely dealt with and comfortable, de Roo said. In a future with great uncertainty, planning must be more versatile, adopting multiple methodologies. This involves funky concepts of ground-up, crowd-sourced “self organization” and “spontaneous order,” according to de Roo and other presenters in the session.

I was in Prague participating in the European launch of Planning for States and Nation States, published by my employer, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The book compares planning regimes in five U.S. states (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Oregon) and five EU nations (Denmark, France, Ireland, The Netherlands, and the U.K.). Europe has been a lodestar for the U.S., though in land use like many other things, the very idea of compact development excites some “freedom fries” retorts and suspicions of socialism. While running for president in 1988, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was pilloried for having the book Swedish Land Use Planning as beach reading (which he later denied).

But smart growth, whether urban growth boundaries or compact transit-oriented development, is essentially European. And now the Europeans are saying the command-and-control approach doesn’t work so well. European nations are actually adopting more of an American stance—a decentralized agenda, pushing down remaining responsibilities to local jurisdictions, and counting on local planners to engage the citizenry much more.

Smart growth, whether urban growth boundaries or compact transit-oriented development, is essentially European. (Anthony Flint)

American cities have just mastered sustainable development practices, and only a handful of stalwarts even think about planning at a regional scale (think Connecticut-New York-New Jersey as England-France-Germany). What are we supposed to do now? Accept, in a kind of existential way, that such efforts are all for naught? To ask, as a profession, what’s the point?

“I will never say that,” said de Roo, a past president of AESOP, provocateur, and sort of the Dutch version of Andres Duany. Planners must simply face the challenge of the decline of national mandates, he said, while also understanding the incredibly complex realities of urban growth in the 21st century. That’s all.

“Definite Space – Fuzzy Responsibility” was the stated theme of the AESOP Congress:

While many of the initiatives and powers moved outside public control, the sense of responsibility for spatial change and sustainable development of cities and regions hardly overstepped the domain of city halls and ministries, and planners as their experts. ...

Our cities are spreading, the distances that most of us have to travel for jobs, shopping, and entertainment are steadily increasing, and money available for maintenance and improvement of roads, utilities and public services is shrinking. Rich people are retiring to gated communities while some others remain trapped in social and ethnic ghettoes.

All these problems are expected to be tackled by planning as an instrument for urban and regional management. But planning itself was affected by drift from hierarchic control by state and local governments, through public-private partnership projects, to governance where the actual field of municipalities’ and states’ action is dissolved and shared with business. Also many services formerly provided by public domain have been outsourced. Who should take responsibility for how the cities and regions are being changed?  

Pretty heady stuff. It’s like having a conference of doctors based on the premise of the futility of fighting disease.

Yet other fields have benefitted from what amounts to a healthy dose of intellectual modesty. Not all answers are known or can be known, and even when you get the smartest possible people in the room, you can’t ensure positive outcomes. Albert Einstein arguably set that framework. Before him, Henry Rayleigh-Benard, heating liquid, saw structured patterns in convection cells—suggesting another non-linear, self-organizing system in nature. Another analogy is a sand dune: pile so much up on top, at a breaking point it cascades in unpredictable and chaotic ways.

By definition, that’s not how planning is supposed to work. The outcomes are what you plan for. An intermediary step has been scenario planning, where different futures are envisioned, with the help of visualization technology. Communities can choose the desired path: A, B or C, the thinking goes.

The new approach, so wonderfully theoretical and avante garde, incorporates understanding of complex and self-organizing systems. If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because Jane Jacobs wrote about it 50 years ago. Planning for complexity is Jacobs turbocharged. The tactical urbanism movement also recognizes that some of the best urbanism pops up with minimal planning, and not according to a rigid master plan. One key is flexibility—and not being wedded to a strict plan. Another is letting go, in terms of traditional structured thinking. One of the examples held up of successful planning is the Dutch street design concept of the woonerf, where conventional signals—curbs, signs, traffic lights—are entirely removed. The result is a surprisingly free-flowing movement of cars, pedestrians and bicycles, most recently seen in the town of Poynton and Kensington High Street in the U.K.

A lot more, well, complex thinking seems to be required here. I had to leave before the presentation of the paper titled: “Meta synthesis in exploration of urban planning responsibilities regarding vulnerable groups.” If you’re in the planning profession or headed to planning school, some intellectual boot camp may be in store. And the theoretical analysis might make Governor Dukakis’s Swedish Land Use Planning look like beach reading.

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