Beyond Buildings


Radical Realism: Feasting on the Corpse of Planning

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Several years ago, I was one of the candidates to be head of a Midwestern school of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning. I probably blew my chances when I pointed out during my public lecture that planning was a dead profession. After decades of destroying cities in the name of progress and ignoring the realities of sprawl, it had been reduced to providing cover for either developers or their NIMBY-ite opponents. The planning faculty and students did not care for such a statement.


The lack of vision, stance, and instrument I noted is still part of this country’s planning problem. It is easy to blame our government, an activity that has become a national (blood) sport lately, or to point out that in places such as the Netherlands they invest in the foundation for reasonable urban and suburban growth, namely infrastructure. I have been guilty, just in the last week, of both. We must also turn to those are responsible for providing the mechanisms and models for our sprawling, semi-urban reality. The urban planners (the name alone!) have proven to be completely inadequate to the task.


One of their ranks, Thomas J. Campanella, admits as much in a recent post on Design Observer. He points out that planners at the university where he teaches recently called their profession “trivial.” He says: “Planners in America lack the agency or authority to turn idealism into reality,” going on to admit that “planning has neither the prestige nor the steet cred to effect real change.”


The problem, he claims, is Jane Jacobs. That bete noir of all planners stopped them in their attempts to use the “authority and agency” they had gained after World War II to knock down whole parts of the city, while ignoring the areas of real growth, to wit, the suburbs (for which Jacobs also did not care a wit). Now, Campanella does not care about the suburbs much either, but does admit that Jacobs had a point. The result, however, was that planners abdicated their responsibilities to, horrors, private citizens, attempting to save themselves only by becoming consultants to activists, developers, or sociologists. People, he points out, tend to act out of self-interest, hence the triumph of proto-Tea Party NIMBYism. “If we put parochial interests ahead of broader needs, it will be impossible to build the infrastructure essential to the long-range economic viability of the United States.”


Hear, hear. So what is to be done? Campanella points to his work with neighbors and colleagues to bring a train stop to his hometown, lamenting only that it was an effort born in a café and a classroom, not on a drafting table. He wants planners to be “big-picture thinkers with the courage to examine alternatives to the status quo… equipped with the skills and the moxie to lead the recovery of American infrastructure and put the nation on a greener, more sustainable path.” Transit-oriented development is of course as nice as apple pie, but note that the writer does not discuss any designs for such a stop and its surroundings, though he does show a rather disheartening picture of a late-1980s-style building that I suppose promises such.


I applaud the written vision, but am afraid I do not think it will come from planning. I say that because planning is based on two fundamentally wrong premises. The first is that the centralized city is the be-all and end-all of their efforts. The second is that planning, as its name implies, can lay out, frame, and even force activities at a large scale far into the future. Yet we live, and have lived for several centuries, in an economy and society whose only fundamental fact is change and the continual movement of goods, people, and information. Wake up, planners, there are no princes for who you can rule out a world to rule, nor saviors to lay out utopia, nor will or should there be. Change is the only certainty, we have to design for and with its flows.


Buffalo Parks Plan. Courtesy: Buffalo Park Library.


Campanella himself points out that the roots of urban planning as we know it today lie in landscape architecture and, to be exact, in this country in the work of Frederick Law Olmsted. Working with the land, a new generation of such landscape architects here and in Europe, ranging from Field Operations to West 8, are providing viable visions. They are proposing that we should understand both the physical territory in which we work, live and play, from its climate to its soil conditions to its hydrology  and the human landscape as it exists today. We should then propose a fundamentally designed, i.e., aesthetic, vision of how we can preserve and strengthen both realities.


Stratford City Center Plan by West 8. Courtesy: West 8.


To do so means not to focus on one area of our landscape, nor to dream of perfect communities, but to engage in a kind of radical realism. We must understand where we are and what we have made of our places–including the suburbs where soon two-thirds of our population will live. Preserving what we have, from woods to agricultural heritage to subdivisions to buildings, while opening them up to new uses and new orders, is the fundamental task of design at every level. Inspiring objects, i.e., monumental buildings, and economically and environmentally sustainable communities, can only appear out of such an attitude.



Comments (2 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 7:08 AM Thursday, May 05, 2011

    Some interesting points. Although I take umbrage at the comment "People, he points out, tend to act out of self-interest, hence the triumph of proto-Tea Party NIMBYism." The core values of the TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party are not anti planning, but rather anti Central Planning (aka Government Control) The ultimate goal of Community Planning should be the voluntary engagement and collaboration of all Stakeholders, including Citizens, Business and yes, even Government in the planning process. This should manifest itself in a Charrette-style approach, focused on bringing the best ideas to light, while respecting individual Stakeholder rights and goals. Done properly, this type of planning yields not only great designs, but also a level of buy-in, community involvement & synergy, that provides the energy and resources necessary to turn plans into reality. Truly successful and sustainable communities will never be created using monolithic government-centric central planning! John Westra, MCP, CCP Ada Township Trustee MSU Distinguished Master Citizen Planner 2010 Director NuWave Government Solutions

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 7:42 PM Wednesday, May 04, 2011

    An interesting post, and definitely some good points made here. Nonetheless I can't help but wonder if you haven't cut out some of the more radical, interesting and experimental planners and ways of thinking of urban planning. These alternatives ways of thinking about planning have not just been recent developments in the field but in many ways shadow the glut of uninspired useful idiots throughout modern planning's history. What about advocacy planning, equity planning, or the right to the city to name a few? Sensitive to scale, and often somewhere in between policy and traditional spatial planning (perhaps often more to the side of urban policy) there is much in planning that still seeks a praxis related to democratic cities, spatial and social justice, giving these issues attention that has not been nearly matched in landscape architecture or urban design. So again, while I agree with you, your concerns and criticisms seem to be shared with some (perhaps small) groups out there who consider themselves involved in planning but in entirely different ways than the trivial middle

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.