Radical Realism: Feasting on the Corpse of Planning
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.