Planners enjoy working on unrealistic grand visions. I want to continue to discuss the Myths of Development and Planning. In my previous post, I shared the two myths that are commonly at the core of poor development. Today, I would like to describe these myths through the perspective of the planner.
I do believe that every community needs a grand vision. Daniel Burnham created the grand vision for the Plan of Chicago, which inspired the city to rebuild after the great Chicago fire. This grand planning was completed by hand in his office in a relatively short period of time.
Burnham’s great plan for Chicago influenced the post disaster construction and provided an image for the city. If you are interested in learning more about this plan, I would encourage you to read the original plan. The Plan of Chicago can be purchased through many book sellers, and is available at many libraries.
There is also a lot of critical debate over the Plan of Chicago. Whether you love or hate the plan, it provided a vision that captured the image of Chicago, and it provided a clear starting point for the rebuilding. The Burnham plan expressed the big vision in defining Chicago as the capital of the mid-west. This great plan is a vision aspiring the future, and not a day to day manual to rebuilding the city.
The problem with the grand visions planners are creating today, is that they are more master plan and less grand visions. These plans result in the conclusion that we can build ourselves out of our current condition. This is the first myth I outlined in the Two Myths of Development. This may not be self evident, so let me explain this in context.
I have attended a lot public meetings recently, and watched the presentations by modern planners explain the future vision for a regional or city. These elaborate presentations represent months if not years working on large scale plans. These plans range in solving climate change, designing to accommodate population, or reducing the demand of the car. These are important issues that require the brightest minds to work through.
Every one of these presentations start with a projection showing where the future is headed using the current trends. This leads to the conclusion that we need to take action. The action is then broken into complex phases that requires funding to build something.
The first problem with this process is that long range planning today is a complex projection. A projection is not a vision. Projections are complex mathematical computations based on other complex computations. You can modify the input of these projections to get different results.
I do agree that many places have problems, and these projections help to rationalize this complex issues. I want to explain the problems with projections and why this is a rabbit hole. Long range projections reach out fifty to sixty years out. Think about what 50 years means to a city and the citizens that populate it. First, all the people that are young inspired professionals at the adopts of such a plan will be retired or dead at the end of the plan. This is morbid but true.
Secondly, once a projection is adopted, the charts never seem to recede. Every projection assumes that things will continue to grow and expand. Rarely do we go back year on year and review the reality of a place against the projection. Some of this is by design. For example, in Florida, our transportation model does not allow for a reduction in trips. All of our tables for traffic projections require a positive number to be entered. Even though we have seen a dramatic decline in Vehicle Miles Traveled, every traffic model shows an increase in trips.
Throughout the life of the plan, the planners become paralyzed when trying to implement the various aspects of the plan based on the projections. The small first generation projects are bypassed or stopped because these do not fit into the ultimate vision. For example, the plan calls for five story mixed-use buildings with retail on the ground floor and housing above. Sounds great for a vision, but what if this is a new main street with only one or two existing buildings. No new or additional buildings will be built if the bar at year one is this high. This requires placing the burden of a long term goal on the implementors of today.
This results in a disinvestment in our communities. These plans focus on the projection and lose sight of natural growth and investment. Urban design should be a slow and steady approach. A community’s projections can be in continual flux, ever changing depending on multiple variables.
However, a community’s vision and identity should never be in flux. A true grand vision embraces and memorializes the values of a community. A vision allows for a community to develop over time, and it allows a community to actively discuss how they can continue to improve. A true grand vision or master plan does not require more construction to make a place great, it supports investment within a place that grows from within.