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Ten Commandments for Planners

WHENEVER YOU SEE A PHOTOGRAPH of an American state governor, it seems there is always somebody whispering in his or her ear who remains unidentified. Often, that person is a member of an organization called the Council of Governors' Policy Advisors.

The name for this small but powerful group is a relatively recent one. Back in the sixties, members called themselves a "council of planners." Then they noted that many planners among them had been fired. So the name no longer fit.

Recently, they became curious as to why this was. So they asked me out to San Francisco to talk about "Where Planners Went Wrong."

When I got this call, I smiled. There is a God, I thought to myself, and She does have a sense of humor. I've been very hard on public planners for not seeing the computer revolution coming, not seeing the feminist revolution coming, not seeing the environmental revolution coming, and not seeing that more people in America today own a small business than hold a union card. Most important, they didn't see how these forces would create a brand-new form of twenty-first-century city — Edge City. As a result, the landscape you see around you was almost totally unanticipated and largely unshaped by "planners" — the alleged guardians of the built environment.

I'd been waiting for an opportunity to unload my peeves about planners, and I'd been patient. So given the opportunity to speak, I came up with "Ten Commandments for Future Planners." An abbreviated version follows.

Don't Design Your Plans Around a Better Class of Human Beings Than Actually Exists in Nature.

Please don't draw up plans that will only work on days that donkeys fly or, for example, when Americans suddenly decide they are willing to routinely walk in the rain and the snow for significant distances rather than stay inside or use their car. Such plans don't do you or anybody else any good.
The American people are the most educated and highly traveled civilization in history. They are about as good as humans get. Only make plans that you have proof they actually will use. Don't tell them what they should do. They're not fools, and unless it's in their interest, they won't buy it.

MORAL: Planners used to be taught that if they built a "superior" environment, it would create a "superior" class of humans. This was the idea behind the creation of the New Soviet Man. Forget it. It doesn't work. Work with the humans you've got, the way they actually behave.
 
Don't Plan Anything That You Wouldn't Use Yourself.

The last time most planners were on a bus, it belonged to Hertz and
they were on their way to pick up their rent-a-car. That's fine, but please don't make any more designs that will only work if you try to condemn millions of your fellows to a mode of transportation you find too inconvenient and uncomfortable and slow for you to use personally. The same goes for planning hellish densities like those in Mississauga, an Edge City in the Toronto area. It was created by planners who seem interested in building a penal colony for people who refuse to live downtown. Even the penniless immigrants forced to live there hate it.

MORAL: If you wouldn't move your own family into a place you design, there may he something wrong with your scheme. Stop with the paternalistic, top-down, we-know-best view of how people should live unless you are willing to expose your own kids to its consequences.
 
Don't Make Any Plans That Aren't Somehow a Public-Private Partnership.

That's the combination that works. In transportation, I'm thinking of the British Navy making the Atlantic safe for British commercial interests. Or the transcontinental railroads built by robber barons given huge government real estate subsidies. Or private cars that run on public roads. Or private airlines that land on public airstrips. Or private computer users sending messages on the Internet created by the US Defense Department.

MORAL: Don't waste a whole lot of time on all-public solutions —for example, most mass-transit schemes. Another bad bet is all-private solutions, like for-profit toll roads. Either method usually works only in highly specific circumstances that are difficult to replicate. They are tail ends of the bell curve. Look for solutions that both the private and public sector will see as sufficiently beneficial that each will sink money into it.
 
When Trying to Change People's Lives, Go for the Carrot, Not the Stick.

One of my favorite futurists is Amory Lovins, a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" winner who has done more to shape the future of energy use in the United States than any other one human being. In the course of conceiving ways to make America more energy-efficient, however, he never ever suggests that people suffer. He believes that the bottom line for Americans is "hot showers and cold beer," and spends his time focusing on how those can be achieved with fewer dollars and less energy. Lovins never suggests that we should abandon either dream.

MORAL: Stop beating up on Americans because they find air conditioning and cars to be sensible solutions to complex problems. Start creating future civilizations that are as good at or better than existing technologies in delivering comfort and independence.
 
Automatically Assume That All "Solutions" That Haven't Been Questioned in fifty Years Are Wrong — Especially the Technical Ones.

An awful lot of our current problems are created by ideas that seemed wonderful fifty years ago. (This is a constant in history.) I'mi thinking specifically of every single dimension mandated in our zoning codes. They call for suburban roads to be twice as wide as they need to be, which allows cars to travel four times as fast as they should, which prevents a tyke on a trike from being safe in her front yard, which defeats the purpose of single-family housing in the first place. I'm also thinking of cul-de-sacs so big you can turn a tractor-trailer or a hook-and-ladder around in them.

Today we know that such blind devotion to car geometry is nuts. We realize the downside — it's a waste of land, a waste of money, and a destroyer of comfortable, soulful neighborhoods that create identity and community. But those damn numbers are still on the books. They must be rooted out and changed.

MORAL: Whatever one thinks of neotraditional town planners like Andres Duany or Peter Calthorpe, they are completely right about one thing: With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that we went overboard two generations ago when we designed our world for the car. We've learned a lot in fifty years about complexity. All those numbers created with only one purpose in mind are simpleminded and must be changed.

Don't Put All Your Eggs In One Future.

"Plan A" for the future of America is to pave the planet to accommodate cars. Everybody knows that's stupid. But the only alternative usually offered, "Plan B/' is to return to nineteenth-century rail. This involves forcing people to give up their individualism, and to live in apartments that are convenient to a form of mass transportation that requires thousands of people to want to go from the same point A to the same point B at the same time, like in Manhattan. This is in defiance of almost a century's worth of practice that shows that if Americans thought Manhattan was such a wonderful idea, they would have built more places like it, and they have not.

MORAL: In a world in which change is rapid and discontinuous, you have to figure out as many solutions as possible and implement as many of them as you can. Don't he satisfied with "Plan A" or "Plan B," especially when neither is wonderful. Try to imagine what "Plan C" for the future might look like.
Many of our problems are new ones. Hence, they may not yield either to nineteenth-century solutions (trains) or twentieth-century solutions (cars). The answers may be more modern; they may include making systems smarter by including more software in them. Here's one tiny example that might be part of a software-intensive "Plan C": little pager-like devices for creating instantaneous car pools. People can broadcast where they can be picked up and where they want to go.

 
Don't Get Hung Up on the Past.

Many planners love Italian hill towns and the Left Bank of Paris because these places feel great to tourists — they seem the epitome of identity, community, civilization and soul. That's great. But please don't try to achieve soul simply by replicating that design. People live differently today. Go for the harder problem: creating civilization in a world in which Americans move, on average, once every eight years.

MORAL: Don't think your plan is wonderful because it looks just like Europe of 200 years ago. That was before the Industrial Age, before the world went up) for; Don't be satisfied until your plan accounts for all the social and technological changes of the last 200 years and still ends up feeling as good as a European — or New England, or Virginia — village of 200 years ago.

Focus on Results.

Some planners think that a plan that looks good on paper is all that is required of them. After all.
they've created a plan, haven't they? So, when that plan turns out to be unbuildable, or unaffordable, or flies in the face of market preferences, they claim the problem is not theirs. They lay blame on the evil forces of, say, capitalism or insufficiently enlightened voters or homebuyers.

MORAL: Pay attention to the feedback you get from ordinary people. If you repeatedly create plans that never get built the way you wanted them to, the problem may not be that of the system or the people: it may be yours.
 
Plan Not for the Approval of Your Colleagues in Academe, But for the Paying Customers — the Taxpayers.

I'm thinking of the Disney plan for a theme park for Haymarket, Virginia, that was so dumb even Disney finally realized it wasn't worth the trouble. Everybody could have saved a lot of time and trouble if there had been an easier, faster, less contentious way to calculate that it wasn't a worthwhile idea to spend billions of public dollars to create a few thousand $8-an-hour private jobs in a place that had no unemployment and already commanded very high scenic and historic land values.

MORAL: If you have to spend a lot of academic time on theory, work on this: Come up with some reliable way for the public and private sector to calculate how each benefits from any given scheme.
 

Look for Win-Win Solutions.

Jane Jacobs, the apostle of livable places, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities
(1961, Random House), wrote that the point of cities is diversity — the way you can measure a good one is by the thickness of its Yellow Pages: that tells you how many choices you have.

MORAL: What the study of ecology has taught us is that monocultures don't work very well. You don't want to create plans that depend on any one solution for any problem. You want to create solutions with as much diversity as life itself. Learn that all of the land is sacred, the built-on every bit as much as the natural. The day you come up with a planning solution that can be embraced with equal enthusiasm by environmentalists, preservations, bankers and builders is the day you can earn back your distinguished title of "planner." You may also earn back your job.