Spontaneous urban planning

In a short but very insightful article in the Wall Street Journal, economics professor William Easterly starkly highlights how urban planners often get things completely wrong, and have for 400 years in one block in New York:

Four Centuries of Human Initiative on One City Block

This article and the research underlying it support a suspicion we have long held, namely, that large-scale urban planning is often a waste of time and sometimes a detriment to the cities it is trying to help.

This is not to say that we should never plan. Sometimes projects require the moving of streets, insertion of new park space, or some other fairly major intervention. Stadium projects especially, but not exclusively. But when the planners get out their Magic Markers and start labeling whole blocks–or whole neighborhoods–with tags like “retail,” “housing” or “industrial,” elected officials should take a step back and call time out.

As the article (and the estimable Jane Jacobs) points out, real life is smaller in scale, more granular and more organic. Uses change over time, real estate values rise and fall, areas become more (and less) popular. Should cities never intervene in this organic development and redevelopment process? Of course they should. We just advise proceeding cautiously, with a small ego and a large dose of humility. We like grand boulevards, and sometimes you have to knock down a few buildings to get them. But much of what passes for urban planning in our schools and in our actual cities is little more than wishful thinking at best, and crippling regulation at worst.


About David Greusel

David Greusel is founding principal of Convergence Design. He has more than 30 years' experience in the architectural profession, having worked as a designer, manager, and principal in charge of projects ranging from closet remodels to new Major League ballparks.
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