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How City Planners Became So Timid

Almost a year ago, we read an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled: "How Economists Became So Timid." It was an enlightening read to hear from an economist who avoided the binary capitalist-communist, either/or pairing (or substitute 'socialist' in 2019 American political parlance). Even more enigmatic was the close parallels to City Planning.

After years of research and a wide range of implementation schemes, Animate's Kid Cities mechanism and infiniteTransit flyway are not the least timid: they are inspired methods for metropolises to move forward, with greater civility, in our century.

What follows is our interpretation of the similarities between the evolution of economists and city planners, in the last 200 years. It is an adaptation of “How Economists Became So Timid,” originally written by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl

May 06, 2018. Utimately both economists and city planners strive for better places, better environments for people to live.


The field used to be visionary. Now it’s just dull.

The late-19th-century field of "city planning," from which arose the modern fields of zoning, public health, transportation engineering, public policy, and geographic information systems (among others), contrasts sharply with its contemporary offspring. City planners drew on all the streams of academic speculation — they were as much philosophers as designers, and they recognized none of the distinctions among the various contemporary academic and bureaucratic silos. Moreover, they saw themselves as reformists, often radical reformists. The great figures in this tradition include Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Daniel Burnham, Le Corbusier. They and their followers searched for solutions to the major industrial, social, and urban crises of their times. In the process, they gave birth to most modern urban ideologies and much of the form of our present cities.

City planning has transitioned from a field of creative social visionaries to New Urbanists, filled with specialized technocrats.

Self-styled American and European radicals, for example, helped end disease-ridden industrial slums and expand the health and lives of the worker. The zoning-by-function ideology of European radicals and American Radical Republicans helped abolish overcrowding and slums, thus establishing a new basis for civilized political life. The late 19th century also witnessed the Cité Industrielle of Tony Garnier; influential at the time but now mostly forgotten, the cooperative ideologies of Pyotr Alexeevich Kropotkin; utopian places of Edward Bellamy and William Morris; the decentralized cities of Ludwig Hilberseimer and Frank Lloyd Wright; and the City Beautiful ideology of Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett. This ideology shaped the Progressive movement in the Western world, the zoning-by-function of International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM), and similarly in Communist cities living standards were increased (i.e. hot and cold running water, electricity, access to medicine and education, etc.). The public-health reforms of the early 20th century set the stage for the longest and most broadly shared growth of cities in human history.

Today, cities around the Western world have stagnated in population growth, while inequality has sharply increased. Most citizens in Western countries have seen their neighborhoods languish for a generation and have lost faith in the promise of widely shared social progress that has underpinned political stability since the Industrial Revolution. Disillusioned with the status quo, voters from the United States to Italy and beyond have joined reactionary populist movements of the right and left.

So where are the heirs of the City Planners? City Planning has fragmented into a series of disparate fields, none of which has the breadth, creativity, or courage to support the reformist visions that were crucial to navigating past crises.

The demise of city planning began in the late 20th century. As academia became more professionalized and specialized, city planning gave way to its successor disciplines — public health, transportation engineering, quantitative analysis, public policy, and the like. By its midcentury nadir, city planners hardly interacted with researchers in those other fields.

The transition from a field of creative social visionaries to one of specialized technocrats is epitomized by the story of the dissolution of International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM) and the emergence of Team X. Each had a foot in both worlds and was ambivalent about the change. In many ways, CIAM was the archetype of city planning as social order, proposing new highways and large urban interventions. Team X broke from ideas about a rigidly sub-divided city with a 1960 manifesto abandoning city planning and narrowing their focus "The appropriateness of any solution may lie in the field of architectural invention rather than social anthropology.”

Ironically, breaking from Zoning-by-Function/CIAMs high-level order, and espousing Team X, Jane Jacobs’, and Christopher Alexander’s precise methodologies — for three generations sustainable development’s definitive model — marked a decisive transition from this comprehensive vision of city planning. Promoting parochial-minded developments worked to professionalize and eventually narrow the field. Team X, Jane Jacobs, and Christopher Alexander, despite flirtations with theory and philosophy, withdrew from academia and such bold visions for transforming the landscape, which cemented the position of city planners as technocrats — the furthest thing from the aloof, incorruptible artist. Rapidly increasing amounts of “progressive regulations” requires expert technicians; accordingly, the late-20th century saw the profession churn out a class of specialized workers. History, politics, sociology, philosophy, and law all drained out of building better cities.

This is not to say that planners did not incubate any new ideologies after CIAM and Team Xs crack up. By the 1990s “New Urbanists” such as Peter Calthorpe, Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and the Growth Boundary of Portland, Oregon were contributing to the "neoliberal" ideology that defined the political careers of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Like the city planners of old, their perspectives were far broader and bolder than those of their contemporaries. But unlike the City Planners of old, they did not offer radical social reform or innovation. Instead they advocated a return to architectural forms that had prevailed in the 19th-century Anglo-Saxon world. All the other major novel ideologies of the period — mostly associated with the New Left: feminism, civil rights, anti-colonialism, social inequality, Occupy Wall Street — developed with almost no input from planners, though they did connect to some currents in sociology and environmentalism. And by the 2010s even New Urbanism had transitioned from an insurgency into a consensus governing philosophy administered by a new technocratic class (LEED for Neighborhood Development), one that was not much different from the liberal technocracy of the postwar period.

City planning has played virtually no role in the major political movements of the past half-century, including civil rights, feminism, and anti-colonialism.

The narrowing of planning took many forms. Academic work shifted away from urban design and toward a combination of neo-modern architecture avoiding city planning entirely, and environmentally minded, green, low-energy design (the aesthetics of mechanical engineering). Even areas of planning most focused on questions of policy and design sought to address clearly specified problems, through local design-charettes, rather than the complex mishmash of concerns relevant to most practical policy. Similar formalization characterized other fields, like transportation design and the standardization of building typologies. The reasons were not always bad ones, and they mirrored broader patterns of professionalization. New Urbanists sought to develop a science on the model of physics because they believed that scientific methods were most conducive to discovering the truth.

Yet even as New Urbanists retreated from visionary social theory, the power they wielded over detailed policy decisions grew. A notable feature of this policy guidance was that it shared the narrowness of New Urbanist’s research methods. Policy reforms advocated by mainstream New Urbanist and sustainable developers were almost always what we call "liberal technocratic" — either center-left or center-right. New Urbanists and sustainable developers suggested always lower energy usage, and bit higher or lower Floor Area or automobile Parking Ratios, a bit more or less intrusive Design Review Board, depending on their external political orientation and evidence from their research. But they almost never proposed the sort of sweeping, creative transformations that had characterized 19th-century visions for the future.

How to explain this timidity? As with many bureaucracies with the inertia of power (like the military), planning developed strict codes of internal discipline and conformity to ensure that this power was wielded consistent with community standards. While city planners from the ancient Romans to Haussmann drew on a vast range of philosophical influences, sustainable development became one of the most regimented and conformist fields in the practice. New Urbanists have maintained this narrow range of methodological and political commitment through their control of developers for middle class projects, municipal officials, and popular media — as well as through the informal enforcement of community norms. We see this in the treatment of the ideological extremes, the “gated-communities" (on the right) and the complex adaptive systems research (on the left), who have been ostracized from the profession.

The upshot is that planning has played virtually no role in all the major political movements of the past half-century, including civil rights, feminism, anti-colonialism, the rights of sexual minorities, gun rights, antiabortion politics, and "family values" debates. It has been completely unprepared for Trumpism and other varieties of populism, having failed to predict those developments just as it failed to predict the growth of high-tech places like Silicon Valley, nor favelas as urban phenomena. And, until very recently, it has shrugged at one of the most politically charged and morally troubling issues of our time — the rise in inequality.

Even the recent attempts of the field to live up to its heritage have fallen flat. The 2010 LEED for Neighborhood Development, while widely perceived as a successor

to Zoning-by-Function, ends by half-heartedly proposing a modest affordable housing option. Where is the modern Haussmann, Burnham, Kropotkin, or Le Corbusier? Other fields have not stepped up to fill the void left by planning’s collapse. Sociologists and political scientists largely eschew specific policy proposals. And political philosophers, while offering bold visions of ideal societies, usually avoid dirtying their hands with the details of feasible policy design.

Calls for more interdisciplinary work, common as they are, often lead to muddle. What’s missing from urban research is a willingness at a large scale to revisit the roots of the intellectual traditions that have given rise to the current system of silos in which practitioners make incremental advances along familiar paths, proposing modest reforms rather than reimagining our basic institutions. After decades in which fundamental questions were neglected but technical and empirical insights accumulated, city planners have a rich store of material to work with. In an era threatened by rising inequality and authoritarian populism, we hope that boldness rather than caution will be the new watchword of these fields.

blogging ideas along the way