IN JANUARY 1989, the township of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, issued a comprehensive plan “to lead Mt. Lebanon into the twenty-first century.” The report intoned: “Goals not stated cannot be achieved.”
Nearly 20 years earlier the same community, under the tutelage of a different set of policymakers, also prepared a comprehensive plan to ensure that the town's housing, transportation, and other needs were met. In the 1970 plan, a proposed mass-transit sky bus system was called the “brightest ray of hope” for the town's transportation needs. By 1988, there was no mention of the skybus. It had not been built, nor were any plans to build it described. And improving transportation remained among the planners' priorities.
Across a continent, in sprawling Los Angeles, with a population 400 times greater than Mt. Lebanon's, a distinguished committee appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley issued its report, Los Angeles 2000, in November 1988. Under preparation for three years, the report resolved that “we can plan wisely and manage the City's growth...or we can allow it to grow by default.”
Urban policymakers—in large metropolises and small towns alike—have planning fever. Few communities have escaped the penchant of policymakers to nudge, prod, and force them along the path to someone's idea of utopia. Even statewide urban management plans are now the rage—in Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Delaware, Florida, and New Jersey. Details vary, but the thrust is constant: big urban problems require big urban plans.
The idea of urban planning is not new. In the early l900s, cities began replacing the countryside as the predominant place of employment, and urban populations burgeoned. With growth came problems—crime, pollution, congestion, noise. Today we have vehicle exhaust; in 1900 New York had manure—tons of it. And with these problems has come an understandable urge to mitigate them.
The apparent chaos of cities provided fertile ground for proponents of urban planning. The term itself is seductive, evoking images of order and prospects of perfection. And so, by the '20s, zoning laws—an early planning tool—began to spell out what could be built where. Then came transportation planning and building codes and urban renewal schemes and redevelopment projects and, most recently, growth-management plans.
Yet urban problems persist. Even the keenest minds with the best intentions can't seem to set the urban landscape aright.
How can this be?
With poetic incisiveness, Robert Burns penned in 1785 his often-repeated lines, “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men / Gang aft a gley; / An' lea'e us naught but grief and pain, / For promised joy.” Planners, or more specifically, public planners still miss their mark.
THIS FAILURE IS NEITHER SURPRISING nor cause for despair. Much of the chaos that planners fail to mold into order is precisely the dynamism and diversity that drive economic prosperity. “The real problem is not control, but creativity,” remarked Jane Jacobs, whose Death and Life of Great American Cities upset the discipline of public planning when it appeared in 1961. “Planners' greatest shortcoming…is lack of intellectual curiosity about how cities work. They are taught to see the intricacy of cities as mere disorder. Since most of them believe what they have been taught, they do not inquire about the processes that lie behind the intricacy.” To the degree that planners fail to quell this perceived disorder, the vitality of cities fortuitously continues.
Although the apparent chaos may be an asset, not a plague, other problems are real. Vehicles clog highways. Pollutants foul the air. Solid wastes accumulate and outpace landfill capacity. Buildings and infrastructure decay. Housing costs soar. Such city woes deserve attention, but plans—even the current breed of “comprehensive,” “imaginative,” “regional” public plans—are not the answer (and are sometimes even part of the problem).
Consider a recent megaplan devised by Los Angeles-area legislators. This spring the Southern California Air Quality Management District (AQMD), whose jurisdiction includes all of the greater Los Angeles area, held public hearings on a wide-ranging pollution-abatement plan. The plan includes over 140 sets of regulations, spanning 18 years, that will touch every aspect of life among South Coast residents and businesses. Leaving virtually no stone unturned, the planners would ban trivial sources of pollution—some backyard barbecues, gasoline-powered lawn mowers, and swimming-pool heaters. And it would take on more-prominent pollution sources—vehicle exhaust, oil refinery emissions, and pollution from hundreds of other industrial and commercial processes.
One by one, industry representatives stood before AQMD officials at the March hearings. The proceedings went something like this. A representative of the water-heater manufacturers would stand up, praise the district for its “pathbreaking plan to deal with pollution,” and then add that, unfortunately, the district had its facts all wrong about water heaters. They don't function the way the plan described, commercial heaters differ dramatically from residential ones, and so on. Next came the swimming-pool representative, who also praised the district for its fine work but, alas, lamented that the proposed plan failed utterly to take into account actual swimming-pool heating technology. Then followed the barbecue manufacturers, the furniture makers, the oil companies, the butchers, the bakers, and the candlestick makers.
No doubt each business was attempting to protect its interests and mitigate any regulatory costs the new plan might impose—a point that student demonstrators righteously pointed out with signs denouncing all opponents of the plan as greedy businessmen out to destroy Planet Earth. But the self-interested pleas by representatives of various enterprises also illustrated a fundamental problem of planning: the knowledge problem.
As economist Thomas Sowell observed in Knowledge and Decisions, “ideas are everywhere, but knowledge is rare.” How, Sowell then asks, “does an ignorant world perform intricate functions requiring enormous knowledge?”