Cities in Crisis

The failure of urban planning


It is widely accepted that our cities are in serious trouble. Some critics go so far as to contend that great cities, like the dinosaurs of old, are doomed to extinction, unable to cope with a changing environment. The conventional wisdom lays the blame for the cities' failure on a lack of planning. Professional urban planners, especially those in municipal planning departments, contend that, if only they had more power, the cities' problems would be on the way to solution.

In the last five years, however, a new trend has appeared—what we might call revisionist urban studies. The first of the revisionist books to appear was Martin Anderson's now-classic THE FEDERAL BULLDOZER in 1966. Anderson's book blew the lid off the federal urban renewal program, pointing out its use as "Negro removal" and its tendency to destroy ruthlessly the homes of the poor without providing replacements. Once Anderson had opened the field, others soon joined in. 1969 saw the publication of major new works by three of the leading revisionists—Edward Banfield, Jay Forrester, and Jane Jacobs.

In THE UNHEAVENLY CITY Banfield argued that 1) the urban crisis was greatly exaggerated, 2) most government antipoverty programs are ineffective at best and destructive at worst, and 3) real progress could only be made through politically unacceptable policy changes (such as ending compulsory schooling and repealing minimum wage laws, to provide urban teenagers with something constructive to do). Predictably, Banfield's ideas were greeted largely with cries of outrage.

By contrast, Jay Forrester's URBAN DYNAMICS started out very quietly. To be sure, it was reviewed in the various journals, but possibly due to the author's mathematical formulations, it took quite a while before the book's revisionist conclusions began to sink in. Forrester argued that the standard governmental programs that aim at solving urban problems attack symptoms, not causes, and in the long run only reinforce the tendency towards stagnation and decay. Politicians can continue to sell their programs because of their emotional appeal and because they (and the voters) think in terms of short-range effects, whereas Forrester's models reveal the long-range consequences of policies and programs. Though denounced by many ideologues, Forrester's analytical approach has attracted much scholarly attention.

Jane Jacobs' THE ECONOMY OF CITIES is the best-received of the new revisionist works, perhaps because she has so much confidence in the basic economic viability of cities. Jacobs is unsparing when it comes to policy recommendations, however, for example: "The single most salutary thing [the federal government] could do would be to repeal its housing, urban-renewal, model-cities, and highway legislation and hand responsibility for such matters, along with the tax money, back to localities." She sees as causes of stagnation "the seemingly small regulations that obstruct change: transportation franchises, union rules, building codes, zoning ordinances…" In short, all the sacred tools of the enlightened governmental planner.

All of this seems to suggest that urban planning—at least as it has been taught and practiced to date—has failed utterly to prevent urban decay and in some cases has accelerated it. This leads to some very fundamental questions: Is urban planning inherently and inevitably counterproductive? Is any kind of urban planning warranted and, if so, what sort? Can there be meaningful planning that does not rest on the government's power of coercion?

Answers to such questions are not easy to come by. It is all too easy for the libertarian unthinkingly to cry "laissez-faire," as if that provided answers and a way out of the mess we are in. Underlying all of these questions is an even more fundamental one: Is the city, as we know it, in fact obsolete? Are, therefore, questions like those above almost beside the point? We will return to these points in forthcoming issues.