Durable Growth

Faith-based planning must be neutralized

Urban park in London, England

Urban park in London, England

Earlier this year, I mentored a class of high school students on the intricacies of urban planning.  (I’ve previously written about the UrbanPlan curriculum.)  Several mentors were involved, each working with a small group of students.  The mentoring organizer was a public planner, recently retired after a long career which he concluded as a planning director.

As we assembled for the first of two mentoring sessions, I chatted with the organizer.  This was during the weeks immediately preceding the Petaluma Urban Chat when StrongTowns founder Chuck Marohn spoke with us by video link.  I mentioned this to this organizer, who expressed some interest.  That evening, I send him links to several posts about StrongTowns and the upcoming video chat.

As we assembled for the next mentoring session, the organizer sidled over and thanked me for the links.  Although I didn’t sense much enthusiasm, my proselytizing juices were flowing.  I suggested he come to Petaluma for the video chat.  You would have thought that I had suggested satanic worship.  He quickly backed away, assuring me, and himself, that he would never do anything like that.

It wasn’t the first time that I’ve seen senior planners with years of experience react in discomfort, fear, and denial about urbanism.

I did several projects in a community that was generally known for its progressive approach to land-use planning.  The planning director was thought by many to be at the cutting edge of new thinking about land use.  In fact, he was an adamantine opponent of urbanism.

He never put that position in words during his day-to-day duties, but the evidence was overwhelming.  Reports came back about him deprecating urbanism at planning conferences.  He would go to great lengths to impede urbanist projects in his community, including one situation that I rank among the most unprofessional I’ve seen in my career.  It was a tragedy for his town, with repercussions that still linger.

I want to make clear that I’m not painting all planners with this brush.  I’ve previously written about planners who see the logic of urbanism and yet are forced to conceal that knowledge.  And there are a great many public planners who competently and diligently apply the codes of their municipalities without bias.

But there is an aging cadre of planners for whom urbanism is anathema.

I’ve pondered the situation and the best analogy I can draw is religion.  Religious faith can be a marvelous thing, but ultimately it is just that, faith.  The definitive evidence for religious beliefs is lacking.

Similarly, the drivable suburban planning model was largely based on faith.  Despite a paucity of evidence and based solely on a seemingly plausible but untested hypothesis, the walkable urban model that had served well for millennia was discarded and replaced by the drivable suburban model.

Even as the evidence began to mount that the experiment was failing, as municipal balances sheet began to dip into the red, and as the threat of climate change loomed ever larger, we found ways to jiggle the results and convince ourselves that if we just stayed with the hypothesis a little longer, all would be well.

And the high priests of this blind faith were a generation of planners, some of whom still hold important planning positions.

I’m trying not to be overly critical of them.  Faith can be wonderfully comforting thing.  And that comfort can grow with time and age.  It can be a difficult thing to reach an advanced professional age and then be forced to confront the possibility that object of one’s faith is a failed hypothesis.

And so these planners, like many people in similar situations, ignore the evidence and continue to blindly, even aggressively, stay strong in their faith.

(I may sometimes poke fun at my engineering brethren, but we have the good fortune of working in a discipline that steeped in data, not faith.  There may be some professional backbiting, but no one goes to war over whether a bridge would function better in orthotropic steel or post-tensioned concrete.)

But the problem with having planning directors who continue to have faith in a failing vision is that they are directing us away from the future that we need.

So what should we do with these relics of a failed religion?  I’m reminded of a moment in Indian history as reported by historian Jan Morrison.  The Thuggee were a Hindu sect who believed that the correct spiritual path was to befriend traveling strangers and then to ritualistically murder and bury them during the night.

Bringing the Thuggee under control was a challenge for the 19th century imperial British authorities.  But even after the enforcement task was complete, a problem remained.  The Thuggee acknowledged that the British seemed to have superior gods because they were able to suppress the Thuggee, but the Thuggee believed that the path of ritual murder was still the correct one for them.

Even the young Thuggee, who had yet committed no crimes and therefore couldn’t be jailed, willingly admitted that they would follow the Thuggee path given the opportunity.

The British solution was the place the Thuggee in villages where they could live in peace and dignity, but without the option of leaving.  The Thuggee accepted the wisdom of the solution and gradually vanished from history.

It seems that a similar solution is required is required for the planners who cling to the failed drivable suburban hypothesis.  We needn’t strip them of their dignity or their professional positions, but we need to isolate them from opportunities to perpetuate their failed belief system.

Our future requires it.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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