Durable Growth, Government

CNU 22: The state of planning on both sides of the Atlantic

Downtown Buffalo building and adjoining streetcar construction

Downtown Buffalo building and adjoining streetcar construction

For now, this will be my last post about CNU 22, the 22nd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism that was conducted in Buffalo earlier this month.  After today, I’ll move closer to home and write about subjects of more immediate importance to the North Bay.  But the topics that were discussed at CNU 22 will help set the future of urbanism throughout the U.S, including the North Bay, so I’ll return to CNU 22 multiple times as the summer progresses.

Today, I’ll focus on a subject that arose several times during the course of CNU 22, the reaction of the planning community on both sides of the Atlantic to the planning failures of the decades after World War II.

The subject first arose during a presentation the night that CNU 22 opened.  In laying the background for a “unified theory of urbanism”, Andres Duany spoke about how English planners responded to the failures of most “new towns”, the communities that were built for veterans returning from World War II. Only a handful of new towns became viable communities.  The others quickly became undesirable backwaters or even slums.

In Duany’s opinion, the English planning community responded to the failure of the new town concept by becoming distrustful of every proposed project.  In their timidity, they found security only in delays of project approvals, often through repeated requests for additional information or further studies.

Duany told a story, almost certainly exaggerated and perhaps apocryphal, about meeting with a young English planner to complain about the years that had already been taken to review a project for which approvals were still not in sight.

In Duany’s version, the young planner tremulously asked, “Well, Mr. Duany, how long do you think project approvals should take?”

To which Duany responded “I don’t know, but perhaps less time than it took to defeat Hitler?”

Although I haven’t yet found a way to watch an episode, BBC Two created a series called “The Planners”, which takes a reality television approach to following real life land-use actions in England.  From the plot synopses and other on-line comments, the presentation of English land-use approvals seems much as Duany describes it.  Indeed, it’s significant that the show was renamed to “Permission Impossible” for its second season.

With Duany having broached the subject of planner nervousness, it seemed that the floodgates had been breached.  Over the course of CNU 22, several other speakers painted a picture of the state of U.S. planning that was much the same as the image Duany provided of the English.  A reactionary, checkmark-all-the-boxes approach that is focused on process almost to the exclusion of good results.

Some may cheer this planning caution, supposing that it may result in better projects.  I disagree, believing that the same or better results can be achieved on a more expedited schedule.

But more importantly, slower processing disadvantages the fine-grained walkable urban projects that best meet the needs of our cities.

To give one hypothetical example, the national developer of a 250,000 square-foot shopping center has far more sticking power than the local developer of 6,000 square feet of storefront retail with a dozen upstairs apartments.  If both projects are subjected to extended entitlement processes, the shopping center developer is more likely to reach the finish line, which isn’t the result for which we should be hoping.

So, in an ironic twist, planners, dismayed by the failures of drivable suburban development, are fostering timorous, reactive entitlement processes that favor drivable suburban development.  If it wasn’t such an unfortunate result, it’d be laughable

There is one last perspective to ponder.  If drivable suburban development was a sufficient failure to create a generation of shell-shocked planners, how do we prevent a similar result if walkable urbanism doesn’t hit all its objectives?

The best answer was provided by outgoing CNU board chair, Professor Ellen Dunham-Jones of Georgia Tech.   She highlighted the need to keep urbanism fresh, to learn from missteps, and to use the annual meetings as an opportunity to learn from each other, not to have dicta handed down.  In her phrase, CNU is a “forum, not a formula”.   Her words are wise.

A few months back, I wrote about historic preservation versus urbanism and a handful of upcoming Petaluma demolition applications that were providing interesting test cases.  In my next post, I’ll check back on those situations.

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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