Durable Growth, Government

Successful planning requires game-management quarterbacks, not delusions of grandeur

The French Quarter in New Orleans before the tourists arrive

The French Quarter in New Orleans before the tourists arrive

I’ve written twice about “The Trouble with City Planning” by Kristina Ford.  In the first post, I found the middle of the book to have useful insights into the planning process, particularly on the role of general plans.  Later, I described the same worthwhile middle section as awkwardly conjoined to ill-conceived introductory and closing sections that seemed to have been the ideas of a market-focused editor rather that of the author.

Despite the latter concern, I still found the book sufficiently useful that I kept it on my reading table for the occasional riffle through the stronger portions.

It was during one of those riffles when I again came across a paragraph that was a particularly egregious example of another concern with the book.  Not enough of a concern to cause me to set the book aside, but one that made me twitch.  Before I expound, let me share the section.

“In preparing for public discussion, planners rely on their professional training.  They of course are aware of the more generalized textbook ways by which various uses of land produce adverse effects.  Planners can, for instance, accurately predict the amount of increased traffic a new commercial enterprise will occasion, and can predict in advance the air and water pollution caused by new industrial plants.”

Really?  Land planners can model traffic generation and perform environmental science?  And those are only examples of the skills that planners have, meaning they have even more talents?  Why would they ever need anyone else on the team if they have all those abilities?  Ford makes it seem as if planners can play all the instruments in the orchestra and then fly home with capes fluttering behind and giant red P’s on their chests.

I’ve known many land planners in my years as a civil engineer.  Sometimes, I’ve sat across the table from them.  Other times, we’ve been members of the same team.  But I’ve never come across a planner who had the skills implied by Ford or even pretended they did.  Nor do I want to.

For most planning tasks, the role of a planner is to assimilate and process information that has been developed by others and is beyond the range of their own technical expertise, such as predicted traffic or environmental contaminants.  It’s not a trivial task.  To integrate technical data from multiple specialists into a coherent document and to later defend that document in public hearings takes a special ability.  But it’s a different ability from having the full breadth of technical skills that Ford implies.

If the offending paragraph noted above had been the only instance of this attitude in the entire book, I would have ascribed it to sloppy editing and never mentioned it here.  But it’s not.  Throughout much of the book, Ford offers glorious testimony to the vast breadth of technical knowledge possessed by planners.

I’m perplexed by how Ford came to have her overinflated opinion of the skills of planners.  I can’t imagine she’s come across planners with the breadth of skills she describes.  And yet, with a nearly decade as the New Orleans Planning Director and other earlier planning employments, she must have worked with hundreds of planners.  It’s a puzzle.

Is it a problem that Ford has an odd view of planners?  Not really.  If a reader’s first introduction to planning is this book, they may come away with a false impression of the breadth of planners’ technical knowledge.  But if a reader is first encountering planning through this book, they already have a problem.   This tome better serves as a source of helpful nuances and alternative perspectives to a planning education begun elsewhere.

At the bottom line, my point is that, while the beginning and end of the book have a tacked on feel and while the author has an overly exalted view of her profession, the book still offers points worth pondering.  Readers shouldn’t be easily deterred, but should instead brush away the dross and keep digging.  I found the effort worthwhile.

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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