The process of creating and implementing municipal comprehensive plans has evolved over the past 80 years. This process has become a prime cause of dysfunctional human settlement patterns within New Urban Regions and Urban Support Regions in the United States.
Current reality does not reflect the intent of the participants in the process, but it is the cumulative result of their actions. It is not a case of bad planners. It is, however, very bad planning and has resulted in evermore dysfunctional human settlement patterns. These practices prevent the evolution of communities with a balance of jobs/housing/services/recreation/amenity in sustainable New Urban Regions. This is how it happened.
In the Beginning --
Short History of the Urban Form
Location is fundamental, and context is important. It is critical to start from a common perception of the past.
(See End Note.)
Urban settlements first agglomerated—and later were intentionally planned—where the exchange/transfer/marketing of goods and services was most safe and efficient. Frequently, early urban agglomerations were located where trade goods were transshipped. Water was the mass shipping medium before roads, rails and air travel, and so the prototypical ‘city’ evolved at a port. Ports were where cargos carried on water were made up, broken down or stored and secured in preparation for the next leg of a journey. Urban settlements—the important ones became ‘cities’—provided a safe place for exchange, fabrication and manufacture.
As civilization evolved and was leveraged by science and technology, there were more location options for potential urban settlements and larger urban agglomerations. Over 6,000 years, urban fabric components became more diverse and urban systems larger. The range of forces shaping human settlement patterns was expanded exponentially by the Industrial Revolution. The result was the chaos of the ‘industrial center’ that eclipsed the traditional ‘city’ after 1850.
The Comprehensive Plan
Urban planning (aka, ‘city’ planning) is as old as urban settlements. The complexity of the emerging industrial era urban centers resulted in the need for more sophisticated planning. The intent of the new generation of urban planning activity was to achieve better settlement patterns in the context of wildly escalating forces impacting the evolution of the economic, social and physical spheres of human existence.
For many reasons, the planning of urban fabric has never become a federal or state responsibility in the United States. Municipal ‘comprehensive’ planning evolved to become a recommended—and now often a required—activity of the lowest tier of the existing governance structure.
By the 1920s, there were a number of important innovations in the planning of places for urban and nonurban activities:
The Driving Force
The Driving Force coalition has as a foundation landowners who became amateur speculators based on unfounded expectations about the extent of demand for future urban land uses. There are, of course, also professional land speculators.
The Driving Force includes developers and developer-builders who buy land without knowing what they plan to develop/construct on the site. It also counts as core members lawyers, engineers, surveyors, real estate agents and allied professions. At a separate level, The Driving Force is supported by the entire building and automobile industry sectors.
The Driving Force is aided by governance practitioners who receive political contributions and other favors from the above named participants. The motto of The Driving Force is "the jurisdiction that issues the most building permits, wins."
The operatives of The Driving Force are following a tradition established by `the founding brothers' that became national policy after the election of Andrew Jackson to the Presidency:
Short-term speculative gain was installed as the prime motivating factor in determining human settlement patterns in the United States. Speculative gain retains this position today, supported by municipal planning.
The Resistance to Change
The Resistance to Change coalition is, of course, primarily identified with
NIMBY's—citizens and their organizations who are afraid that a change of human settlement patterns may not benefit them individually and/or collectively. If one does not understand functional human settlement pattern, every change is a threat, and so more and more NIMBYs have become BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone).
Business As Usual and the evolution of
Municipal Comprehensive Plans as a
The Driving Force and The Resistance to Change have evolved to constitute the foundation of Business-as-Usual. ‘Business-as-Usual’ is the term used by S/PI to describe the public and private activities that result in dysfunctional human settlement patterns. (Professors William H. Lucy and David L. Philips term this force ‘the tyranny of easy development decisions’ in Confronting Suburban Decline: Strategic Planning for Metropolitan Renewal. Overcoming Business-as-Usual and catalyzing Fundamental Change is the focus of Stark Contrast in Section II. of the Handbook.)
Over the past 80 years, municipal `comprehensive' plans have become a least-common-denominator compromise between The Driving Force and The Resistance to Change. The configuration of the comprehensive plan in any municipality is a reflection of the relative strengths of the two sides in a particular jurisdiction. There is no analytical subregional or regional evaluation of, or counterbalance to, the cumulative impact of these municipal plans.
In every region of the United States, the collage of municipal plans that bear no resemblance to a rational regional distribution of land uses has become a constraint on prosperity, stability and sustainability of urban fabric. These plans are also a dramatic contributor to the centrifugal forces destroying the countryside.
The results of dysfunctional municipal comprehensive plans were clear by the early 1960s. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Federal 701 Planning Assistance Program spread the virus of bad municipal planning with cookie-cutter zoning and
scatteration-inducing subdivision regulations. The disease now infects most municipal jurisdictions within 100 miles of every significant urban agglomeration in the United States.
As noted above, the negative impact of least-common-denominator municipal plans has been exacerbated by the failure of states and regions to develop quantifiable subregional and regional plans. The negative impact of municipal plans has also been leveraged by the misuse of environmentalism, new urbanism and citizen participation.
The Emergence of Environmental Concerns
The presentation of images of dead fish, oiled birds and flaming rivers by the media in the early 1960s documented that all was not right in a world driven by industrialization, globalizing competition and speculative land and development markets. Color photos from airplanes illustrated the extent and dramatic impact of ‘sub’urbanization. The study of Ecology suggested that everything was tied to everything else. With respect to the environment, things could be shown to be `going to hell in the trunk of a car.'
Enter Ian McHarg and colored overlays as a technique to illustrate the character of land and where not to build. This methodology has proven helpful in analyzing the suitability of land for extensive uses. Without an understanding of the 95%-5% Guideline One or the application of Regional Metrics to help guide the evolution of functional human settlement patterns, McHarg's overlay technique has been applied in ways that separate and scatter intensive urban land uses. It has become `good planning' to scatter the components of urban fabric across the countryside as long as the buildings are hidden from view and are not built in floodplains, on steep slopes, etc.
Ecology became an excuse to spread out and, in fact, wipe out orders of magnitude more natural resources than would be the case with compact, efficient human settlement patterns. `Green' plans that rely on inventories of `sensitive natural resources' led to a scattering of urban land uses in the `blank spots.' The overlay technique, in the hands of the uninformed, can even lead to the best agricultural soils becoming prime targets for septic-tank subdivisions.
With scattered urban land uses, the automobile has become ever more dominant because there is no alternative way to provide access to the dispersed origins and destinations of urban travel. This has brought the automobile industry and its advertising and lobbying into full partnership in The Driving Force.
In a perverse way, Ecology has come to leverage the commonly-documented centrifugal forces acting on urban systems—Interstate expressways, mortgage interest deductions for low-density housing, Euclidian zoning, `gold-plated manhole cover' subdivision regulations, land speculation and intermunicipal tax-base competition. Mainly it has given a moral basis for both raw and refined subsidies to extend urban infrastructure and thus insure the scatteration of urban land uses.
Without an agreed-to vocabulary or shared conceptual framework, components of human settlement pattern have been scattered across the countryside.
`Hide-em-in-the-bushes' has become `rural by design.' `Good planning' has resulted in isolated units, orphan dooryards, cluster fragments and dysfunctional neighborhoods. `Good planning' has come to have nothing to do with the creation of balanced and sustainable communities. The American Planning Association now gives awards to municipal plans and programs, as well as to individual projects, having no correlation to viable village-scale and community-scale components of human settlement patterns.
Collectively, municipal comprehensive planning has increased the dysfunction of New Urban Regions, Urban Support Regions and the organic components of these regions.
The New Urbanism
Vincent Scully's Afterward in The New Urbanism hits the nail on the head. The roots of the ‘new urbanism’ is really the mid-20s new ‘sub’urbanism. It is not, however, a problem of ‘sub’urbane design that is the primary cause of the new urbanism’s negative impact. It is the scattered location of many new
urbanists’ projects. The attractiveness of porches and other unit-scale and dooryard-scale features is used to sell development projects in dysfunctional locations.
The failure to understand the organic structure of sustainable urban fabric creates dysfunctional regional and subregional settlement patterns by scattering new urbanist projects in inappropriate locations. This is in spite of the fact that the pallet of neotraditional designs includes many good ideas and can produce attractive projects.
The supporters of neotraditional design and the Charter of New Urbanism have struggled with vocabulary as well as geography. They have not come to grips with the need for a comprehensive conceptual framework and a vocabulary to articulate this framework.
The history of the neotraditionalists' struggle with vocabulary and conceptual frameworks provides useful insights. New urbanists started with ‘neighborhood,’ ‘district’ and ‘corridor’ as the components of human settlement patterns. They subdivided the first two into ‘streets’ and ‘blocks,’ but this was not enough to create a comprehensive system. They added `region' and then worked for years on perfecting a complex ‘Lexicon’ reflecting unit-, dooryard-, and cluster-scale design parameters.
The Lexicon has now been abandoned in favor of ‘The Transect.’ The Transect identifies parts of the human settlement pattern with the terms ‘core,’ ‘center’ and ‘general’ along with ‘edge,’ ‘reserve’ and `preserve.' The limitations of the application of The Transect are demonstrated by constructs where the ‘neighborhood’ template is seen as the universal human settlement pattern component. What are the components of ‘neighborhood’? What do two, three or four ‘neighborhoods’ create?
The Deceptive Excuse -- Citizen Participation
With increasing frequency, municipal planners and their consultants wrap themselves in the mantle of ‘citizen participation’ when discussing planning that impacts human settlement patterns. This is counterproductive since the citizens do not have a clue about the topic upon which they are providing input. The nature and function of viable and sustainable human settlement patterns is complex as documented by The Shape of the Future. That is the reason the Handbook's Three-Step Process was developed.
Blind preference polls result in black holes of misinformation. Without an understanding of the cumulative consequences of their choices, citizens usually choose detached (sic) McMansions with three Mercedes in every garage. Homebuilders have been using this technique for forty years to demonstrate the popularity of ‘sub’urbane, least-common-denominator projects.
If, like the citizens, the professional planners leading the processes also have no clue about the function of human settlement patterns, ‘citizen participation’ is nothing more than an expensive way for ‘the blind to lead the blind.’
If the first step in the planning process is not to carry out comprehensive, substantive educational efforts, the result is a shallow justification for whatever municipal comprehensive plan compromise would have been struck without the elaborate process.
Frequently, the processes that most loudly claim that they are ‘participatory’ and following the wishes of the citizens are really responding to the interest groups. A check of the participants often finds that the people who were paid to be at the meetings (and/or will get some direct benefit from a specific outcome) far outnumber those not paid or not directly benefiting. Only a few of those who participate are not staff, consultants or representatives of vested interests—usually spokespersons for The Driving Force and The Resistance to Change
(aka, Business-as-Usual supporters).
The Need to Recognize the Organic Structure of
Human Settlement Patterns
The problem with the green overlays, neotraditional neighborhoods, participatory sector plans and municipal planning in general is that none of this reflects the organic structure of human settlement patterns. One may choose to apply the New Urban Region and the organic components, which are introduced in The Shape of the Future, or they may decide to develop a new conceptual framework. Either way, the framework must be comprehensive. It must match the organic structure of human settlement, and it has to be made clear to those whose decisions shape the pattern and density of land use.
To move beyond these problems, the planning profession needs to begin to plan for balanced communities and their organic components, not just respond to projects proposed by speculators, developers and builders.
The application of Regional Metrics is a way to understand the impact of creating dysfunctional spacial relationships between components of human settlement pattern. It is also a way to demonstrate the importance of Next Larger Component Planning and The Cordon Line Technique of project design and review outlined in The Shape of the Future. They are valuable resources for the planning of balanced communities in sustainable New Urban Regions. The Four Action Tools in Section XIII. (Step Three) of the Handbook can be instrumental in shifting away from simply approving `projects' and moving toward `creating balanced communities.'
End Note: This brief summary is not intended to supplant or even summarize the scholarly work in the history of urban form. There is an expanded review of the historical context of human settlement patterns in The Shape of the Future Part One (Chapters 1-4), as well as in the references cited in the Endnotes for Part One and in Appendix Three—Readings.
-- December 2002
© 2002 SYNERGY/Planning, Inc.
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