To what end “Vision?”

Continuing yesterday’s commentary:

One of the complaints that design-oriented planners and urban designers sometimes raise is that planners are too process and legal-administration focused.  I documented a particularly strong case of that in this essay reflecting on the 2014 Congress for the New Urbanism, when the awards committee decided not to give an award in one category because none of the submissions were “visionary enough” (they also gave an award to a student “plan” that wiped out a large section of the Chicago Loop, which I suppose tells you the kind of “visionary” they were looking for…)

My concern is not that we are teaching planners (and ourselves) not to be visionaries — often we don’t live up to that, but the number of grand unbuilt designs that show up on old plan document shelves and archives all over the country would seem to indicate that the ability to create grand visions is not particularly lacking.  If we were truly spending too much time designing pablum, those shelves and files would be a lot thinner. 

My big concern is that we create visions based on the way we think people *should* behave, *should* react, *should* live.  And not enough based on understanding what people actually want, seek, prioritize, do.

If we’re honest, we have to admit that sometimes we don’t want to know what the public thinks or how the economic part of the situation works. The fact that the numbers don’t work or that people might have different ideas threatens makes it messy, uncomfortable.  Our visions might be opposed. And, to be very frank, we too often tell ourselves that the public or the money people don’t know  anything constructive to contribute — probably because we’ve had such lousy experience with the kinds of public meetings that, by their fundamental design, force people into a confrontational environment. 

My biggest concern these days isn’t that planners are going to be processors. My biggest concern is that the planning profession is going to repeat the damages of the 50s and 60s — instigating big projects on the basis of some idealized view of the world, while over-simplifying or ignoring what the people who live and work in a community know and understand. 

If I were to advise urban design professors, I would recommend that they spend some time analyzing the urban renewal projects of that era — not just the design and how it works or does not work, but also the process that led to that design. I wrote in detail about what I learned from just one such situation here.

Once you’ve done that, I don’t think you can approach physical planning with the same hubris. The eeriness of the similarities will get to you.


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