Planning Cities

Daniel Appell: Oct. 3, 2011

In advance of the Harcourt rally for a vision for Nanaimo, Wed. Oct. 5 @ the convention centre. I wrote out some thoughts on the process of planning. In Nanaimo there are three types of planners:
The schemers – a small number of citizens develop a list of wishes based on their particular small set of interests,  add a architect’s rendering or two to dress it up, and call it a vision for Nanaimo to sell it to the rest of the city. The idea is to get everyone else to pay for whatever it is that they want. They’re like children with a christmas wish list, and everybody else is supposed to play Santa Claus.
The Not-in-front-of-my-view-and-not-in-my-backyarders – this type doesn’t get active until they perceive a threat to their little corner of the city. Typically, they  are really only interested in being left alone. If there is a problem, let some other neighbourhood deal with it. For the most part, if there is a plan, they’re against it until its proven that the plan undoable. They’ll support only the undoable plans or the undoable parts of plans.
The city hall planners – like rats in a maze, they’ll go down any random corridor hoping to get to the cheese. This is planning not to plan, and trying to make it look like they know what they are doing. In this maze, incompetence is promoted, so that from a huge list of recommendations, a few recommendations are randomly chosen to become guidelines, and guidelines become regulations, and regulation rules to the point of absurdity.
Sadly, none of these types of planning work. Largely, because these are three unhealthy, incomplete and incompetent pieces to a much larger puzzle.
In a healthy society, the schemers would be able to identify trends, issues and ideas that may be worth preparing for, considering, and acting upon. Unfortunately, the amount of material that can be generated by this group can be overwhelming. Without an ability to self-edit or easily analyze the merits of their individual ideas we can get a massive glop of stuff to deal with. To accommodate this group, we end up with the job jar approach. Someone of influence would randomly pick a project out of the jar, quickly assess its popularity on a political level, and go with that – come hell or high water.
The NIMBY’s would, in the best of times, require from us sober second thought. They tend to identify issues, concerns and alternatives that, perhaps, should be considered. Since we are randomly committing ourselves to ideas from a jar, long before we give these ideas any thought at all, the NIMBY’s role is now entirely superficial and denigrated.
The city hall planner would in the best circumstance be able to identify the viability of an idea, and direct us to alternatives that might have a more satisfactory outcome. Since they haven’t done much case study work, and their understanding of the nature of cities is limited, they confine themselves to making and managing the regulations and hope that the result will be good enough.
The net result is a city based on random chooses, emotional reactions and uninformed decisions. The community doesn’t benefit because everyone is pursing a very narrow set of interests, and arguing from a very limited point of view, without consideration for the fact that as the whole community improves so do their individual lives.
The only planning that works, is the planning that argues for improved efficiency. I know this sounds repetitive, but these are the only arguments that can inform decisions based on rational, enlightened self-interest.
Increased efficiency benefits the most people by making the whole city easier to live in. Instead of thinking of efficiency as a by-product of whatever idea is out there, analyze the idea with the notion that efficiency is the primary goal. Health and safety issues aside; if a project of any sort, won’t make the city more efficient, then it won’t have a lasting impact, it won’t be sustainable and it won’t be worth doing. Throw that idea out and move on to the next one.
If we can analyze ideas using this very simple guide we can easily separate the wheat from the chaff, so that we can focus on the beneficial and the doable. The result is a city that’s sustainable, lively, interesting, dynamic and, also, worth living in.