Public Planning: The Physical Paradigm, by Michael Pittas – February 1990

A public planner today seldom does anything like “planning,” which can be understood as a perceptive form of projection, a forecasting which allows us to define the future.  In fact planning, which should be the most pro-active of the profession, is in reality one of the most reactive.  The public planner, saddled as he or she is with the stewardship of standards, statutes, ordinances, edicts and policies, as well as with review, evaluation and analysis of countless permits, zone change applications, and environmental reports, is drowning in paper.  Go to any municipal planning agency and you can see the bureaucratic quagmire.  Then ask yourself who is attending to the future while the people there attend to preserving the status quo.

This state of “non-planning,” particularly evident in Southern California, can be traced to several phenomena.  Probably the most important of these is the high regard in which individual freedom, private property rights are held.  Public planning requires – if not by definition, then certainly by implication – collective subscription to long-term goals and objectives that call for the subsumption of individual rights to the greater good.  But this makes public planning look like a communistic plot to the true blue individualists of the Southland.

A more subtle reason for the sorry state of affairs in public planning has been the abandonment of the physical paradigm for the planning of cities.  I for one always assumed that defining and shaping the spatial location of human activity over time was what city planning was principally about.  But today a concern for the physical aspects of planning is not evident in most university curricula.  Instead, we turn out whole regiments of social planners, housing planners, economic planners, education planners, and transportation planners.

There are still some planners who actually plan in an active sense.  While public planners minister to the past, their brethren from the private consulting arenas minister to the future.  Unfortunately, the future they concern themselves with is the future of their specialties.  Thus, the transportation planners can tell us all about trip generation, traffic volumes, and the effect of future land uses on the freeway systems.  So, too, the housing planners can make elaborate studies of the net deficit in housing stock and can concoct ever newer definitions of that elusive term, “affordability.”  But the transportation planner and the housing planner often speak unrecognizable languages.  Both tend to use elaborate statistical documents to justify their prognostications, and both are often equally obtuse. Communication is left to an even less knowledgeable group, the politicians.

Planners do not set out to be purposely obfuscating.  In fact, most of the ones that I have talked to would like to do a better job at communicating.  I believe that part of the solution lies in the physical planning paradigm: the recognition that all these specialized forecasts have physical ramifications on the way people live, work, recreate and circulate.  What appears to be missing from the current planning process is the means of displaying the spatial consequences of various proposed policies in a manner that both public official and citizens can understand and act upon.

Baron Hausmann’s designs for Paris, Pierre L’Enfant’s schemes for Washington D.C., and the earthly paradises of Clarence Stein, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright all produced physical plans with clear images for great cities and new settlements.  The seductive graphic portrayals of future worlds has had a compelling effect on how we view the potential of our cities.  While the utopias of the 19th century were as optimistic as the dystopias of the 20th century were pessimistic, and though none of the great “Master Plans” were ever fully realized, the important thing to recognize is that these visions, these physical projections, had an enormous effect.  We should never believe in the end state of Master Plans, but we should thoroughly embrace those parts of these visions which compel and convince us and which advance our ability to achieve excellence in both planning and a higher quality of life.  Only then will public planners be given an opportunity to plan.

Michael Pittas

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