Adolfo Carrión Jr.'s Office of Urban Affairs should beware of the temptation of centralized city planning.

What we build.
March 31 2010 6:58 AM

Don't Plan On It

Centralized city planning is not the answer to the problems facing America's cities.

Cabrini Green Housing Project. Click image to expand.
Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project

A year ago, President Obama signed an executive order creating a White House Office of Urban Affairs whose stated goal is "the development of a comprehensive urban policy." The director, inevitably referred to as the urban czar, is Adolfo Carrión Jr., who is trained as a city planner and who has talked about the need for cities to develop their own "smart plans."

According to Carrión, smart planning involves a combination of walkable communities, mass transit, and bicycle paths, and who could argue with that, except that in the last 40 years, our faith in centralized city planning has changed radically. In short, we've lost it. The last binge of planning in the 1960s produced urban renewal, city expressways, and acres of housing projects from which many cities are still only partially recovered. Urban renewal destroyed rather than repaired inner-city neighborhoods, expressways promoted urban blight, and the projects proved environmentally and socially dysfunctional. The result was collective NIMBY-ism—no planning in my backyard, thank you.

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The forces shaping our cities today are not municipal agencies but private organizations such as park conservancies, downtown associations, historic-preservation societies, arts councils, advocacy groups, and urban universities. Entrepreneurship also plays an important role. In projects large and small, real estate developers have replaced city planners and bureaucrats as the chief players on the urban scene, restoring neighborhoods, attracting residents to downtowns, helping to create the amenities that keep them there.

The important lesson is not that city planning is unimportant but, rather, that urban development should not be implemented by the public sector alone and that in a democracy, a vision of the future city will best emerge from the marketplace. (That it may turn out to be a messy vision, lacking a grand aesthetic, Jane Jacobs long ago acknowledged.) The federally funded HOPE VI program, which has spent more than $5 billion since it was launched in 1992 and which mixes social housing with market housing, has demonstrated that when public agencies collaborate with private developers, the result can be affordable homes that avoid the stigma traditionally associated with public housing projects. Almost all cities have business improvement districts, quasi-public organizations that were founded to oversee street cleanliness and public safety; in Philadelphia, the BID is also active in planning and urban development. Some cities are experimenting with multi-use zoning, which permits different uses to coexist in the same buildings, leaving the precise mix to market demand. Another interesting innovation comes from Montreal, where the provincial government is building a new $260 million concert hall. Instead of holding an architectural beauty pageant, the government announced a development competition to select a consortium that would not only design and build but also finance, manage, and maintain the hall over 30 years, leasing the building back to the orchestra.

The simple truth is that successful city-building is less about big moves and more about perseverance and day-to-day management. In the present economic downturn—as tax revenues diminish and cities face fewer jobs, no new construction, fewer tourists, fewer conventions, and less state funding—older cities will struggle to repair and replace aging infrastructure, and new cities will be challenged to maintain their growth. Talk of economic stimulus packages raises the temptation to undertake large publicly planned projects again. This temptation should be resisted. The lessons of the last 50 years should not be forgotten. To rephrase that great city planner, Daniel H. Burnham, make no big plans, only many small ones.

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Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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