Planning as physical philosophy

The Papers Series are lightly edited papers I wrote for classes at Cornell University as I studied for a Master's in Regional Planning. Often, references will be to printed books rather than to websites. If you want to check it out yourself, contact me and I will see if I have a scanned copy available.

This paper was originally written at the end of my first semester. It details the evolution of my understanding of planning as a discipline, not just as a subject area, through the lens of the semester's readings.

Since I began the program at Cornell, my thoughts and ideas about planning and planners have changed markedly, though I would classify the change as evolutionary rather than revolutionary. My once-clear perspective as a Glaeserian urbanist has become clouded by notions of justice, equity, participation, democracy, and humanity’s aptitude to tear down each of those. That said, the cloudiness in my outlook is one of added complexity, not of rejection. Like salt dissolving into water, I suspect these notions will dissolve into my urbanism, leaving something that looks similar to the original product but is quite different in taste and use.

My background as a blogger and advocate in Washington, DC, and Marin County steeped me in the world of activism, which stretches beyond the world of traditional planning and into engineering and politics. Alon Levy divided a subset of these activists, transit activists, into what he termed technicals and politicals:

Politicals are the people who tend to trust the transit authorities, support a general expansion of all rail transit projects, and believe the primary problem is defeating oil-funded anti-transit lobbies. Technicals are the people who tend to distrust what the authorities say, and prefer their own analysis or that of technically-minded activists; they support transit but are skeptical about many projects, and treat agency inertia and turf wars as the primary obstacles for transit revival. [1]

While Levy was concerned with transit activists only, the distinction is usefully applied to planning activists as a whole. In my writing I have striven to be technically minded first, leading me to believe that poor planning outcomes were fundamentally problems of rules and subsidies rather than inherent injustice. These were problems of “agency inertia” rather than unspoken bias or injustice, and I wrote from this perspective. [2a, 2b, 2c, 2d] As I anticipated Cornell, I thought that being able to easily discourse on FAR, traffic flow, zoning, bike lanes, rail procurement, and a host of other topics that I believed were core to planning would prepare me for class. I was wrong.

The great theme of my first semester was the exploration of justice and equity. From Samuel P. Hays [3] to June Manning Thomas [4] and a huge body of literature between and beyond, planning has roots that extend past the physical and deep into the philosophical. Planners are not simply engineers who must play politics to be allowed to do quality work, as Levy’s technicals might want. No, planning arises from the very political concerns of justice. Any answer to the question, “How ought we live?” must necessarily include economics and planning - the "we" in that question - as well as personal ethics and morality.

Though, as a planning course, we did not explore the question of how we ought to live directly, we did touch on the effects whatever answer must have on planning. In short, these principles are:

  • The promotion of economic equality
  • The promotion of equitable power distribution
  • The recognition and celebration of diversity in all forms
  • Reflection upon one’s own failures and successes

None of these planning principles deal with physical planning. Instead, planners must place those physical aspects of the profession in a subordinate position to justice. To this technically-minded armchair planner/blogger, this inversion of priorities within the planning profession was a surprise, though in retrospect it ought not to have been.

My undergraduate education in politics was steeped in concerns of justice even though contemporary politics rarely addresses justice directly. Rather, justice must be worked out through public policies. As a field with ties to many public policy arenas, planning must also look to justice as a guiding light. Curiously, these principles were outlined in papers and books long before the concept of justice itself was analyzed by planners [5a, 5b]. The success of Susan Fainstein’s The Just City [6] and Leonie Sandercock’s Towards Cosmopolis [7] strongly implies that there was a yearning for planning-focused philosophical examinations of the nature of justice, but the paucity of work on the subject prior to Cosmopolis implies that the cart came before the horse.

Although not as surprising as the importance of justice to planning, the prominence of politically left-wing solutions to myriad planning problems was unexpected. Bill Goldsmith’s twin lectures [8] on the progressive city, for example, were stridently and proudly leftist. [Note: the lectures were class lectures and are unavailable. However, Goldsmith's book, Saving Our Cities, was the source for much of series and is therefore recommended.] Dolores Hayden’s discussion of gender and city planning led to a decidedly collectivist model [9]. Sandercock praises the activist planner who leaves her career behind to fight for the underclass [10]. Meanwhile, Smart Growth activists (for example James Bacon [11], Streetfilms [12], and David Schaengold [13]) have actively tried to appeal to an economically conservative audience that would find such analyses repugnant.

The contrast between these two thrusts of planning thought is striking. Social justice is firmly based in progressive and left-wing theory, while prosaic discussions of urban finance find their basis in classical economics and right-wing theory. Although I expected some emphasis upon the former rather than the latter, I did not expect the political left to so dominate the field.

I wish to bring a variety of things forward with me into my planning practice, but perhaps nothing is more important than the impossibility of making people good. Although hardly a new concept, the at times utopian, at times downtrodden perspectives of Marxist and neoliberal urbanists alike remind me of the folly of trusting people to do the right thing. Neither Marxism nor neoliberalism offer systems that get people to actually abandon injustice. Rather, they both seek ways to restrain the fundamentally flawed nature of humanity.

In a planning practice, then, we must always be aware of the infinite creativity of people to seek their own well-being at the expense of others. No matter how great our plan, someone will probably find a way to muck it up. Since we must also be optimistic, as we planners ought expect our plans to be followed to some degree, our aim ought to be to be clear-eyed optimists who will expect failure to lurk around every corner.

When failure or success do come, self-reflection as described by Raphaël Fischler [14] must be at the core of my practice. Why did that meeting work and this one did not? What has gone right with that project after 5, 10, or 15 years and what has gone wrong? Did I bake failure into the project, or were outside forces at work? How might I inoculate my projects against such outside forces in the future?

Self-reflection must also mean a constant search for a truer meaning of justice. Justice, the context of planning, goes beyond one's personal definition of what is just and must respect for others’ definitions of justice. If I allow my own concepts of justice to fossilize, I risk losing some of my capacity to respect and honor diverse ideologies. Given that planners are also called to a more equitable power distribution, I must especially approach disempowered communities with humility. Self-righteousness is antithetical to the aim of both the former aim (respecting and honoring ideologies other than my own) and the latter (empowerment of the disempowered).

The first semester of CRP was an unexpected and delightful surprise. It was far more introspective, theoretical, and exciting than I had ever imagined it to be. Planning itself is clearly quite bold. As a field, it challenges how we order our society and asks us to truly be broad-minded in a way that pure political science does not. A politician must eventually find a constituency and find how to work justice within the confines that constituency sets, but a planner is called to form a more just society beyond whatever constituency she may be most comfortable with. I am happy to have joined that calling.

Works Cited

[1] “Politicals vs. Technicals: The Primary Division of Transit Activists,” Pedestrian Observations, June 28, 2011.

[2] David Edmondson, “A Greater Marin,” The Greater Marin, March 19, 2012; David Edmondson, “Reducing Passenger Train Procurement Costs” (Washington, DC: Competitive Enterprise Institute, June 5, 2013); David Edmondson, “Being Marin Again,” The Greater Marin, December 9, 2013; David Edmondson, “Tautological Housing Study Reminds Us That Demand Is More than Skin Deep,” The Greater Marin, February 11, 2015.

[3] “The Politics of Reform in Municipal Government in the Progressive Era,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 55, no. 4 (1964): 157–69.

[4] “Social Justice as Responsible Practice: Influence of Race, Ethnicity, and the Civil Rights Era,” in Planning Ideas That Matter: Livability, Territoriality, Governance, and Reflective Practice, ed. Bishwapriya Sanyal, Lawrence J. Vale, and Christina D. Rosan (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012).

[5] John H. Mollenkopf, The Contested City (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983); Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[6] The Just City (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).

[7] Towards Cosmopolis: Planning for Multicultural Cities (Chichester, England: Academy Press, 1997).

[8] “The American City Today” (Lecture, Introduction to Planning Practice and History, Cornell University, October 7, 2015). See Saving Our Cities: A Progressive Plan to Transform Urban America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).

[9] “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work,” Signs, Supplement on Women and the American City, 5, no. 3 (1980): S170–87.

[10] Towards Cosmopolis.

[11] “Too Little Density, Too Much Road Surface,” Bacon’s Rebellion, November 12, 2015.

[12] Elizabeth Press, William Lind: A Conservative Voice For Public Transportation (New York: Streetfilms, 2009).

[13] “Why Conservatives Should Care About Transit,” Public Discourse, April 17, 2009.

[14] “The Reflective Practitioner,” in Planning Ideas That Matter: Livability, Territoriality, Governance, and Reflective Practice, ed. Bishwapriya Sanyal, Lawrence J. Vale, and Christina D. Rosan (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012).