Tuesday, March 20, 2012


A recent discussion at Harvard's Design School about planning as an academic and a professional endeavor got me thinking that there are two scales at which planners typically operate: the minute and the vast. 

In the "minute" category, I place community processes where a single street corner might be a topic for months and months of meetings in which the discussion will ebb and flow, with no real decisions being reached.  The planner tries to gauge the tenor of the comments while paying attention to the specific ideas being put forward and proposing possible solutions to the question at hand.  This "inclusive" planning empowers the community for itself with the planner as facilitator to a public that is the ultimate decision maker.  This type of planning is typical for community development departments in cities around the country, and it comes from a long and worthy tradition, an effort to offset the abuses of the past, where community input was viewed simply as an impediment to a grand idea, an idea that represented someone else's interests.

The cliche that the public process almost always produces a better outcome also happens to be true and is one of the benefits of this type of planning.  However, in the worst of cases, an empowered public fragments into smaller warring factions, and a very long and arduous but responsible process blows up with nothing to show except bruised feelings and angry neighbors.

Under "vast", I include the projects that happen at such a large scale that they swamp the capacity of a neighborhood or even a city to respond to them.  They are driven by financial concerns that far outstrip the locality's scope, and their impact will redefine the area that they are located in.  Cities struggle with the dance that these types of projects represent.  Since the projects are by definition transformative, they offer opportunities much greater than what a local government can produce on its own.  But they will fundamentally alter the circumstances on the ground, and therefore they produce a deep apprehension and wariness.  They are not so much about fixing the old as they are about building the new.  The planner, almost always in private pay in this instance, is no longer the facilitator but the creator and the definer.  The issue becomes less about mitigating the impact and more about augmenting the impact.  This is about defining the world in 21st century terms and applying all that thinking to create the next version of urban space.

Eastern Cambridge is dealing with much of this right now, not dissimilar from massive projects around the globe, where whole new cities are being created in deserts.