Get Your Urban Planning On
September 28, 2007 11:43 AM   Subscribe

I am an aspiring urban planner who lives in the U.S. I am wondering what urban planners would do differently if they could start from scratch and cost wasn't an issue. For example, it is been proven that round-abouts are far safer than your typical intersections found in the U.S. So, as an urban planner, I would recommend roundabouts. Would all cities be built on a grid system? Would all cities have bullet trains or car-pool lanes? Underground power-lines? Phone-charging stations? What would you do differently if you rebuilt Los Angeles or Miami?
posted by kaizen to Society & Culture (41 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago would have a counterpart beneath every single street in every city.
posted by aramaic at 11:59 AM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

There is a whole subset of planners in the "green" community that advocate intelligent design or re-design of cities. I just ran across ecocitybuilders. They are putting on an ecocity conference in April '08 in San Francisco if you can make it. Have you seen the Treehugger blog? They often come up with planning, architecture or design links that fit in with what you're asking.
posted by a_green_man at 12:07 PM on September 28, 2007

Zoning to allow for smaller houses on larger lots to take advantage of geothermal heating systems. Community shared resources like yards, gardens, child care and community center. Streets and traffic flow designed with bikes in mind. Small neighborhood schools instead of larger regional ones. light industrial/office zones within walking distance of neighborhoods, perhaps buffered by parks. commercial areas scattered throughout. Basically a more organic type of planning trying to replicate the best of how neighborhoods grow naturally. But siting houses and buildings so they face the street. Front porches to encourage interaction.
posted by Gungho at 12:08 PM on September 28, 2007

Do everything in this book: A Pattern Language.
posted by designbot at 12:36 PM on September 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'd read everything on Car Free and A Pattern Language and do it.

I like grids, but they're only one possible solution to the real problem, which is to build the city with a readily comprehensible geometry; the plan given in Car Free would work as well, and is better adapted to its purpose.

Some planned communities in Japan (and perhaps elsewhere, I don't know) are being built with common utility tunnels: water and wastewater pipes, electric,and signal cabling all run through the same tunnels. Good idea.
posted by adamrice at 12:40 PM on September 28, 2007

designbot: d'oh!
posted by adamrice at 12:40 PM on September 28, 2007

While roundabouts are safer, I would build a less car-centric city. Build a city based on a strong mixed transit system including underground, surface rail, and more mass-transit options. A grid system mixed with angled arterial streets actually works best for almost all purposes.

Most zoning sucks except for certain industrial needs. Cities that are tightly zoned with residential, commercial, entertainment, and industrial areas are exceptionally bland and are difficult to adapt to changing conditions. Use minimal zoning to encourage an optimal population density that will make efficient use of your transportation infrastructure.

Utilities should be placed entirely in underground access corridors with the ability to use maintenance vehicles within.

Also understand that planners cannot mandate the layout of an entire urban system unless they are in a totalitarian state. You can't say that there has to be so many grocery stores or so many car dealerships, apartments, etc. Build a solid infrastructure with redundancy.
posted by JJ86 at 12:43 PM on September 28, 2007

Okay well as an actual urban planner, I'm not sure what you're trying to accomplish here. There is no one ideal city. Saying that roundabouts are safer, therefore you would recommend them tells me you shouldn't be an urban planner. Safety is really not the only consideration that has to be taken in to account. What about preferences? And when you say "safety" whose safety do you mean? Drivers? Pedestrians, Bicyclists? Maybe stick with playing SimCity.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 12:48 PM on September 28, 2007

Also realize that what works for one area of the globe will not work for another. If the groundwater level is high, building a complete underground network of subways and utilities may not be a viable option. Areas with lots of cold and snow may need a better way to take advantage thermal energy. Cities with many natural obstructions may need to adapt those obstructions.
posted by JJ86 at 12:49 PM on September 28, 2007

Sorry to be crabby but these sorts of questions drive me crazy. If you want to be a good urban planner, this sort of question is completely beside the point. There is no start from scratch (what? from a pristine prairie? Well for one, don't start there) and there is no "cost not an issue." These factors are what makes the job something that needs doing. Oh, and read
posted by otherwordlyglow at 12:53 PM on September 28, 2007

You might get a wider audience for this particular question at the urban planning forum of
posted by Doohickie at 12:57 PM on September 28, 2007

You might be interested in the movie Radiant City by Jim Brown and Gary Burns, about urban sprawl in Calgary, Alberta. It features interviews with several urban planners.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:59 PM on September 28, 2007

Monorails connecting airports, city centers, suburbs and shopping / commercial / industrial areas.

Hundertwasser-style rooftop gardens for everyone.

Breezeways and courtyards in every building over a certain size.

Car-less city centers, with satellite transit villages ringing them.

Everything mixed use (well, maybe not the heavy industrial, but everything else).

Schools next to parks, always, and museums.

Everything I know, I learned from Jane Jacobs. And maybe reading too much science fiction.
posted by luriete at 1:07 PM on September 28, 2007

Here's a practical example of retrofitting a city in a way I would approve of as a cyclist.
posted by a_green_man at 1:18 PM on September 28, 2007

As another actual urban planner, I'll second otherworldlyglow. It's just more complicated than that. Some people, and a lot of Americans, like their cars, no matter how much fantastic public transportation is down the street. And most of them are awful at navigating roundabouts. Some people like living in hip downtown, high density, gentrified all to hell neighborhoods. Some like the suburbs. Plenty can't afford to do either. You can't just draw up what you think is the perfect city and dump a bunch of people into it and wait to see it run like clockwork. Urban planners don't get to decide these things, nor should they. They aren't dictators, just plain old public servants in a democracy.

Also, the last time planners actually came close to being dictators, and gave "starting from scratch, with cost not an issue" a shot, they bulldozed a bunch of low-income, though perfectly functional neighborhoods, and replaced them with highways and fenced off public housing units. We had another chance to "start from scratch" down here in New Orleans recently, and they just about blew it right from the get-go by thinking that what people wanted, post-Katrina, was a bunch of light rails and nice greenspaces all over the damn place. I saw people crying at those public meetings. I don't think showing them my Andres Duany textbooks would've eased their minds.

Sorry. Long day at work, I'm rambling I hope I'm not coming off as a dick. I suppose my short answer would be: that's not really urban planning. It's incremental and cities are organic and full of real people that don't agree on things, and you do what you can, but you aren't in charge.
posted by gordie at 1:23 PM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Check out Duany Plater-Zyberk's projects. They've built entire villages and towns in the New Urbanist style.

I have my master's in urban planning, and I tend to agree with otherworldlyglow. It's naive to think there is one utopian solution for every city. It's also naive that because you recommend something that it will actually be implemented. People often don't want what planners would like to recommend. Downtown dwellers and suburbanites like different types of communities - that's why they live where they do.

There are obvious problems with certain cities - say, the traffic in Los Angeles - but without extensively studying many different variables, I can't even begin to propose a solution. Again, I agree with otherworldlyglow that if you want to go the idealist route, stick with SimCity.

I'm guessing from this question that you're new to the field. I suppose I started off with a similar thought pattern to yours, but grad school soon disabused me of my dreams of working with a clean (urban) slate.
posted by desjardins at 1:30 PM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Hey, gordie, I noticed you were a planner in another thread and had no way to contact you due to lack of e-mail in your profile. If you don't mind, I'd be interested in chatting via e-mail - mine is in my profile.
posted by desjardins at 1:32 PM on September 28, 2007

d'oh, I just noticed that you added your e-mail. sorry for the derail.
posted by desjardins at 1:34 PM on September 28, 2007

Cost is always an issue.
posted by electroboy at 1:37 PM on September 28, 2007

Read The High Cost of Free Parking (and ponder the high cost of the The High Cost of Free Parking).
posted by look busy at 1:41 PM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

One way to think about this is to look at the cities that have been built with a clean slate (and sometimes with little in the way of cost restraints) -- Brasilia, Ciudad Guyana, those weird Disney-esque towns in Florida, the New Towns outside of Cairo, early suburbs like Leavittown, and on and on and on. A fair number of cities and towns in the US west are of very recent origin, and were built with very utopian visions. And some of the oil-rich gulf states like Dubai are building enormous clean-slate projects, with both good and bad consequences.

This has actually happened a lot of times, with wildly varying results. Some of the cities built are not ones in which I would want to live; others seemed great at first and then became kind of miserable; and others were duds at first and now seem great. Some of the more interesting ones are cases where "planners" were not involved at all, or if they were only at the end -- think of many large slums in the developing world, for example.

Anyway, it is kind of fun to think about, but the chances of an urban planner actually getting to have a substantive role in such a project are pretty slim -- lots of planners, very few such projects. What you might want to read and think about are the compromises and contradictions inherent in such projects -- some of the classic books are Holston's The Modernist City, Peattie's book on Ciudad Guyana, Clarence Stein's Towards New Towns for America, and Lewis Mumford on the garden cities.
posted by Forktine at 1:50 PM on September 28, 2007

In the Dutch polders cities were build where used to be sea. These cities were planned from scratch, cost wasn't really an issue. And still, none of the planners involved seemed to agree about anything.

Especially the history of the city of Almere is an interesting one, since it was originally set up in four quarts; each according to different views.
posted by ijsbrand at 1:56 PM on September 28, 2007

Brasilia, Ciudad Guyana, those weird Disney-esque towns in Florida, the New Towns outside of Cairo, early suburbs like Leavittown, and on and on and on
None of those are clean slates. There is no such thing.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 1:58 PM on September 28, 2007

And if you start wondering, hmm, how are we going to go from where we are now, to where I would like for us to be, an excellent author to start with is Delores Hayden, particularly Redesigning the American Dream for a gendered analysis of contemporary urban built form. Personally I think the New Urbanists are kind of cultish and creepy, but they do make pretty drawings and some of their ideas are spot-on.

And if you start pondering the question otherworldlyglow asks -- a better city for whom? -- there is enough reading to last you for decades, and a lot of it is stupendous. Radical, equity, and advocacy planners have been asking these questions for at least four or five decades, and there is a lot that is good. If you are heading off to planning school, one of your intro classes will probably assign readings from The City Reader or similar collection of essays, which isn't a bad place to start to get a sense of the history involved, and to feel humbled that people have been thinking about these questions for far longer than you have been alive.
posted by Forktine at 1:59 PM on September 28, 2007

None of those are clean slates. There is no such thing.

Of course. But they are cleaner slates than, say, Manhattan or Kansas City. More importantly, many of them were conceived of by planners as if they were clean slates, regardless of who might have been there already. Ditto all urban development in the western US -- it isn't as if no one had ever lived there before, but these grand utopian visions need a pretense of a clean slate.

And that's why I'm suggesting reading up on the contradictions that come into play, because it is in those contradictions that we can see how the not-so-clean clean slate really matters, and how we can't get rid of all our baggage just because we know how to bulldoze.
posted by Forktine at 2:03 PM on September 28, 2007


Also, please don't take Brasília (as fantastic as the whole project was) as a good example. In Brazil the only large city that would be a good example to this day is Curitiba.
posted by AnyGuelmann at 2:22 PM on September 28, 2007

Airoots has a short article I enjoyed on one particular equation of: planned city+ humans = not really what anyone expected, but actually kind of cool. It's about a village in the "planned" city of Navi Mumbai. Brief, but thought provoking. It's hard to design for organic and messy, but that's what successful cities and communities are.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:46 PM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

A curb cut on every corner.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 4:10 PM on September 28, 2007

All this and no Jane Jacobs shout out yet?
posted by gingerbeer at 4:44 PM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Definitely check out Jane Jacobs.

If you want to look at an example of a city that has a fascinating morphology, check out Barcelona. This book is a fantastic resource for anyone who is interested in a great example of thoughtful urban planning and the effects on a city.

Like others have said before, cost is always something that should be factored in, regardless of whether or not it is a hypothetical or actual planning situation.
Budget constraints enforce a pragmatic level of thinking on the part of the designer.
posted by inqb8tr at 5:31 PM on September 28, 2007

You know, it's funny. I mean, I respect the idea of urban planning at all. But for some reasons, I just find slums a lot more appealing (not to live in, but to think about). I don't know whether I'd want to live in an expertly "planned" city. The truth is, the inclination towards subversion of order is so great that no "planned" city can really match up to its plan unless you in fact "plan" for a proportion of disorder, chaos, nastiness, and, in America at least, gas guzzling.

But if I had to choose one feature I did like: Octagonal intersections as found in parts of Barcelona. They make perfect sense. Corners are rarely used right anyway and often are just a bunch of excess sidewalk. Instead, soften the corners of the intersection and make the sidewalk curve more naturally. It probably even allows for smoother turns (for walking and driving). The only drawback is that you have to make the corner buildings face the diagonal rather then the point, but that's not all that unheard of in building design anyway and is pretty common in square crossings.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:44 PM on September 28, 2007

A City is not a Tree
posted by unSane at 8:11 PM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

From scratch? Start with certain absolutes and then let the rest grow around it. My absolutes would be:
  1. No private motorized vehicles, not even Segways. Subways, trains, trams, buses, taxis, and wheel chairs only. Anything else must be people-powered - bicycles, walking, etc. Bullet trains to get far outside the city quickly. For the remaining street vehicles (taxis, buses, emergency vehicles, etc.), no on-street parking, no above-ground parking lots, and no internal combustion.
  2. All areas are for housing and schools -- no areas are unfit for housing and schools. No business or industrial zones that close up and go dark after 5:00. Create conditions that encourage people to live in the city, not move out of the city but commute back into it every day. Perhaps give financial incentives to employers and employees to reduce the daily commute. Schools close to work and home, so you are always near your family and not wasting much time commuting.
  3. Every property has to be at least 75 percent green from above (lawns, gardens, trees, roof gardens, etc.) and must be planted with local species only (no perfect green lawns of artificial species). No fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides except to avert a public health problem.
  4. Reserve central areas for daily farmers markets. Make sure these markets are connected by train to outlying agricultural areas and by local transport to people's homes. People must be able to get fresh locally grown produce at a reasonable price every day.
  5. A percentage of city park land has to be off limits to people. Small nature preserves can make a big difference to other species.
  6. Living, working, going to school in, and visiting the city is a privilege that you can lose through criminal behavior. Bring back banishment.
Stuff like that.
posted by pracowity at 11:51 PM on September 28, 2007

There are very few grocery stores within the Detroit city limits. That's a big problem, as it forces people to drive or ride the bus way too far, or just eat from the convenience store which stocks mostly junk food. It would be nice if residences were all within a certain radius of a supermarket. I think zoning could make this happen.

Why are there so many trailer parks alongside highways? I'm appalled that anyone allowed residential land in such a noisy place. That should all be commercial/industrial, because even folks whose economic situation puts them in a trailer park still deserve a decent night's sleep.

It drives me nuts that some downtown "night spots" are clustered right next to each other, but the business a few blocks over that'd be a perfect late-night attraction fails because it doesn't get any foot traffic, owing to the plethora of "we roll up the sidewalks at 7pm" businesses in between. When I am Mayor (or at least president of the downtown development authority), I plan to have a "24-hour strip" where there will be tax incentives for businesses to stay open late, and for 9-to-5 businesses to go elsewhere.

Oh yes, bars will be near public transportation, and will not have parking lots.
posted by Myself at 4:38 AM on September 29, 2007

*sigh* I think that as a planner, at least in the US, one needs a certain understanding of how capitalism works, and at least a grudging acceptance of it. Even if you'd prefer a different system, this is what we've got and it would be very difficult to change it wholesale in the US.

It would be nice if residences were all within a certain radius of a supermarket. I think zoning could make this happen.

You can zone for any use you want, but you can't force a company to build their store. Companies have largely abandoned supermarkets in inner cities for financial reasons. Unless you have financial incentives to draw them back, it's silly for them to even consider. They're businesses, not social services. Even the businesses that want to help are ultimately accountable to their shareholders.

Why are there so many trailer parks alongside highways?

Because trailer parks are mostly lower-income folks, and higher-income folks don't want them living in their neighborhoods. Besides, if you put the park in a more desirable place, the rent would go up. Why would someone who owned a desirable plot of land put a trailer park on it? They'd build condos or houses or something else.

I plan to have a "24-hour strip" where there will be tax incentives for businesses to stay open late, and for 9-to-5 businesses to go elsewhere.

This isn't a bad idea. Businesses respond to monetary incentives. However, remember that a lot of people don't want to live in the "bar district," which will cut down on your foot traffic. Evening foot traffic can be generated by workers at those 9-5 businesses who go out for dinner/drinks/theater/shopping after work. If you send them all elsewhere, they might just go home instead.

bars will be near public transportation, and will not have parking lots.

I see, so suburbanites are essentially banned from these establishments.
posted by desjardins at 8:27 AM on September 29, 2007

I'm late to the party, but as another person who's worked in city planning, I'll join otherworldlyglow, gordie, and others in saying the question is a bit too abstract for me. (And I entered grad school wanting to know how to build the perfect eco-suburb!) Now, even hearing people say "so-and-so urban philosopher has the answer" gives me fits, because all-knowing answers and all-encompassing theories of what makes a good city have screwed up cities time and time again. (gordie explained this really well.) And the desire to find the "clean slate" has sent New Urbanists and ecovillagers out into farmfields and forests, places with no feasible connection to the real urban places where people work other than cars.

Sure, I have personal rules of what kinds of developments I would and would never advocate for. But to me, what's fun is starting from where we are now and figuring out where to go from here. Retrofitting is really interesting. And urban planners do not build things. (If that's what you want to do, get an architecture degree or masters of urban design, or go into development and then tell the architects what you want). Planners have much subtler tools. They establish parameters (height limits), and a process ("we'll review your application in six months"), and troubleshoot ("oh, the neighbors sued the project?").

Yes, there are answers to your question -- entire philosophies of urban design that have all the answers if one could only start from scratch. The professors I most respect come down, as much as possible in today's economy, on the side of incremental change driven by research on how people actually use space (rather than grand theories). Check out the Project for Public Spaces, Allan Jacobs & Donald Appleyard (eg, "Towards an Urban Design Manifesto,"summary here). Randolph T. Hester (eg, his latest book Design for Ecological Democracy, or an earlier essay "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sustainable Happiness" [pdf]), and some of the retrofitting of the Portland region.

To me the real challenge is not what to build, but how to build it. Does it rub you the wrong way that the utopian New Urbanist development Celebration, FL, looks like a small town but has no mayor and the town hall is owned by an international corporation, Disney? I'm no Marxist class warrior, but it does bother me. That's an issue of "how" rather than "what." You'd be surprised at the extent to which the way things get planned, negotiated, and financed shapes what gets built and what those areas ultimately feel like. For an ongoing case study / experiment, read up on the San Francisco Eastern Neighborhoods Plan (city website, news story) -- which currently calls for something like 40,000 new residents, essentially no new parks (so I'm told), and very few homes that middle-income people could afford. Who would have an idealistic vision that said "let's only build housing for people earning over $100K/year?" Nobody. So, how'd it happen?
posted by salvia at 12:22 PM on September 29, 2007 [4 favorites]

I think starting from scratch is a recipe for failure. Successful cities and neighborhoods are organic and built up over time and layered.

I'd look at dying/shrinking cities like St. Louis and others that lost too much population and business and tax revenue, and try to see what can be done to make them more inviting and livable, without removing existing residents or destroying existing neighborhoods (see Moses' highways, for example, and don't do that).

The focus needs to be on what people need, not what cars need.
posted by amberglow at 10:52 AM on October 6, 2007

oh, also, why is it that Paris has maintained vitality even tho it has onerous building and other restrictions, and was radically reconfigured in the 1800s? Why is it that Florence and others died as living cities? Why does one city maintain vibrance, and another have it for a short time but lose it or just never have it? Vienna was a vibrant world city for a long time, but isn't anymore. Many places should be looked at, i think.
posted by amberglow at 10:56 AM on October 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

and look at Madrid--one king all of a sudden decided there should be a capital city in the center of the country, and they grew it. There were plenty of places nearby that they could have taken over (Toledo, etc) but they didn't.
posted by amberglow at 10:59 AM on October 6, 2007

and Wash, DC--much less successful, and totally planned. (altho that may be because of the transience of the pop, and the powerlessness of the residents)
posted by amberglow at 11:01 AM on October 6, 2007

Salvia deserves a medal. Those are real challenges that face individuals dreaming of a different model for urban form. Speaking as a trained architectural designer, urban planner and student of real estate development, I can confirm that your question oversimplifies to the point that it loses all meaning. Choosing what a city should look like is only the tip of the iceberg: how do you incentivize the kind of private-sector development you're looking for? How do you pay for the kinds of public infrastructure required? How do you accommodate the incredible diversity of citizens and all of their needs, desires and preferences?

Take, as a for-instance, a small slice of your clean-slate question: the practice of real estate development. If you want to reinvent the city, you have to reimagine the model by which it is developed, so how does that currently happen? Real estate is based on distribution of scarce resources (land), put to its legal, feasible, maximally-productive highest and best use by private entities who must make a living (profit) by their actions of improving the land, and who maximize the utility of their limited financial resources by leveraging equity with debt supplied by investment institutions. If you want to "start from scratch" to redesign a city, pretty soon you're talking about an overhaul of government, a new economic model, and a radical paradigm shift in the way every person relates to their environment.

In short, you can't do it. You can make incremental changes to the regulatory system if you're a planner or elected official; you can make incremental changes to judicial/legislative constraints if you're a lawyer; you can make incremental changes in the financial arena if you're a lending institution; you can make decisions on individual projects if you're a developer; you can make limited decisions as a design professional or contractor. However, you can't (and shouldn't even want to) imagine the world without the myriad constraints that have shaped its form and caused it to evolve over time.
posted by Chris4d at 12:05 PM on October 18, 2007

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