Make little plans

In Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs quotes a Japanese economist about his country’s capitalist revolution following the Meiji Restoration. He said that the greatest periods of creativity and productivity had been experienced when the country was adrift, not focused on any particular goal but open to all opportunities.

Urban planners, particularly Americans, identify with the maxim “make no little plans” attributed to Chicago plan architect Daniel Burnham. According to this idea maximum effort should be focused on a single, enormous goal, and a concensus should be built around this goal in order to achieve it. This is how the Chicago plan was realized, and this has been the frame upon which nearly every urban plan continues to be modeled. New innovations, like the charette process, are only refinements of the paradigm established by Burnham. To someone focused on a single large-scale goal small-scale problems like a complicated permitting process or bad street design are irrelevant. Someone focused on a single large-scale goal does not see any drawbacks to using repression to realize the plan, like zoning and urban growth boundaries. The city they envision does not have a small scale, and this is now the reality of our landscape: urbanization at enormous scale, with no concern for details and no sustainability.

A creative city is not goal oriented. Not only does it make little plans, it makes millions of little plans. It is adrift looking for its next opportunity. It is not made by an architect, but cultivated by its people.

Make millions of little plans.


13 responses to “Make little plans

  1. Agreed.

    What is the framework for people to realize these little plans though? Opening a business is fairly straightfoward but the development process is so arduous and complicated that little plans are never cost effective.

  2. Agreed and Agreed. Koller makes the key point here that design and development processes are so expensive that it never pays to plan small. At the same time neighborhoods see these guidlines and processes as a benefit to them because they believe it prevents bad and ugly buildings. On the contrary of course it encourages monotony, mundaneness, and largeness.

    So the real question is, how do you comfort communities about development in their neighborhoods, while relaxing development rules to encourage various types of small scale projects.

  3. The same question seems to come up again and again — without any answers from Mathieu. So let me propose that to maximize small-scale projects and encourage random creative development, we need to have as few “zoning” and “planning” rules as possible. How few can we get away with? Five? What generic planning rules are necessary to guide and encourage individuals in creatively developing property such that high-density urban communities emerge over time?
    1. Any use that is potentially life-threatening to its neighbors (such as nuclear power plants, chemical plants, refineries) must be sufficiently spaced from its neighbors as to provide a reasonable amount of protection in ordinary operation and in the event of an accident. [Perhaps nuclear plants can only be centered on 100 acre plots]
    2. Streets and crossings must be designed first for the safety of children and the elderly, then other pedestrians, then emergency vehicles, delivery vehicles, mass transit, and personal motor vehicles only in the final analysis. [Surely someone can come up with something better than this.]
    4. Buildings should respect neighbors’ rights to light and air. [an old concept revived — does it belong here? Is it still appropriate?]
    5. Every development must consider provisions for public space.

  4. Mathieu Helie

    You are still taking a designer’s centralized approach. Perhaps the only rule that is needed is that new construction require the approval of its direct neighbors (in cellular automata fashion) without ever visiting a municipal permitting office.

    All the features of good cities may emerge from that. You can’t truly know this until you’ve tried it out, either for real or through a simulation. Would “development”, as you consider it, even exist then?

  5. In the ideal world, maybe you’d just need the permission of your immediate neighbors. The guy at the other end of an emerging lane would still want the fire trucks to get through though, or wouldn’t want the only access path blocked completely. What about space for utility lines?

    Is a single rule — “neighbors must consent” really sufficient?

  6. This is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone else acknowledge the existence of Cities and the Wealth of Nations. Whenever I’ve brought it or its contents up to people who claim knowledge of economics, they dismiss it out of hand — yet will never discuss WHY they dismiss it. I’ve never seen a book so determinedly ignored.

  7. I don’t think that having some amount of complexity (more than one rule) to the building code is problem, in fact, I think it is entirely necessary considering the outrageous inequalities in capital distribution.

    Imagine this situation, I want to build a structure filling in an empty lot (imagine that its’ been vacant for many many years) and abutting the two neighboring buildings. This would result in a loss of daylight and a plugging up of their windows. In order to get their consent, it seems reasonable that I would pay them some money equal to the burden imposed upon them. They agree, everything works out.

    What if, instead of building a modest building designed to meet my immediate needs, I am in fact an agent of a venture capital firm with millions of dollars at my disposal. I want to build a 45 story residential building on the same lot. Clearly, this would affect members of the community beyond the immediate neighbors, who could be easily bought off, allowing a project that harms the community fabric to proceed.

    While the wisdom of immediate neighbors seems like a valuable asset, some controls must be put in place to avoid abuses of the system. I also think the workability of such a system declines with increased car use as it always has an impact on virtually every member of a community.

  8. While we may object to the concentration of financial power in the hands of organizations close to the central banking cartel, it does not mean that it is advisable to try to stamp out the effects of this power by adding constraints. If instead of building a residential tower in the middle of town designed as a vessel to store excess liquidity, the fund builds a new subdivision on the outside of town designed as a vessel to store excess liquidity, the community is affected as much or worse. This liquidity will find a loophole somewhere. The race of constraints can rapidly devolve into an exercise in whack-a-mole until the building code is a long list of constraints that no one remembers the intent of, while the problem with financial concentration continues to exist.

    It may be better to accept its corrupting impact instead of creating more corruption. And despite being bribed to accept the liquidity vessel, the neighbors will nevertheless insist on some minimally harmonious construction. Whatever consequences it will have, the neighbors will be the ones to experience them most severely.

  9. I would love to see studies on the impact of direct democracy in approving building projects or spot rezoning. Several jurisdictions, including Quebec, and small US towns have it, and even New York City rediscovered a 19th-century direct-democracy rule for individual zoning changes. Do these rules improve the urban fabric or just stifle change? Interesting topic for a study.

    Besides approval of neighbours, one other rule may be important – limiting the size of contiguous land ownership. Anecdotally most bad examples are instances where someone developed a large lot that should have been subdivided and developed by individual owners.

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  12. Jon Koller – your scenario doesn’t actually happen much in real life, except where the planning process has become too congested. A venture capitalist won’t put up a 45-story condo tower unless they think they can make a profit doing so. They’re only going to make a profit doing so if there are lots of high-paying jobs nearby, or development has become so restricted in the vicinity that people are desperate for any new housing. If there are already lots of high-paying jobs nearby, the neighbors are probably not single-family houses, or even 3-story walk-up apartments.

    Even if the financier of such a building is a really wealthy individual building an ego-monument, the sorts of people who get rich enough to build ego-monuments like that aren’t going to be completely financially irrational – even if they are going to take a loss to perhaps have the tallest building in town, they’re not going to deliberately take a bath. So even if the 45-story tower is more than the surroundings can support financially, a 30-story tower probably would turn a profit. Otherwise, the wealthy individual would try something else for his ego-monument.

  13. C, and Matheiu, I’d probably include C’s rule #1, but maybe limit the neighbor’s ability to block neighboring development. Some uses really should be kept away from large numbers of people, and the neighbors aren’t always good judges of that. On the other hand, if someone does want to build something hazardous, and has acquired a large parcel of land as a buffer zone, do *all* of his neighbors get veto power on that use? Does the hazardous user later get a veto on his neighbors increasing density on their properties?

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