Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Locked Into Concrete

Randal O'Toole moistens a finger, thrusts it into the prevailing political breeze, and concludes that the time is right for yet another attack on the theory and practice of planning:

After 30 years of looking at government plans -- forest plans, park plans, transportation plans, city plans, state plans, all kinds of plans -- I've realized all government planning is bad.
If you're thinking back to your last interstate drive, or subway ride, or trip to a national park, and worrying that O'Toole is painting with a rather broad brush, think again. Indeed, if there's one thing in the world this genial man dislikes, it's oversimplification:
Cities, forests and so on are just too complicated to plan, so [planners] oversimplify, and since they don't pay the costs of their mistakes, they don't have an incentive to try to get it right.
One might just as easily say that cities are too complicated not to plan. But for now, we'll take O'Toole's argument at face value (except for the part about there being no incentive for good urban planning, which is utterly demented horseshit).

How do we solve the problems caused by our all-too-human lack of omniscience? Why, nothing could be easier!
I'm arguing that we need to stop planning. We need to repeal planning laws. Congress and the states should stop passing new planning laws.
That may seem impetuous to some readers, and agonizingly stupid to others. But consider this chilling fact: planning will never lead to an ideal outcome for every single resident of a city:
[C]ities are really, really complicated organisms. They consist of hundreds of thousands or millions of people. Each of those people has different tastes, different travel needs, different housing needs and desires. It's impossible -- literally impossible -- to plan to the level of detail to make sure that everybody achieves what they need and want.
Well, yes. But that's not what planning is intended to do. And you'd have to be pretty fucking silly to imagine that any system could ensure "that everybody achieves what they need and want." You might as well argue that medicine is a failed project because it can't fulfill the public's demand for eternal life.

The fact that "most Americans prefer to live in a house with a yard" is interesting in psychological terms. But it doesn't have much to do with what's possible in the real world. Land and water are limited resources, last time I checked, and they're vulnerable to human activities. When you refuse to acknowledge those facts, as cornucopian goofballs like O'Toole have an unhappy tendency to do, you forfeit your right to accuse anyone else of oversimplification. And when you do acknowledge them, as sane people must, planning begins to seem like something of an...obligation.

O'Toole also argues that government planning is driven (unlike the planning of multinational corporations, I presume) by financial and political interests:
When government writes a plan, that plan gets locked into concrete because immediately special-interest groups consisting of people and businesses that benefit from that plan form to make sure that the plan never changes. So it becomes extraordinarily difficult to change the plan no matter how mistaken and costly it turns out to be.
And that, boys and girls, is how our nation came to be saddled with the vast terra mortua of Central Park, and why the Grand Canyon remains tragically undammed to this day.

That settles it, I guess. We can't plan our communities, the pretty conceits of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa or Christopher Wren or Baron Haussmann or Daniel Burnham or the Shakers notwithstanding. And we can't change how and where we want to live, which is as eternal as our love of Beauty and Truth. You can't fight human nature, although it's human nature to try.

The interesting thing is, every argument O'Toole makes against planning could just as easily be made against political involvement per se, which is probably not an accident. What he's actually attacking - much like an assassin who pretends to be a bodyguard - is personal responsibility and personal freedom. Instead of engaging ourselves, for better or worse, with real-world issues like carrying capacity and resource depletion, we're commanded to turn our troubles over to a higher authority, and let hierophants like O'Toole interpret the resulting signs and wonders. Good citizenship is simply a matter of going along with whatever O'Toole and his ilk claim is "good for business"; follow this splendid principle, and you're guaranteed a moral victory no matter what sort of misery you bring upon yourself and others.

This astonishingly weird and infantile approach to our collective Short Life of Trouble isn't liberating, except to those of us for whom infantilization is liberation. Even if planning were just as bad as O'Toole says, it'd still be morally preferable to free-market fundamentalism, if only to the extent that it prevents us from blaming our problems on "market forces."

(Illustration by Jules Guerin, from The Plan of Chicago by Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett, 1909.)

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