Regional Planning and Reason

by Tom Angotti

So you’re a planner? That’s just what we need. Ever hear that before?

Why is it some people think planning can set things right? If cities are a mess, they think planning will bring order to chaos, reason to insanity. Isn’t this just another example of the American belief in wonder drugs and the perfect orgasm? It’s no wonder that the same people usually ask in the next breath, “Well, what exactly do planners do?” They see planning not only as possible salvation. It’s a mysterious domain for trained technicians only. It’s magic! Formal Western planning is based on this simplistic myth – that there’s someone out there who can fix all our problems because they know something we don’t. The Enlightenment and ensuing industrial revolution worshiped Reason, because it was monopolized by the ruling classes. From Haussmann’s Paris to the West Side Highway, rational planning was supposed to bring law and order to a world thrown in disorder by the same ruling regimes. Thus, urban renewal, master plans and grand schemes to remake the physical and social face of cities.

Folks who’ve been victims of planning aren’t so easily fooled. If your neighborhood has been flattened and discarded by the urban renewal bulldozer, you learn to ask who does the planning, and who benefits from the new order? You question the claims of scientific planning and pure reason. You can do this even without kneeling before the altar of post-modern discourse, or advocating absolute chaos.

Reason and Equity
In the last decade, more and more people in the U.S. are saying that what we need is regional planning. Suburban sprawl is wasteful and inefficient. It isolates communities and is bad for the environment. Most Americans live in large metropolitan regions and most planning is municipal, fragmented and parochial. True enough.

But who will do the planning for the region? The majority of people in metropolitan regions live in suburbs. Will they remake the whole region in their image? Will powerful downtown business interests join with them to remove all obstacles to the global marketplace, including communities with poor people and people of color? Will regional planning put more power in the hands of those who have produced the disorderly sprawled behemoth in the first place? And who will benefit from regional planning? Who gets the bonus from a more efficient infrastructure, including transportation, energy, water and other services? In other words, what about equity?

Equity is the big political question. It has thwarted steps towards regional government and planning since the creation of New York’s Regional Plan Association almost seventy years ago. Since poor people and people of color tend to be concentrated in central cities, will greater regional authority nullify whatever political power they have? As long as suburban apartheid rules, will regional planning bring efficiency at the expense of equity? The articles in this issue on Portland and New York address these questions. Tasha Harmon suggests how in Portland, a national model for regional planning, reducing sprawl and enhancing equity are not necessarily in conflict. But Portland is a relatively small and well-to-do region. The critique of the Third Regional Plan of New York by Tony Schuman and Elliot Sclar shows the extent to which fundamental equity issues may have slipped off the agenda in the nation’s largest metropolitan region. John McCrory’s story of waste management in New York City shows how planning on a larger scale doesn’t by itself guarantee either efficiency or equity.

The longest surviving regional initiative in the U.S. – the Regional Plan Association in New York – is a non-profit organization with no formal power to implement its recommendations. It operates in a federal system where government delegates all planning functions to the states and has done little to establish or support regional planning authorities. So we are a very long way from acting regionally even if people are beginning to think regionally. As Peter Hall lamented in Cities of Tomorrow, “the philosophy, as in New York, was planning as the art of the possible: planning should remain an advisory function, it should not try to achieve more than marginal changes, and it must work within the limits of existing powers.”

But the inefficiences and inequities of the current setup keep raising the question of regional planning. Progressive planners need to have some answers. Regional planning and regional government are well established in many European, Latin American and Asian countries. They have made possible greater environmental conservation and sensible land use planning. But experiences there show that the creation of regional authorities alone is not the answer. In Europe, for example, the biggest contributors to regionalism are national and municipal governments that are in tune with a regional perspective. They rest on urban traditions that are disdainful of the sprawled, fragmented U.S. ideal. In North America, Toronto’s metropolitan government has been one of the best examples of how regionalism can benefit from cooperation between regional authorities and local municipalities. But look at what just happened there. A conservative legislature abolished Toronto’s municipalities and created one powerful regional government. This will insure the monopoly of suburban power and throttle progressive efforts to create a more efficient and equitable region. All in the name of regionalism.

That’s why we have to ask, “What about equity?”

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