The Weakness of Planners

It’s easier to play with bigger toys. Huddle all the pieces together, and you have an easier time making bigger impacts on all the pieces. Imagine how nice it would be if your lego design can be built with huge blocks instead of millions of tiny blocks. Anyone can empathize with how pleasurable that sensation would be. Just bam, and you get major progress. However, as it often is, pleasurable things may lead to mistakes. Procrastination, over-eating, so on and so forth. To indulge in “ease” quite likely leads to bad results. Perhaps, this still applies even to those who have put themselves through the education and experiences needed to be the planners of our lives. Maybe… folks also just wanna be lazy…


The Northeastern megaregion plan aims to solve the current issues of the geographical area spanning from D.C. up to Boston. What issues are there? Bad commute routes, bad train rails. Not enough job diversity so that everyone can employ themselves to their taste. No effective ways to deal with the poor and the vulnerable. 

The report’s proposed answer? Upgrade the planners to the megaregion scale. No more will each official plan their own designs in their own areas, leading to chaos. Folks working together will standardize and coordinate better. So far so good. However, this also means solutions will be less… sensitized. It will be drawn out by people looking at the bigger map of the region. The catch: smaller details will get pixelated out. The new regional rail or highway is gonna cut through your house? Too bad. Move folks, it’s for the “bigger” plan. This kind of consequences is simply unavoidable when the answers are “lazily” created with the big hammer. Why sweat over the little kinks when it’s so much lovelier wielding the “big tool”?

For another example, let’s take a look at the New Orleans Unified-New-Orleans-Plan-2007-04-coverrecovery plan. After Katrina, city officials drafted this plan to get the city repopulated. They say that the rebuilt houses and infrastructure will be flood-proofed, based on official guidelines. As a result, folks should be able to return to their original home, and the historical city would thrive once again. The (very real) threat of raised sea level shall be forced through for the sake of people’s home. It’s a serious and sincere plan, with loads of hearts and minds poured into it.

However, it has a catch. Did the planners consider the effects of climate change on this coastal high-risk city? Yes, they did. Hence the flood-proofed design. But proofed against pre-climate change floods, or post-climate change? Which metrics and numbers will they have families invest their entire futures by? On page 18 it says to raise the elevation the “advised” anti-flood levels. Those standardized advised levels applies wonderfully and rationally to fight against flood…. before considering climate change and raised sea level. What happened here is perhaps simple: the officials decided (and perhaps deluded) by themselves that the city could and should be repopulated. They did not examined whether the land would be fit for long-term living. Typical homeowners would do that, because investing one’s fortune and future is a long-term endeavor. Typical city officials would not. After all, if it turns out to be impossible they will have to give up their city. It’s a bummer to lose your city. Therefore, the situation would be quite… complex if planners look at the long-term details. It is easier to play with a single “build-now-care-later” piece of toy than to sit around putting together hundreds and hundreds of pieces of “what-if-it-fails.” The “big toy,” rather than the smaller pieces, is just too desirable.

Planning is an endeavor of hearts and minds. As a result, it is vulnerable to the weaknesses of hearts and minds. The desire to “think less, who cares” is universal. However, we are also a species who are constantly able to fix the “bugs” in our designs. There is hope.

I would like to argue that both of the issues presented above do not require swapping human planners with aliens-who-are-superior planners: it simply requires an extension of our comfort zone. The tradition is to have the ones in charge make the plans, but as we have seen they can have quite the fetish for “big tools” and “big toys.” That’s the current comfort zone for planners: they’re blacksmiths. Carpenters. Sculptors. Brady+2_+Photo+by+Edward+BadhamWhy is this nice for planners? Putting on the beer goggles to see the world as a piece of metal while you hold a hammer in your hand means the next steps are simple: to hammer. Bam! Immediate results. In other words, simple agenda and short-term gains. To be constrained in this way of seeing the world is the weakness of planners.

The funny thing is, what they work with are not passive objects. They work with real people, with real agencies and individualities and propensities. Recent years there have been a similar push for extending comfort zones in the realms ofmanagement, military, and education. It is the push to change from being “carpenters” to “gardeners.” People, employees, children,… are not passive objects to carve and beaten into shape. They can grow into shapes fine on their own. Self-organization is the key.images

So, how then can planners “grow” cities into problem-free and happily-populated spaces? By allowing for things to eventually converge and settle into place by themselves. By giving the people the right ingredients. A good first ingredient: information. Transparency. Communication. Respect.

Let’s imagine a Northeastern regional plan that empowers, believes, and utilizes local actors. Active efforts would be made to make citizens aware of the problems, constantly pushing into their awareness the issues with the commutes and the poor. Quite likely, soon enough someone will start mobilizing a fundraiser to get the homeless, needy, and vulnerable to be the workforce that improve the transporation system. Those citizen led groups would also be motivated not by professional identity as planners, but by pure annoyance of issues “near” their spheres of life. As a result, they would start pushing to their planners to start standardizing and coordinating more often. On the other hand, a locals-led planning process would also sensitize the end-design much better.

For the New Orleans case, let’s imagine a driven information campaign about future climate risks of the city to potential homeowners. Those citizens themselves would be both motivated by a desire to populate their familiar city as well as long-term habitability. Prospectors and families would decide among themselves which piece of land is safe to invest in. In contrast, an official would be more concerned with short-term gains to add to their resume.

To summarize, it is the desire to further centralize planning and the prefernce for “blunt” solutions that plagues the planning endeavor. It is time consider to decentralize and abandon vertical-integration. Becoming more horizontal and adopting the form of a network of problem-solvers should be the next adventure ground for planning. 

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