WEB EXCLUSIVE: Playing the Planning Game

Somebody is always trying to change things. Every day, city and state agencies, chambers of commerce, private developers, and local citizens propose ideas to improve our cities and suburbs. Not all of these ideas will result in change; it is the process we know as planning that determines, to a large extent, which projects succeed and which ones fail to change our communities. Planning brings together the forces of government, business, finance, politics, and public opinion (and all the individuals who represent them) in order to produce change.

I have been thinking about the planning process for as long as I can remember. In September 1967, I was preparing the second class of my teaching career. I intended to discuss how commercial development is shaped by a range of players: lenders, brokers, small tenants, anchor tenants, bureaucrats, community leaders, elected officials, developers, architects, engineers, lawyers, etc., and I wondered how I could possibly make this interesting to a room of Yale undergraduates. The answer lay in the characteristics of the planning process itself. I turned the class into a game in which students played the roles of people and institutions engaged in designing and financing a shopping center.

For two hours the classroom buzzed with negotiations, strategy sessions, posturing, anger, and delight. By the end of the class the students had worked out a deal, a site plan, and even some leases. The better students anticipated that there would be opposition to the changes they were trying to make, and these students either adjusted their activities to avoid opposition or devised strategies to minimize or overcome their opponents. The students learned to consider very carefully possible consequences—including unfortunate ones—before deciding how to proceed.

By the time the class was finished, they had learned not only how shopping centers are developed, but, more important, how competition, entrepreneurship, and skill operate at the very heart of our market-driven economy. Since then thousands of students have played planning games of my devising that deal with housing, zoning, neighborhood revitalization, and many other issues that involve planners. Every year a new group of students reinforces my initial observation that the planning process resembles a game.

Like chess, baseball, or any other game, the planning game has players who devise actions and strategies that culminate in tangible results; and, like other games, it has winners, losers, and also-rans. Unlike those games, however, the planning game has very serious long-range consequences. It affects people as individuals and also the larger environment in which they live. Planning often brings hardship; it can damage lives and hurt innocent bystanders. And, unlike other games, planning involves a huge number of people with different roles and objectives, for whom winning may mean very different things. At any one time the players may include community groups, civic organizations, elected and appointed public officials, bankers, lawyers, architects, engineers, dreamers, reformer-critics, developers, privately owned businesses and utility companies, cultural institutions, etc. The list is endless. Most of these participants do not call themselves, or even think of themselves, as planners. But they are.

Less than six months after I introduced the planning game to my classroom, I was asked to help devise a plan to preserve Bushwick, a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Brooklyn that was literally burning down. Advocacy planning was an idea sweeping the planning profession, and I thought this was my chance to fight for a needy neighborhood. But my dreams of being an advocate planner soon hit a brick wall; I owned no property, was unable to finance anything personally, and had no authority to act on anybody’s behalf. I was unable to get things done on my own. The reality in Bushwick was very different from the games I had invented for my students. In the real world, I was unable to assign roles to the necessary government players. Instead, I expected that government, vaguely conceived, would bring about the changes I thought were desirable.

In fact, government is always an active player in the planning game, regulating what and how things get done, offering inducements to other players to take actions that it considers desirable, and most important, making public investments. Public officials often prefer regulations and incentives to investments because they require no budget appropriations. But regulations simply bring certain present or future activities under government control; they do not necessarily generate action.

An example will make clear the limitations of government regulation. In 1931 the City of Charleston, South Carolina, enacted the nation’s first regulations for “the preservation and protection of the old historic or architecturally worthy structures and quaint neighborhoods.” Despite these ground-breaking regulations, the charming antebellum structures in Charleston’s Ansonborough neighborhood continued to deteriorate over the next four decades, until many of them had been abandoned. Regulation had failed to prevent the decay and abandonment of lovely old buildings that the citizens of Charleston believed merited preservation. Direct action was the best way to protect these properties—and that action did not come from the government.

In 1972 the Historic Charleston Foundation, a not-for-profit preservation organization, began a program that revitalized the Ansonborough neighborhood. The foundation took direct action in a number of ways. It acquired and demolished seven buildings that were incompatible with the rest of the neighborhood. It bought 58 other structures, of which it moved four, rehabilitated eight, and sold the rest to new owners, who agreed to restore the buildings. It persuaded local banks to provide the mortgages, and by 1980 the neighborhood had been restored.

As the experience of Charleston demonstrates, changing things is always easier by direct action. However, since no change-oriented entity, public or private, has enough money to pay for everything, effective players try to make what they believe are the most cost-effective expenditures. The desire for cost-effective spending provides the rationale for planning.

Cost effectiveness in planning is not only a matter of purchasing high-quality goods and services at low prices; it is also determined by the impact the expenditures make. In 1919, Walter Moody, the Chicago Plan Commission’s first managing director, explained this better than anyone has done since. Planning, he said, is “a simple, common-sense procedure to make conditions more livable” by investing in “public improvements” with intelligence and “foresight,” rather than in a “haphazard,” uncoordinated manner. Moody did not believe that every program of public improvements could be called planning. He pointed out that “a street widening unrelated to any other improvement or purpose” or a civic center created without reference to everything else in the city was not the result of planning. He called that sort of development “unplanning.”

The changes that result from planning must meet the demand for greater livability in the present. But if they are to be sustainable, they must accomplish other things as well. They must generate a private-market reaction, provide a framework for continuing changes in the future, and be adaptable so they can meet unexpected demands in the future. A century ago Charles Wacker, the Chicago Plan Commission’s first chairman, explained that genuine planning “fosters city growth by making it easier and cheaper to conduct all classes of business; increases and insures all property values by preventing many evils of haphazard building; makes every citizen a more efficient worker by saving time and money in transit of goods and people.”

e focus of most of [my] book is on the public realm approach to planning—an approach that emphasizes the importance of public investments in determining the future of what we own and control: our streets, squares, parks, infrastructure, and public buildings. This is our common property. It is the fundamental element in any community—the framework around which everything else grows. Cities that adopt the public realm approach to planning make it easier and cheaper to do business, make their citizens, in Wacker’s words, “more efficient workers by saving time and money in transit of goods and people,” and improve the quality of life of their residents. By combining public investments into a coherent agenda, they provide the leverage for capturing and guiding private investment to operate in the public interest while, in the process, improving whole neighborhoods, districts, cities, and even regions.

An agenda of this sort is not a wish list of things it might be nice to have, setting aside consideration of priorities or feasibility. It consists of actions that can and will be taken; otherwise there will be no change. This book argues that the only planning that matters is planning that is entirely implementation oriented.

There are no commonly accepted rules that determine the design of neighborhoods, cities, or regions. Design is always subject to controversy. Important figures, such as Le Corbusier and Jane Jacobs, disagreed completely on matters of design. Philadelphia’s foremost planner, Edmund Bacon, stopped working with the city’s foremost architect, Louis Kahn, because he disagreed with Kahn’s approach to design, which he dismissed as putting “a little tower here . . . a nice curving stairway there and a bunch of trees there.” Given such widespread disagreement, and despite the importance of design to successful planning, it is impossible to identify common rules of design that apply in every situation, at every time, in every location.

Readers may wonder about the contemporary relevance of planning in the nineteenth-century, or the turn-of-the-twentieth-century, or even the mid-twentieth-century. It is my contention that good planning in one place bears a strong resemblance to good planning in another, and the similarities can be seen in examples as disparate in time and place as Paris in the mid nineteenth century and New York in the mid twentieth. The issues that planners confront do not change with location or time: improving the functioning of entire metropolitan regions, improving the character of the physical environment, and improving everybody’s daily life. The tasks undertaken by planners are also the same, everywhere and at all times: making capital investments that provide needed infrastructure and community facilities, improve public services, and encourage private development; altering land use and traffic patterns to improve the way cities and suburbs function; raising money to pay for those investments; and gaining and maintaining public support for those activities. Thus, an understanding of where, how, and why planning has succeeded in the past helps us succeed today.

Others may object to my choice of cities. When they think of planning, they think of entire design systems: Beaux-Arts proposals for symmetrical clusters of buildings and axial vistas; modernist oases of continuous, green, open spaces punctuated by occasional tall buildings; or New Urbanist images of quaint houses with picket fences and gabled roofs. As Jane Jacobs wrote more than a half century ago, these conceptions may explain “everything in a flash, like a good advertisement” but they say little about how cities work; nor do they explain how to change them for the better.

Still others will be unhappy that I use the word “planning” without such modifiers as city, regional, suburban, or neighborhood. They assume that planning should take place on a neighborhood, city, suburban, or regional basis and that the techniques used for one are not the same techniques used in other types of planning. On the contrary, I believe that planning strategies are universally applicable, whether they are directed to relatively compact downtown Philadelphia or the sprawling New York metropolitan area.

Very little of [my] book is devoted to plans. Some plans are lovely but fanciful descriptions of what we want the world to be. They decorate coffee tables, collect dust on library shelves, and sometimes intrigue people who like to muse about what might have been. Dwight Eisenhower, an expert on the subject, once remarked, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Indeed, plans that change nothing are worthless. A small number of plans, however, like the 1909 Plan of Chicago, have helped change daily life for the better. Plans can be useful, but as Eisenhower understood very well, anyone who wants to change anything must do more than publish a document. They must engage in planning.

Finally, this book will attempt to answer two questions. The first was posed by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Paper No. 1: are we capable of establishing good government through “reflection and choice,” or are we destined to make political decisions through “accident and force?” By the end of this book, the reader will understand that the answer is “both” and will have a clear sense of where and how they come into play in the planning process.

The second question addresses the skepticism of today’s world about the possibility of effecting change. Is it true that intelligent planning is impossible today because times have changed? One of the major themes of [my] book is that times have not changed as much as we think they have. Nineteenth-century planners, like planners in the 1960s, a time when they thought government and private money were plentiful, faced the same difficulties experienced by planners today, who believe money is scarce. The idea that planning used to be easy but has become difficult is a myth. The notion has become conventional wisdom because there has never been a commonly accepted understanding of what planning is, what its players are engaged in, the rules that govern what they do, or why successful planners are able to change neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, and even entire metropolitan regions.


Alexander Garvin heads a planning and design firm and lives in New York. He is an adjunct professor of urban planning and management at Yale University. The preceding was excerpted from his new book The Planning Game: Lessons from Great Cities, (c) 2013. Used by permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton. www.wwnorton.com

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