Should cities be planned at all?

By Stanley Gu, Class of 2019

Given the challenges of measuring and providing for quality of life in urban systems, and our successful and failed attempts to do so throughout history, should cities be planned at all? Or are they better off left to grow organically?

A lively street in a haphazardly planned Shanghai neighborhood.

A lively street in a haphazardly planned Shanghai neighborhood.

Planning and organic growth are yin and yang; both contribute to a city’s well-being, supporting and energizing one another. Here, we consider organic growth to be the social and economic activities of ordinary citizens, while planning consists of activities and developments organized by local officials. Many modern metropoles like Shanghai and London started out as small villages, which then grew over time in a patchwork of both planned and organic regions. First, we will examine the separate roles that these two elements play, and how losing one or the other can hurt a city. On the other hand, when planning and organic growth work together, they can benefit urban areas in surprising ways.

Organic growth is the life force of the city. Built completely from scratch, China’s Tianjin eco-city is a prime example of planning without organic growth. In most situations, people and infrastructure grow together. But in eco-cities, the infrastructure is built first, creating empty shells devoid of their organic element: human activity. Urban well-being depends not just on physical capital, but also on human and social capital – the thriving farmer’s market, busy storefronts, neighborhood watch groups, parent-teacher associations, networks of friends, and more. These qualities usually arise organically, as people form grassroots organizations or jumpstart the economy with entrepreneurial activity. Optimizing and building a city from scratch may sound great in theory, but without people and the energy and creativity they bring, urban areas remain dull. Much like a half-empty stadium, the physical infrastructure is there, but the human activity is too small to fill it with life, or even justify it economically. In time, however, people will move in and bring that organic element, and Tianjin eco-city may still prove to be a success.

Nevertheless, planning does have an important role: steering us toward collective goals we cannot achieve on our own. As we learned from the Global Footprint Calculator, most of our ecological footprint comes from our collective infrastructure – roads, waterways, hospitals, and the electric grid – which is most effectively improved through coordinated, planned action. For example, my own hometown of Fremont, California has decided to invest in bicycle and pedestrian paths, which will shape our urban form and well-being in ways beyond any one individual’s capability. In the Bay Area, park agencies like the East Bay Regional Park District protect our shared wildlands and provide access to trails. Moreover, governments can provide for the vulnerable, such as by keeping housing affordable and uplifting distressed citizens.

Considered in isolation, planning and organic growth both have benefits and drawbacks. But the more interesting question is how these two elements interact with and support each other. In many cases, the government kindles a project that takes off when citizens take ownership of it. Conversely, citizen-initiated action can blossom and mature with the help of local officials.

Participatory budgeting in New York.

Participatory budgeting in New York.

Planning is often most successful when it stimulates and supports the city’s creative energy. More and more, a big part of planning is listening to and engaging with the community. The point of this long and frequently frustrating process is to instill a sense of ownership and potentially tap into the enormous power of everyday citizens. In the case of the Participatory Budgeting Project, a local government sets aside funds and lets the public decide how to spend that money through in-person or online forums. What starts out as a government-led procedure transforms into grassroots community engagement. Another example of planning that engages communities is the Tule Ponds Wetland Preserve in my hometown of Fremont. The City and county water district put in the initial investment - new stormwater percolation ponds and an educational center. With the efforts of a dedicated geologist, hordes of high school volunteers who descend upon the site every year, and funding from local businesses, that initial investment has bloomed into a community project. In addition to the habitat restoration done by volunteers, the preserve has educated thousands of young children and exposed even more high schoolers and college students to environmental education. That is something one cannot plan for.

Other times, citizens are the ones who initiate an effort, which is amplified when governments lend their funding and support. Guerrilla urbanism projects, in which citizens install their own crosswalks, parks, gardens, or bicycle lanes, are famous for their daring nature and complete lack of bureaucratic red tape, but can fail to produce lasting change without administrative support. Such projects really become interesting, though, when leaders take notice and incorporate those changes into their own policies. This is precisely what happened in Hamilton, Ontario, when citizens deployed traffic calming measures and painted crosswalks. Though confrontations with the municipal government were tense at first, officials grew more receptive over time and even considered extending the idea to other intersections.

Making the relationship between planning and organic growth work is by no means easy. Humans are complex – we have subconscious desires, cultures, histories, memories, emotions, and entrenched habits. It’s difficult to engage with citizens when people are busy with their own lives, when bureaucracy doesn’t allow it, or when opinions and voices conflict and confuse. In the face of these challenges, it seems easier to start with a blank slate and plan everything to perfection, or to simply give up on planning altogether and leave things in the hands of pure free market economics. Though these shortcuts may seem to cut through the frustration, they are also potentially dangerous to our well-being. But when planning, governance, and organic growth interact symbiotically, the result can be more rewarding than anyone first imagined.