What is Urban Planning?

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So…What *is* urban planning? And what defines great places? These are highly loaded questions! 🙂 A complete answer is impossible, and even attempting to be thorough could easily fill thousands of pages. But I’ll provide a few ideas, along with many open-ended questions, that will indicate how vast and varied urban planning is and why it’s so fascinating to me. I’ll also preview many future posts.

My parents enjoying a great street in the Latin Quarter of Paris.
My parents enjoying a great street in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Note: you can click on any image to open the original size in a new tab.

In a traditional textbook sense, urban planning dictates land use, transportation, infrastructure, zoning, parking, historic building regulations, building heights, and often other considerations and regulations such as sustainability/resource use, property taxes, and metropolitan-wide planning. Huge resulting documents lay out visions of how a given city is designed to function and be developed, often decades into the future. Density, building heights, parking, subsidized housing and many other aspects of cities also come into play.

Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence. Da Vinci, a master of dimension, believed this street had the world's most perfect dimensions.
Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence, has perfect dimensions, according to the world’s most famous expert on dimensions: Leonardo da Vinci.

I’ve long been extremely dubious about long-range planning documents, and a book that I recently finished called “Thinking, Fast and Slow” confirms my doubts and much more! It was written by Daniel Kahneman, the world’s only psychologist ever to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. Psychological aspects alone will be the subjects of dozens of future posts; many ideas will reference this book, which will change the entire way you think about statistics, prediction, hindsight, money, behavior, loss, and seemingly everything else you had assumed to be true. 🙂

Plaza near Begijnhof in Amsterdam
Plaza near Begijnhof in Amsterdam

Speaking of questioning everything, urban planning is endlessly fascinating because of the questions that constantly arise. Below are just a few of the questions associated with urban planning. I’m really curious to see what your thoughts are!

Questions to consider:

    • What rules, if any, should govern the demolition of century-old homes?
    • What are the potential benefits and downfalls of inclusionary zoning?
    • Should drive-throughs be allowed on a major urban retail street?
    • What heights are appropriate in low-rise historic districts? What do you feel about height limits and FAR (floor area ratio) in general?
    • How should various neighborhoods be zoned, if at all?
    • When, where and how is form-based code appropriate?
Canal in Amsterdam at Night
Canal in Amsterdam at Night
    • How should various streets and roads be classified?
    • How should “level of service” be defined for various modes of transportation?
    • How wide should streets be in the urban core? Under what conditions should one-way streets be allowed?  How should emergency vehicle access be considered?
    • What should speed limits be in urban areas? What’s the appropriate speed limit (if any) in the middle of Wyoming?
    • Should cyclists be physically separated from automobile traffic?
    • Should every intersection in an urban area be a crosswalk?
    • Should urban planning focus on educating the public?
Semur-en-Auxois in France
Semur-en-Auxois in France
    • Should it focus on educating our elected officials
    • Should it focus on housing? Equitability?
    • Should urban planning be top-down? Should it be bottom-up, as Jane Jacobs largely advocated?
    • What are your thoughts about NIMBY (not in my backyard)? What creates NIMBYism? (Hint: a future post will provide many interesting answers to this question!)
    • How much of a social justice component should there be?
    • How should parking be priced? How much parking should be provided?
    • Should there be parking minimums? Should there be parking maximums?
    • Is New York’s High Line a success? Or is it too crowded?
Yours truly in Stockholm's Mårten Trotzigs Gränd, Europe's most narrow alley
Yours truly in Stockholm’s Mårten Trotzigs Gränd, Europe’s most narrow alley
    • Is suburban development a Ponzi scheme? What about first-ring suburbs vs. exurbs, etc? Have we budgeted enough for long-term maintenance of developments and infrastructure that are built increasingly far from the urban core? These are incredibly important questions to consider, for the vast majority of North Americans live in suburbs.
    • The Miami area has the highest percentage of suburbanites of any metro area on Earth: 93%. Atlanta trails closely at 92.5%. Even Vancouver, BC, often touted as the world’s most livable city, has suburbs whose combined dominance of the metro-area population continues to increase rapidly. Thus, great metropolitan areas are not possible without great suburbs, whatever this might mean (and the jury will clearly take decades to decide this issue). Will we continue to prioritize the quick, convenient movement of cars? Should we? Can all suburbs be equipped with great public transportation systems? Should they be?
Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square, America's only true European-style piazza
Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, America’s only true European-style piazza. It’s surrounded on three sides by light rail lines and beautiful historic mixed-use towers.
  • Is highway congestion (and urban street congestion) always a bad thing? Sometimes? Never? (I’ll have many interesting future posts on this issue!)

I believe it’s extremely healthy to debate questions like these and many more.

One can argue that urban planning is, in fact, all about asking the right questions. For example, when you approach a town or go through its main streets, what is the message that the streets are sending you? What do you want them to convey?

What is urban planning to you? What are the most important components of great places, neighborhoods and cities? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Some of my thoughts and observations

I’ll expand greatly upon these in future posts. Some ideas include:

      • Urban planning is about responding to what locals want.
        Jarrett Walker (http://humantransit.org) is an expert at this, particularly from the transportation perspective.
Amsterdam is an epic walkable, bike-friendly city; people truly come first. Over 99% of the 3000 pictures I've taken of Amsterdam have no cars visible.
Amsterdam is an epic walkable, bike-friendly city; people truly come first. Over 99% of the 3000 pictures I’ve taken of Amsterdam have no cars visible.
      • The pedestrian *must* always come first, from my perspective. Literally every trip starts and ends with walking, but this is only one of hundreds of reasons that walking should be prioritized first. Jeff Speck (http://www.jeffspeck.com) literally wrote the book on “The Walkable City.” We need to design the best possible environment for pedestrians.
      • A fascinating discovery that Jeff Speck made in his book is that it’s much *worse* on the environment to live in a net-zero-energy house in a non-walkable area than it is to live in a huge, energy-hogging house in a walkable area. Highly dense, walkable urban areas really are beneficial to our ecosystem.
      • The *only* correct order of transportation priority is (again, to me, but also to increasing numbers of urban planners): 1. Walking 2. Cycling 3. Public transit 4. Movement of freight/goods 5. Private auto use. This is the ONLY order that benefits ALL users of our street/road network, including those who solely drive from A to B. I’ll have a very detailed post explaining the many (often counterintuitive) reasons why this is true. Many of them will pay great homage to Vancouver’s Brent Toderian (http://www.toderianurbanworks.com).
      • The best kind of growth is *incremental* growth, not massive planned developments. I will write about this *many* times throughout this blog. Strong Towns (http://www.strongtowns.org) explains this concept probably better than anyone else in the English-speaking universe. Obviously I won’t repeat their great, long posts and podcasts on incremental growth; rather, occasional summaries of key ideas will provide invaluable context in many future posts.
Pedestrian bridge in Leiden
Classic scene in the Dutch city of Leiden. It’s a classic “antifragile,” incrementally developed city.
      • The best cities are “antifragile,” which is a wonderful concept coined by Nassim Taleb, whose truly groundbreaking book “Black Swan” is another absolutely mandatory book for all planners. It’s quite complicated, but its best points related to urban planning are explained exquisitely by Strong Towns Founder and President Charles Marohn. Neighborhoods should be subjected to constant small stresses and quick failures that result in stronger communities long-term. I’ll explain this in great detail in a future post, along with the four Strong Towns podcast episode that I recommend most; ALL four *must* be required listening for ALL elected officials, city planners, architects, developers, traffic engineers, and anyone else associated with any of these fields!
      • An urban designer’s job is to create comfortable, interesting places that are designed for PEOPLE first (“people” over “cars” will be a major theme of this blog).
      • Despite the dominance of screens and being “social” online, we are still human, and we will forever desire personal connections. We are *naturally* drawn to where other people are found! We want to watch and participate in the ballet of the street, as Jane Jacobs says.
Musicians and crowds at the Dam in Amsterdam
Musicians and crowds at the Dam in Amsterdam. Never a car in sight–it’s a true delight. 🙂
      • Literally the ONLY trait that ALL great urban places and neighborhoods on Earth have in common is this: They’re full of pedestrians! Simply put, if you approach an area full of *people*, you are naturally drawn to it! If, on the other hand, you approach an area that is nothing but cars (with no one out walking or biking), you naturally want to pass through the area quickly or, if possible, avoid it, unless you have a *very* specific reason for being there.
      • We’ve had 7000 years of developing cities incrementally, primarily around walking. Our vast suburban expansion has only been a 70-year-long experiment thus far, and I don’t anticipate a good ending to this experiment, but a healthy (and highly respectful) debate is always wonderful to have!
Reykjavík's main shopping street: Laugavegur
Reykjavík’s main shopping street: Laugavegur. The human scale is apparent everywhere, right down to the colorfully painted and car-free street.
      • We need to look far beyond merely what things cost. Economists want to minimize cost and maximize revenue and profit. To me, we need to put a high price on externalities (environmental degradation, etc) and a much higher value on health, happiness, quality of life, etc.
      • “Congestion” is actually GOOD! It’s when peak-level demand equals supply! It’s economically optimal! This is a highly counterintuitive idea, and it will take a great deal of explaining, which I’ll do often in future posts.
      • We’re still learning, very, very slowly, on how to make cities function better for ALL people. In fact, the California Environmental Quality Act still states, “Striping bike lanes in San Francisco has potentially dire impacts on the environment because it threatens automobile LOS (level of service).” It’s the classic excuse that automobile-centric policymakers use: streets where cars can pass through at highway speeds with zero delay are given an LOS grade of A. This means, of course, that at any point along that corridor, cars will continuously rush by at highway speeds, with no one ever stopping or even slowing down to notice their surroundings or patronize a single business along the corridor. The classic definition of LOS assumes that public transit, cycling and walking are, as Jeffrey Tumlin explains, “impediments to ‘REAL’ transportation, which is driving.”
Overly wide one-way downtown streets
Overly wide one-way downtown streets that sit empty most hours literally encourage people to drive to work, even alongside a convenient MAX (light rail) line. This street will be jammed with cars two hours later. Many future posts will both praise and blast Portland’s built environment and its civic plans.
      • This brings up the extremely important concept of “passage” vs. “place,” which will be the subject of a long post in the near future. There is a time for pure passage (getting from A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible), and there is certainly a time to emphasize “place,” as well. Both are needed in a well-functioning metropolitan area.
      • I will also make very clear distinctions between a “road” and a “street” in a near-future post. Unfortunately, most cities are full of “stroads,” which function very poorly as both streets AND as roads. This term was first coined by Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns; I *highly* recommend his podcasts! I’ll list my four favorite episodes (of nearly 400 produced thus far) in that post, as well.
      • This is the best article I’ve read about the potential benefits and pitfalls of inclusionary zoning (a very hot topic in Portland right now): http://placesforeveryone.com/index.php/what-is-urban-planning
      • Urban planning is all about getting *locals* involved. As Jane Jacobs famously said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
      • But above all…In the words of Charles Montgomery, urban planning is about helping citizens and municipal leaders create HAPPY cities! Fittingly, Charles Montgomery wrote “Happy City” (http://thehappycitylab.com/the-book). The final chapter features my greatest placemaking hero of all time: Portland’s own Mark Lakeman. You guessed it: numerous future posts will involve Mark Lakeman’s revolutionary work.

What are your thoughts? I’d love your input!

I’d love to read about your ideas and observations below!

What is urban planning all about? What makes a great place? What are aspects of great neighborhoods? What do you like about your city?

And what else would you like me to cover in this blog? Thanks so much for reading and participating! 🙂

Kunsthof Passage "Court of Water" musical sculptures in Dresden, Germany
Kunsthof Passage “Court of Water” musical sculptures in Dresden, Germany. Look for MANY images of this incredible neighborhood in future posts! 🙂

6 thoughts on “What is Urban Planning?”

  1. This site is truly packed with cutting edge urban planning info. Thanks for your tireless efforts in search of equitable planning solutions, Tim. Looking forward to a lot of good reading in the future!

    1. Thank you so much, John! It will be a pleasure researching and creating lots more posts that hopefully people will enjoy! We’re all in this together to create better cities and places for everyone to enjoy!

  2. Tim, you are a servant of the people, and your skills, experience, insights, and most useful challenges will make this a better place, and make us better citizens. When snow made Portland drivers stop, I had the deep pleasure of taking the bus downtown and walking with many other happy pedestrians along streets empty for our pleasure. I found myself looking at the beautiful sky without fearing for my life as I crossed the street. A few cars crept along at a walking pace, and my fellow pedestrians reveled in each other’s company. It was a glimpse of what life could be like if we learned how to be here on our own terms. You will help us achieve this.

    1. Thank you so much, Professor Stafford!! I love how the snowstorm had people experiencing the city in totally different, wondrous ways as the streets were returned to the people!

      In fact, a near-future post will be about a very special “woonerf” street in Vancouver, BC; it’s my favorite street in the city. It’s welcome to all, including cars, but everyone moves through it at a walking pace. There are many other things that make this very quiet street in the heart of Vancouver so special, and I’ll provide many pictures. Like you said, it’s a glimpse of how cities could be–truly Places for Everyone!

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