Have you ever wondered about the city you live in: its history, its planning, its development?
The Guardian has an incredible 50-part series on the history of urbanization from around the world. The more you read about cities, the more they become a metaphor for life – patience, plans, foundations, and changes. Any sort of urban development can takes years and decades. The saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. Furthermore, even the best laid plans can be easily swept aside by unforeseen circumstances or self-created consequences. Yet, without plans and goals, a city will cease to exist.
Therein lies the paradox of urban planning (and of life) – each action results in an infinite possibility of reactions. You want to capture the current circumstances and anticipate future change, but it is always an impossibility. You create that which you hope to contain, and yet what you hope to contain is based on projections, assumptions, and visions that can easily fall apart in an instant…
The building of cities always serves as an expression of the political will of those who rule or of the collective actions of the locals. As such, planning as a field is highly political and rife with social visions. Each decision that is made typically serves a purpose, whether it is symbolic, idealistic, or practical. Often, the decisions made are not for the benefit of the public or the future.
One poignantly felt example is the land use designations and zoning here in Los Angeles. Anti-development forces are strong here; the land use and zoning is comparatively one of the most restrictive in the nation. This is the result of forces that limit policy changes to create more housing and to make housing more affordable – the paradox of a liberal conservative population. As one of the bastions of liberal, progressive thought in the Western United States, it is surprising how people support policies until it affects development in their backyard. Furthermore, it is amazing how people disregard data and trends, how people disregard affordability. The impact of neighborhood councils is huge in limiting policy.
An analogy a colleague of mine used was that of the relationship between a doctor and a patient. The locals are the patient and planners are the doctor. We inquire about the issues and problems while trying to come up with solutions. Yet, in a normal patient-doctor relationship, the patient only has limited input in the doctor’s prescription. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the local community has over-weighed power in decision-making, sometimes overruling the expert advise of planners. This results in policies that are toothless, aimless, and limited. Furthermore, politicians wishing to stay within their elected positions must cater to their constituents, despite regular outcry that they bend to the wills of developers.
In a true democracy, public forum and knowledge is essential. Relating to my last post, the problem persists where we do not live in a true democracy. Most people do not have the education, critical thinking skills, or the time to properly make decisions. This results in inefficiencies in policy making and ineffectiveness in policies.
Perhaps this is an unsolvable problem, though I have other thoughts on this subject…for now let’s conclude with a question:
How can we move closer to a true democracy with a properly educated and critical thinking public?