Suburbanization and Its Discontents

Planners as therapists/entrepreneurs/office managers,
or Random highlights from Harvard Design Magazine

About 10 years ago, I gave a presentation with the title of this post for a conference on sprawl. There was talk of the conference proceedings becoming a book, so there was a plan to turn the talk into a chapter. Neither materialized. This was mainly a shame because I found the title extremely clever, or at least clever sounding. (I was less confident of its content.) A more industrious researcher/pop planner was certain to run with it soon, though I don’t think they have as yet.

In preparation for the talk, which concerned the state of planning critiques of modern suburban form, I thought to take a look at the book I’d cribbed the title from, Civilization and its Discontents. I discovered Freud speculated that, instinctively, we do not like people.* Well, not not like them so much as not trust them, since they want our stuff. We know this as we want their stuff too. However, it turns out there are mutual benefits from interacting, hence civilization ensued. The underlying tension between the benefits of society and our mistrust of/aggression toward others — between conformity and freedom — is then added to the list of things Freud blames for neurosis. (Handy if you were looking for an intellectual explanation for why you crave a drink after the next department meeting,** especially if an agenda item involves people wanting some of your stuff.) In short, life stinks because it is a series of unpleasant, unavoidable tradeoffs.

This fit some parts of the sprawl debate better than I’d expected. Suburbanization is also said to drive people batty, though Freud’s logic applies more cleanly to cities than the less dense suburbs. In any event, as always, I want to know how planners can help. After all, much of planning’s je ne sais quoi clearly involves negotiating various tradeoffs between the presumed benefits of different forms of the built environment and their costs. Just as Freud concluded that some neurosis is now part and parcel of the human condition, if many planning problems are the price we pay for having cities, are they treatable?

For the sake of argument, say yes. Then if planners mediate by managing tradeoffs, where do they draw the line for things like sprawl? And who do planners think they are, anyway, drawing lines and such?

Sprawl = failure = lack of outrage?
The suburbanization debate is indeed often about lines that, as you know, have to be drawn somewhere. In its most trenchant form it posits minimum performance standards, below which is something called sprawl. Lisa Schweitzer sent me a link to a letter by Emily Talen, in the Fall 2005/Winter 2006 Harvard Design Magazine, where she goes Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck’s Suburban Nation one better by saying there is no middle ground for planners. Taking issue with an article by Alex Krieger that comments on one of her own, neither of which I’ve seen, she writes in part:

There are really only two reactions to sprawl: outrage and lack of outrage. One is either deeply troubled about the American pattern of settlement and motivated to act, or one is content to live and let live. One either sees excessive land consumption and near-total automobile dependence as a moral assault, an embodiment of human greed tied up in a much larger, dire game of global politics, oil dependency, and American hegemony, or one can look past all that and view it as a trite case of Americana. Those who claim to be disgusted but nevertheless content to let stand the “un-heroic” nature of planning are, well, not really all that upset by it. Alex Krieger’s contentment with mousy planning puts him in that ever polite, unexcitable category.

But I wonder if he has seen the latest statistics. Does he realize that each year two million acres of peripheral open land is consumed by sprawl? Does he know that traffic between 1985 and 1999 in the U.S. grew three times faster than population, and does he make the connection that this was mostly because of sprawl? Does he know that half of all Americans live in counties with unhealthy air, and that sprawl is a major contributor? Does he know that kids who live near busy roads are eight times more likely to get leukemia, or that pregnant women in that zone are more likely to have premature or low birth weight babies? Is he prepared to continue to make excuses for ineffective planning in light of these facts?

These statistics are merely the tip of the iceberg. Readily available are an increasing array of studies citing sprawl’s link to oil dependency, obesity, road rage, polluted water, habitat loss, energy consumption, segregation, disaffected teenagers, and a host of other social and economic ills. The absurdity of Congress’s new energy bill, lacking even a mention of the relationship between land patterns and oil consumption, shows how marginalized and disempowered planning as a viable response has become. I marvel at those planners who, in light of this, continue to stay focused on ensuring that everyone’s self-interest is properly aired. Somehow, planners like Alex Krieger continue to view sprawl as the benign condition of a society that simply values the need to provide endless possibilities.

Why don’t these facts stimulate more offense amongst people whose job it is to do something about it? Why would a person like Alex Krieger choose to be cool and disimpassioned in the face of such calamity? Perhaps he very rarely ventures from the urban core, or maybe sprawl is too much of an abstraction, simply patterns seen from an airplane. Perhaps the barrage of statistics has deadened his sensibilities. In any case, Krieger is obviously not interpreting the daily destruction called sprawl as social injustice.

But why would Krieger be more worried about making sure everyone is heard than making sure that larger issues like public health and environmental stewardship are attended to? Most importantly, why does he think we have the luxury — the time — to monkey around with a form of planning that does so little to curb sprawl?


I venture to guess Krieger had suggested that planners did good by providing voice for residents’ aspirations, without qualifying that function with an anti-sprawl platform.

Talen says planning what people want is bad if it conflicts with public health and environmental stewardship, and planners should know and do better. (Of course, theorists have debated role tradeoffs with considerable energy throughout the postmodern/radical conversation. Is the “just city” what the people want, should want if they knew better, or just what they deserve? “Of what and whom are we speaking? In whose name?” Then there is the issue of how, and how well, we or they communicate what we or they want.)

We have met the planners and they are not us
But does she overstate our standing? Do planners plan, or merely manage the office? Coincidentally, in the previous issue of the same magazine, LA’s John Kaliski says la gente increasingly plan what they want, making the place and effectiveness of planners in city building ever more unclear. In “Democracy takes command,” he writes:

As the advocacy models of the 1960s lost their currency in the ’70s and ’80s, planners were increasingly reduced to performing the driest forms of zoning and land-use entitlement administration. By the 1990s, one heard, at least amongst some architects, that planning was dead. Today, with the need to manage the collection and interpretation of data, administer and facilitate on-going public processes, and generate policy in response to public demands, planning again assumes a central role in the development process. In essence, planning has evolved from a generalist’s occupation that sought to lead people to environmentally based solutions—utilize a bit of physical design, sprinkle it with a bit of law, and spice with facilitation—to a highly specialized and demanding profession that partners with communities to manage the complex ins and outs of a transparent and public development process. That this process is often confusing and contradictory reinforces the idea that planners are needed to better manage the assumed discursive process.


After describing 3 large planning projects that were extensively reshaped into their final form not by planners so much as by subsequent, intensive, extended public discourse and negotiation, he comments that:

what these situations have in common is the intensity and comprehensiveness of their associated public planning discourse. No doubt this intensity is in part an expression of both fear of change and a desire to preserve myopic and selfish interests. But the exhaustiveness of the processes described does not allow narrowly drawn interests to survive. In each case, a broad range of constituencies and interest groups considers a wide array of ideas in full public view. Decisions and consequent design are debated and crafted by citizens acting as design and planning experts. Ideas, indeed design ideas, mutate and coalesce through either the threat of a direct vote or a pending vote. Democracy, in which “the people form a master that must be obeyed,” once again takes command of the design of neighborhoods, streets, the city, and the region….

In this environment, the planning discourses of everyday life and professional plans for the form of the metropolis gradually become one. “Everyday” people are asked to consume and form opinions about everything from large-scale infrastructural decisions to tot lot beautification. Information is posted online and citizens—particularly those that are obsessed—know that armed with this data they too can be experts. Even with the consequent focus on the local and the self-interested, this process nevertheless sets up the planner to play a key facilitation and brokering role. This is not easy given the microscopic viewpoint of much of the citizenry, but it is possible, even as it demands new planning practices and frameworks, in essence the construction of a “New Planning” for consensus building and decision-making.


He calls this New Planning a “hyper-incremental planning dialogue,” and concludes, “As opposed to advocating urban design education for the masses or leading the people to the city on the hill of good design, planners, architects, and landscape architects, acting as urban designers, must associate themselves and their specialized activities with everyday people to do everyday planning.” In this telling, planners do not cook the meal so much as make polite, informed conversation, set the table, and clean up after.

Discontent and its discontents
There is a local debate that the latest light rail line in LA, known as the Gold Line, is too slow (~10mph in places), largely as a condition of agreements made with the neighborhoods through which it passes regarding noise levels. That is, it works much less well as a transportation mode (and is thus less viable, with low ridership to show for it) because of public participation in its planning and design. The debate is whether the mission has been jeopardized simply to close the deal.

There are certainly counter examples — such as the 1000 acre Playa Vista development Kaliski mentions, on the former Howard Hughes factory site — where entrepreneurial planners, private and public, have managed the tradeoffs and process in a manner that does not jeopardize their mission. The give and take of deal making results in a situation with more winners and fewer losers. Playa Vista more or less bought off the various competing constituencies fair and square, partly by downsizing the project, by logrolling, and by cash.

So, are good planners primarily good entrepreneurs (closing deals that still make sense), moral fingerposts (giving direction at critical junctures), mediators (therapists), process/information managers (facilitating democracy in order to avoid getting run over by it) or some comfortable or uncomfortable mix? For example, assuming they agreed on what it was, could they stop sprawl if they wanted, should they shout very loudly if they can’t, or what?

This may not look like a discussion of scholarship on the surface, only because I am still thinking. I do know that I will read Harvard Design Magazine more regularly now.

Study questions
Can sprawl be as handily negotiated, managed, and mitigated as was Playa Vista, in principle or practice? Might that process and product be called smart growth? Do we have an operational metric by which its success or failure can be measured? How does that mesh with what Kaliski calls Everyday Planning? Explain thoroughly and good luck.

*This reminds me of a story. Having lunch with an academic a few years ago, I realized, mid-meal, that he was one of the principal proponents of the Sierra Club adopting an anti-illegal immigrant platform. This was an even more emotional debate at the time than is usually the case, and what with my wife being a Chilanga and all I suddenly felt myself bracing for what might be an anti-wife slur of some kind. I wasn’t sure how I would react. You can imagine my relief when I realized it wasn’t Mexicans he didn’t like; he didn’t like human beings period. They contaminate the earth, etc. Being human isn’t generally against the law, though, so he had zeroed his attention on those lacking permission to be on the wrong side of another line, the border.

**Reminds me of another story, on the problems faced by the conference organizers in filmmaker John Sayles’ story, “The Anarchists’ Convention,” who might like people fine but weren’t particularly respectful of formal plans, authority, or organization. Their planning meeting doesn’t go too smoothly. Any resemblance to my own department meetings is purely by chance.

Saturday, March 4th, 2006
randall Crane
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