Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Book Review: The Trouble with City Planning (Kristina Ford)

With the UK planning system going through another round of structural reforms, it makes sense to look abroad and see how other countries and cities are tackling contemporary issues. Kristina Ford draws on her experience as the Director of City Planning in New Orleans to provide a broad critique of current planning practice in 'The Trouble with City Planning'. Ford argues that 'the plan' has failed to act as a useful and relevant document for the city's many inhabitants. Taking a historical overview, she traces how US planning has changed little from the Plan of Chicago, written in 1909. The result is that planning continues to focus too much on visioning, to the expense of everyday issues that 'really matter'. With specific reference to the problems in New Orleans, Ford argues that planning has excluded the poorest sections of society who often fail to fit into the visioning exercise each city undertakes.

I would respond that this situation should not preclude the visioning exercise being undertaken, as Ford appears to argue. One of the strengths of the book is that it made me appreciate certain elements of the UK planning system which previously I may have undervalued. The 'spatial strategy', when carried out well, presents a clear picture on how an area should develop over the next twenty years. Visioning should not be discarded, though in the US it is much harder to square with the zoning system which requires finer site detail.

So what is the trouble with city planning. Through a few excellent examples, Ford identifies the problems as: politicians overruling planning officers; confusing plans and regulations; a lack of engagement from the public; and consultation fatigue. All this is summed up neatly when she describes a typical planning meeting to gather input for the future of New Orleans and only 12 people turn up. Yes, TWELVE. This should set alarm bells ringing for the profession (in the UK as well). How can a profession that deals with such substantive issues only appeal to 12 people? Solving this requires systematic changes and unfortunately Ford only tinkers around the edges, at one point suggesting bigger maps are brought to the meetings! Similarly, offering more development options during the consultation events will not increase engagement or alter the identity of the profession. Planning will only become more visible if it gains a bigger profile from national and local government taking it serious. In the UK, planning is all too often seen as small fry, whether in DCLG or within Local Authorities.

The most troubling aspect I found of Ford's book is her description of the political influence in the US. Again, this made me grateful for the quirks of Town and Country Planning at home. Ford provides a number of examples where developers would cut deals directly with the Mayor and Councillors. This just doesn't happen in the UK, at least to this extent. Developers may get strategic reassurances from elected members, but the fine detail of a development is still required to go through the arduous process of planning approval. Ford paints a picture of schemes being waved through without being tested against policy, a dangerous precedent indeed!

Whilst the book provides some insightful examples I would have preferred greater recognition of the benefits that a development can offer an area. All too often Ford gave the impression that new development only benefits a locality through increased tax receipts. Whilst this is clearly important, especially in US cities where tax is devolved and public sector budgets are under strain, the book would have benefited from a description of development schemes that have been successful and the lessons to learn from them. How about schemes that introduce excellently designed housing or improved public spaces? Surely something good must have happened under Ford's watch!

Overall, the book was accessible for non-planners - no mean feat in itself. Ford is able to crystallise the problems with city planning well, but falls down in her suggestions for addressing the concerns. I felt she could have gone much further and been bolder in her recommendations for how New Orleans could progress in the period since Katrina.

The Musing Urbanist score: 7/10

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