“The Wealth of Embedded Urban Knowledge”
A review of
The Trouble with City Planning:
What New Orleans Can Teach Us.
By Kristina Ford.
Review by Brent Aldrich.
In community development work and neighborhood meetings that I’ve been a part of, it’s sometimes baffling when a neighbor asks, “when will they (fill in the blank: fix these abandoned houses, build our light-rail line, build a Wal-Mart, whatever)?” Presumably this is the same they who are always saying things (they say…), and if they would just get to work instead, all would be right with the world. Of course, this is not how our city or any other works, but rather through dynamic daily interactions of neighbors, businesses, city officials, and planners. Furthermore, in a neighborhood such as ours in Indianapolis, neighbors have established regular practices of planning and working together for the good of the whole – so questions as to when they will do anything often suggests a level of disconnect on the part of the asker, as that they is usually us.
Part of the difficulty of parsing this idea about how cities work is the similar assumption that city plans are created and implemented far away from the average neighbor. The idea that city planners operate on a level above the concerns of residents, those on the ground, is entrenched is American cities, often in practice, as any student of Jane Jacobs can cite. Kristina Ford’s new book The Trouble with City Planning: What New Orleans Can Teach Us takes a comprehensive look at how exactly city planners work, and why their practices have become often inaccessible to anyone beyond planners themselves. For anyone invested in urban places, this book is a valuable resource.
Ford was the director of planning in New Orleans during the 1990s, implementing a 1999 Land Use Plan, and looking at the city in the few years following Hurricane Katrina during which New Orleans drafted a series of five different and isolated attempts at creating a new city plan. Ford takes these five plans as symptomatic of all city planning: “the failures in those five efforts are common to most city plans, though the disaster New Orleans suffered made the failures easier to identify. My purpose here is not so much to describe what a recovery plan for New Orleans should have been but rather to describe how all city plans might be made better.” Clearly, it will require more than topping the last grandiloquent name: “The Bring New Orleans Back Commission,” the “New Orleans Neighborhoods Rebuilding Plan,” and the “Unified New Orleans Plan,” are all in the dumpster; instead Ford’s model Good City Plan sketches three general sections: the State of the City, Projections for the Future, and a Citizen’s Guide to Future Land-Use Decisions, all marked by the participatory creation, all formulated to counter the effects of Bad City Plans.
Perhaps the central overriding problem with much city planning is the failure to include those neighbors whose lives are included in said plan, effectively creating for rather than with. Ford writes:
“the debilitating flaw all these ‘new’ plans share is that they do not seem to be formulated for the purpose of making a plan useful to the public.
Even the most innovative plans have one or more crucial shortcomings that prevent their becoming significant and useful documents to citizens’ lives – prevent them from becoming Good City Plans. Most plans are so voluminous that citizens resist reading them. Few plans explain their purpose in terms citizens can understand, and typically avoid discussing problems that have existed so long they’ve been deemed unresolvable. Finally, plans ordinarily do not provide continuous records of how – and how successfully – cities have tried to influence the course of their development” (181).
And so a fundamental mark of Good City Plans seems to be – particularly in the earliest stages of development – the degree to which neighbors in the city are actively involved in its creation. As I indicated at the beginning, my own neighborhood (Indianapolis’ Near Eastside) has been perhaps unusually successful in bringing together neighbors around the gamut of city life, from a broad Quality of Life plan several years ago, to more focused groups arising from that plan: transportation, education, zoning, all of the facets that make for a healthy neighborhood. Ford takes a similar approach: “the first benefit is that the [Good City Plan] actively elicits from citizens the consequential character of living in a city. As previous chapters have shown, an underrealized power of a citizenry is its ability to observe how land is used all around itself. Citizens notice how different land uses affect their daily lives, and they routinely think about how their neighborhoods might be made better” (230).
The Trouble with City Planning makes visible the often obscure processes by which plans for cities and neighborhoods have been made in the past, often without the participations of those who will live with the daily realities of those plans, and invites instead planners to actively engage the wealth of embedded urban knowledge available in any neighborhood as plans for its flourishing are made.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com