Urban planners can take a page from the “Field of Dreams” movie’s playbook. In the movie, Kevin Costner built a baseball diamond in a cornfield and his dreams came true. Planners around the world are finding that this technique can work for reshaping cities, too.
In the old days of “master planning” lots of night meetings were held hoping residents would show up and talk with the planners about visions, hopes and fears for their city. Planners converted these visions to density and zoning maps. Maps were converted to city ordinances. Officials and residents used the ordinances to keep out very specific “non-conforming” uses. Privately financed projects needed to weave through the rules to accomplish their own goals.
With new urban planning, city planners use a wide range of social media, including night meetings, to extract a pattern of wishes, dreams and visions for the city future. These visions go beyond land use to encompass quality of life and definition of “community”. The visions, pulled together and with incentives added, form a road map of hopes and dreams that attract private sector funding to build a new reality, according to Matthew Kiefer, in the March 19, 2017 Boston GLOBE.
This new model gets it right for three reasons. First, it invites creative new ways to develop the city. Second, it is more friendly, less restrictive to new ideas. Third, it attracts NEW MONEY that comes from the private sector…. a good thing as we watch our community block grant and other federally supported funding for cities be diverted to military uses.
Imagine Boston 2030 is experimenting with this new planning model. New York City, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, focusing strongly on climate change, launched PlaNYC in 2007. In 2012, contending with bankruptcy, Detroit Future City offered a vision and a toolkit for surviving and thriving with a smaller population spread over one of the largest cities in the USA by acreage. This week the Wall Street Journal highlighted the success of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a combination of luck, focus and public-private partnerships.
City planning has a long history. Cities were laid out in the Middle East, Africa and South America thousands of years ago. More recently, architects approached city design in Paris, Washington DC and other places by drawing a map of road ways and building sites. By the “progressive era” in the USA, zoning, land use and urban renewal laws took precedence in city design. Jane Jacobs, in New York City, famously fought the land use planning of Robert Moses. She tried to add a sense of community life into the drawing of city plans.
As we move forward into this new generation of city planning and city building, the forces of private ownership, financial investment, public laws purporting to represent public good, the will and visions of the current city population and the best guess at the needs of the future city will all be combined. Analytical frameworks for assessing and balancing these interests will evolve. It is a great time to be a city planner, indeed!