Urban and regional planning is a discipline that examines, controls and seeks to improve the living environments of homo sapiens. Pseudoplanning is the appropriation or attempted appropriation of town and/or country planning methods to justify outcomes that fail to meet the standards of the field.
Get into a conversation about any topic related to planning and you will find that almost everyone has a strong opinion, similar to some related fields (e.g. Economics).
Urban planning as a professional and separate field is a relatively new phenomenon. There have been town planners of various flavours from the existence of the very first city right through the present day. Traditionally, architects have doubled up as urban planners. Indeed, many of the pre-eminent figures of planning are or were architects at some point in their lives. For this reason, urban planning has struggled to gain recognition as a separate field of professional expertise.
Its history is extensive and diverse and would be difficult to do it justice in a snarky RationalWiki article. Simply put, every human settlement in human history is organised in particular ways. Whether this was planned in advance or left for people to build things wherever they wish is another matter altogether. From this point of view, planning has existed for as long as there have been cities.
In ancient times, cities and towns were mostly planned on the whims of their rulers. For example, the Babylonian king Hammurabi entirely rebuilt the city of Babylon with new roads, buildings and street layouts. While hardly a considered move on the part of professionals, this is a type of urban planning. Early Chinese civilisations in particular excelled at well-organised plans of towns and cities that took into account a wide range of factors that they considered important.
The people of Ancient Athens are also credited with developing the concept of a grid city. This was created and implemented by one of the first recognised urban planners in history, Hippodamus of Miletus, and later spread to create the famous Roman Grid and throughout the Western world.
There are many other interesting periods of urban planning between the Roman Empire and the present day, but these are less relevant to the concept of pseudoplanning than its basic foundations outlined above. For this reason, we will skip ahead to the 20th and 21st centuries when planning began to be more professionalised.
The turn of the 20th century brought the Garden city movement into fashion throughout the Western world. This concept of separating out different land uses into separated zones was not a new one, but the promotion of Garden Cities as ideal urban forms began to popularise this idea and begin its introduction into mainstream planning.
The foundation of modern-day urban planning in the United States of America, Australia and other British-influenced countries comes from the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. It introduced many of the concepts and legal frameworks that persist to this day. These include:
- Requirements for local governments to produce area development plans (commonly known as 'master plans' in some jurisdictions)
- Heritage controls
- Separating different land uses into distinct areas with strict regulations governing what can and cannot occur within each zone
- Requirements for landowners to apply for planning permission before land development may begin.
Some countries not formerly part of the British Empire have adopted some of these principles as well. However, there are many different methods and laws of urban planning that vary significantly depending on the location; i.e. the Western conceptualisation of 'urban planning' is not universal by any stretch of the imagination.
Different urban designs
Throughout history, there have been different themes of urban planning seen throughout different types of history. Many have come back in vogue as a reaction to the type of the day, for instance New Urbanism is effectively a modern-day version of the traditional market town with a strong town centre.
The main different types are shown in the table below:
|Urban design type||Summary||Benefits||Disadvantages|
|New Urbanism||New Urbanism is a modern day version of the original market town with a strong main street with shops and businesses surrounded by a dense urban core. New Urbanists emphasise the importance of landmarks and street legibility and aim to make their designs walkable.||New Urbanism is generally good at making residents of cities healthier, by encouraging active transport such as walking or cycling. They can also be good for commercial businesses due to the central location of the main commercial zones and that these are often near a transport hub such as a railway station.||While New Urbanism is generally good, it is often not sufficient to generate a change to people's transport behaviour unless there's a focus on promoting cycling and walking to the exclusion of cars. Few have done so successfully.|
|Modernism||Modernism was focused on building cities where every type of land use had its place and the entire city was to operate like machinery. Under such an approach, cities were often designed with different uses apart - some areas had strictly industry, others had residential while commercial areas had their own place. Modernism helped foster urban sprawl, however this was not necessarily the intent of the designers themselves.||Modernism helped architects and urban planners develop grand visions for how cities should be. As a philosophy, it enabled long-term planning of cities to cope with growth, including provision of infrastructure.||When taken to its extreme, modernism results in a somewhat segregated city and usually one not aesthetically appealing. Le Corbusier's vision for Paris is one such example. Essentially, the modernist response to problems of the city was to use technology or engineering solutions, instead of socials ones. Of course, many problems can be solved as such but not all can; this has led to technocratic solutions in places where a social solution might be called for. A classic example of this is adding CCTV to crime hot spots instead of addressing underlying causes of crime. Of course, CCTV amounts to little more than Security Theatre.|
|Radburn||Radburn type architecture was pioneered in the town of Radburn, New Jersey and spread shortly after throughout the world. The focus of Radburn style designs was to provide intimate, car-free open space away from roads. Often this meant separating roads for cars from paths for people (or paths for bikes, in the case of the Netherlands) and the creation of semi-private green areas between buildings. The Australian city of Canberra has a large proportion of Radburn styled housing.||The original vision of Radburn styled design was not dissimilar to New Urbanism - creating a fine grain urban design with small, intimate areas where people can mingle without being near cars or roads. For movement, pedestrian access was often separated from roads which reduced the chance of an accident.|| The Radburn vision fell flat in many countries around the world when many of the designs led to the creation of so-called 'dead space': open space with no passive surveillance, lighting or proper maintenance and the feeling, or actual presence of, crime. Coupled with poor infrastructure, white flight and sometimes high density, many Radburn areas were deemed to be 'no go areas'. A classic example of this is the Bijlmermeer area of Amsterdam. Decades after it was first built, significant works were undertaken to remove some of the 'dead space' and to improve the amenity and permeability of the area.
Another disadvantage to Radburn styled designs was the privileging of roads for cars over paths for people in terms of directness. Often, driving from home to the shops was of a far shorter distance than walking from home to the shops. Pedestrians are particularly sensitive to travel distance, unlike people in cars, so to have them walk for longer swiftly ensured more people drove.
|Transit Oriented Developments||A bit of a buzzword, Transit Oriented Developments (or TODs for short) focus on building urban density around good quality public transport nodes such as railway stations. Often this is done in conjunction with New Urbanist principles but this is not necessarily the case.||Transit Oriented Developments are a good response to urban sprawl and their success can be seen throughout Asian cities, which tend to be very dense. They make public transport highly viable and discourage car use and take up less land than would sprawling suburbs.||While Transit Oriented Developments are considered the best approach to managing urban growth by planners, they have to be designed well and not merely focus on residential densities. There is need to also look at where jobs are and their distribution relative to where people are living and the public transport on offer. This is often not considered properly, with high density areas of Paris and Stockholm suffering high rates of unemployment despite being within spitting distance of their respective metro networks.|
Types of pseudoplanning
Pseudoplanning arises in every specialisation and field of planning. It is important to distinguish between problems caused by ultracrepidarianism and willful ignorance. They can, of course, be interlinked. However, more often than not, it is the former that causes far more damage to the human and natural environment. 'Experts' making pronouncements far outside their field applies not only to property tycoons and real estate agents, for example, but also politicians making policy decisions based on their own claims about what makes good planning. This is opposed to your average citizen making random pronouncements about how more freeways will 'fix' congestion at their local pub. While irritating to actual planners who may be listening, it rarely has any direct effect on actual policymaking.
The curse of the real estate agents
More often than not, the media turn to 'experts' in real estate and/or property development when seeking comment about planning issues. While these people may well be good at making people buy houses that they can't afford and constructing unsafe and poor quality buildings, they are not planners. More particularly, their views on cities are coloured by their inherent vested interests to make profits leveraged from public assets; indeed, many of the issues that they provide advice for are the direct result of their own activities. It is the equivalent of asking for advice on how to regulate the financial system from the financial advisors themselves (although we have been stupid enough to do that on a depressingly high number of occasions).
Fields of pseudoplanning
Distinct from the types of pseudoplanning are the fields in which pseudoplanning appears. This is not an exhaustive list as pseudoplanning has manifested itself in every possible area imaginable.
The most stark example of transport planning woo is in the obsession by most cities around the world to build motorways, freeways or tollways to alleviate congestion. The ideal is somewhat seductive, but is flawed and evidence shows it in fact increases congestion in a process known as Induced Demand and another known as the Downs-Thompson paradox. As eminent planning historian, Louis Mumford, put it, building freeways to solve traffic congestion is akin to an obese man buying bigger trousers to solve his obesity. Indeed, as one builds one traffic artery to address congestion on another, the traffic may shift and thin out on both roads. However, this in turn induces more traffic. Indeed, freeways merely displace cars from one congested road to another - as those cars eventually have to leave the freeway and reach their destination as they had before the freeway was built.
Road engineers often claim this is necessary to stem traffic and that we need balance in roads and public transport funding, though there are some exceptions to that rule. Leaving aside the fact that roads get the lion's share of funding (Australia's PTUA has debunked this here and here), at least in Australia, the USA, Canada and New Zealand, the problem is that - at least for urban transport - cars are incredibly inefficient. Don't tell Elon Musk though.
Road expansion projects often come at the cost of public transport improvement - as budgets tend to be finite and politicians and the press focus on immediate short term solutions. As more cars flood the streets, road based public transport (mainly buses) become less efficient resulting in fewer passengers, less fare revenue and greater uptake in private motor cars flooding the streets. Of course here 'balance' refers to the tyranny of the masses of inefficient metal boxes transporting people around at very slow speeds. Comparisons between the commutes of mega cities such as London, Tokyo and Los Angeles highlight differences in their road layouts and public transport provision.
Any public debate about housing almost inevitabley refers to population growth and/or immigration with a slight twist on the "DEY TOOK EER JERBS" hysteria. Instead, it turns into something like "DEY TOOK EER HOMES".
Well-known fountains of stupidity such as Bernard Salt, a self-proclaimed expert in "demography", regularly surface in the Australian media to talk about this planning issue.
Urban sprawl is one of the best examples of this type of pseudoplanning. When housing affordability is raised as an issue, particularly for non-baby boomers, "we must build more houses" often becomes the proposed solution. The question of where to put these new houses then arises. Baby boomers living in well-off established areas refuse to accept the necessary changes in their neighbourhoods and are often able to stop any increase in density through their advantageous political and financial positions.
This inevitably leads to large-scale, usually low-density, development on the edges of the existing city. Such a proliferation of poorly-planned suburbs is often led by private developers who have no incentive to implement plans for public good and are subject to few (if any) regulations on good design or infrastructure provision. While this housing may seem affordable for an upfront purchase or rental, the costs of living far from employment, services and education in car-dependent suburbs are many times higher than living in the inner city. Quantification of these costs is available in a number of research projects, such as the VAMPIRE (Vulnerability Assessment for Mortgage, Petrol and Inflation Risks and Expenditure) Index.
The results of this perverse process and outcome is that those who already own property in the inner city are at a significant advantage. They enjoy access to all types of services, public transport and employment within close proximity to their home. They also have a more-or-less guaranteed increase in their land values and can use the resulting financial security to continually expand their property portfolio. Meanwhile, those who are not lucky enough to be in this position are forced to either pay exorbitant rents for sub-standard and tenuous accommodation in the inner city, or choose to chain themselves to a bank with a 30 or 40 year mortgage for a poorly-constructed house many tens of kilometres from the city centre in a suburb with few opportunities for financial, health or social security.
An evidence-based approach to this issue would simply utilise the mountains of research, academic studies and best practice examples from around the world on how to address housing issues properly. Instead, pseudoplanning and its many champions continue to have an inordinate amount of power and influence on policymaking and implementation (mostly for self-interest or in seeking delusional ideological ends).
Effects of pseudoplanning
Planning often finds itself at an unfortunate crossroads between politics and capitalism. Unlike many other older and better-known professions, planning has generally suffered from a lack of a well-known and widespread base of evidence that is readily applied in actual policymaking. Plenty of solid academic research in planning fields has been undertaken over many years but this rarely makes its way into implementation due to the prevalence of pseudoplanning.
As a result, decisions are rarely made based on evidence; self-interested localism and mantras about property rights are normally what dominates public discourse on planning matters. Some of the more enlightened members of the fourth estate will sometimes attempt to get an 'expert' to add some substance to a particular topic. However, this will almost inevitably lead to citing a real estate agent, "community activist" or some other non-expert and presenting their uninformed and self-interested opinion as a fact of planning.
This then is what passes as informed discussion on planning issues. Planners are very rarely, if ever, sought after to speak or give information in the popular press or other media consumed by the general public. The vicious cycle of planners not being recognised as experts in a distinct profession then continues and poor decisions based on parochialism and self-interest continue to be made.
Some actual experts and key people in planning
For information on urban planning in general, see the content below: