Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for July 8th, 2010


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When I pick a topic to write about, I try not to simply replicate what can be found elsewhere. At the very least, I will have a developed opinion to offer and, hopefully, something to say about how it might apply to this region.

This morning I got an email from its editor alerting me to the latest edition of Car Free Times. This is a free publication produced by one person, J.H. Crawford – who is connected to the World Carfree Network – and whose efforts I have promoted here and at my flickr group Places Without Cars. In the latest edition, there is a link to a free book called Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices by Charles Siegel. That link takes you to the html version – which is easier to read on line than the pdf – but you could use that if you want to print your own hard copy. Or, of course, you could buy it as a paperback for US$12.95.

The last paragraph of the book is an excellent summary of Siegel’s position:

The calls for more planning assume that centralized organizations staffed by experts should provide us with goods and services, and ordinary people are nothing more than consumers. This view made some sense one hundred years ago, when scarcity was the key economic problem, but it makes no sense now that over-consumption is the key economic problem in the United States and the other developed nations. Today, we need to invert this technocratic view, so we can change from clients who expect the planners to solve our problems into citizens who deal with these problems ourselves by putting direct political limits on destructive technologies and on growth.

I admit I cut and pasted that too.

I was trained as a regional planner in the early 1970s when I worked for the Greater London Council. That organisation had been forced by popular opinion to abandon its plan for a system of “motorway boxes” that were said to be needed to solve London’s traffic problems. They also gave up on road widening schemes like that on Charing Cross Road that the engineers had been contemplating for years – requiring developers to provide setbacks to new buildings that could later be taken for wider roads.  My interest, up until then, had been on transportation – and indeed I had wanted to go to Imperial College to do my Masters in transportation planning. Since the GLC paid my salary and my tuition fees, it was not too hard to change my mind. So it was that I learned about all the planing theories that this little book so neatly summarizes.

I also recall now that one of the things the other students had a hard time with was the extent to which these theorists had influenced practice. They tended to have come straight from their undergraduate schools, whereas I had been at work for five years. So one of the things I found myself doing – somewhat to my own surprise – was explaining what it was like to work in planning – both in the seminars and the pub afterwards.

As a transport enthusiast, one of the books I read – I think when still at school – explained how London’s suburbs had been developed, mostly by the railway companies in the second half of the nineteenth century. All of a sudden, one of the questions that had bothered me as unanswerable was explained. A french exchange student asked me (in 1964) why all the houses in our part of the East End all looked the same. I didn’t know – and simply rejected the assertion by pointing out the – to me – significant detail differences. But it turned out that the need for more traffic on the radial railway lines from London (in our case, the Great Eastern and London, Tilbury and Southend) coincided with the Public Health Act of 1880 – which tackled London’s slum problem by specifying minimum  standards for things like daylight within rooms, sanitation and so on.

You can date London suburbs a bit like rings on a tree – distance from the central area being key. But also by two other parameters. Towns that developed around railway stations built by speculative small developers, and “estates” that were built by municipal governments and often based on their tramway systems. Especially those built by the GLC’s forbear the old London County Council. East Ham was quite different to Becontree, for instance.

I recommend that you read “Unplanning” – it won’t take long. It is, of course, mostly written from a US perspective. The Garden City movement and Le Corbusier are acknowledged but mostly the analysis is why the United States ended up in car dependent sprawl, and what has been happening there recently. I might be wrong, but I think I detect a whif on anti-government libertarianism here. That seems to infect a lot of political thought there, because of the affection that Americans feel for their founding fathers, and the way that the US constitution has been fought over since by various vested interests. The whole gun thing, for instance, can only be understood if you read the debates about what the 2nd amendment was supposed to have achieved – other than the highest murder rate in the world.

Having been a planner and a civil servant for most of my life, and seen what that achieved – or rather more often – failed to achieve, I have some sympathy for the view that greater citizen input is needed. Certainly I accept that faith in technocracy was misplaced. In the British civil service the maxim was always that experts should be “on tap not on top”. But that was not used to favour people power, so much as the grip of broad generalist mandarins,  who read “greats” (classics) or “modern greats” (politics, philosophy and economics) at Oxford or Cambridge, on the senior positions at the head of ministries. There has always been a distrust of “the mob” – and, with the advent of democracy, the ability of demagogues and “hidden persuaders” to control how people will vote. In the US, the separation of powers is intended to provide the necessary “checks and balances”. Sir Humphrey, of course, knew better.

This blog has covered – thanks in part to the public lectures at SFU – the New Urbanists, as well as some other modern innovators in both transportation and land use planning. And I would like too to mention once again my instinctive response to reading – and rereading – the works of Jane Jacobs. For me the most depressing thing about relying on citizens is their lack of willingness to get involved. It bothers me much more when people do not vote, than when they vote out of misguided belief in failed political theories. But when we are faced with huge projects of a uniquely bad decision making process – Highway #1 expansion, or the loss of Burns Bog – or even small scale but willfully selfish and stupid decisions like the destruction of public housing at Little Mountain – and most people simply shrug and get on with their lives – I have a real problem putting my faith in “citizens who deal with these problems ourselves”.  I do not accept that “we stick with the old technocratic idea that it is up to the planners to deploy the technology”: most people can see through the fog of spin and bafflegab. They just do not think that anyone is going to listen to them. Moreover, they are rightly suspicious of the motives of activists. And not a few of them (activists and the public alike) are both badly informed and in the grip of odd delusions. For instance, that it is necessary to be “tough on crime”, or that all taxes are just a cash grab, or that public spending is wasteful. Or that climate change is scam.

How do we convince people that they do have power? And, if they do actually chose to use that power, how do we protect ourselves from populists? I think the emergence of the movement against the HST is a really good example of how people can be mobilized: but what worries me most about this event is the way it has been built around Van der Zalm – who I trust no further than I could throw him.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 8, 2010 at 12:09 pm