Stephen Rees's blog

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


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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

6 Responses

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  1. Interesting post. This caught me:

    “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? ”

    If anything, I am dismayed about the trend towards ‘direct democracy’ in BC. It has worked horendously in California [1], where prop 13 greatly limits funding, but aboilishing it is the ‘third rail’ in cali politics, again due to the will of the populace. Citizen intiatives have turned into ways multimilionares can astroturf their own projects. [2]

    “The last and most incredible example is Ohio, where a group of developers wanted to open casinos… the group spent $47 million to draft, put on the ballot, and pass a constitutional amendment permitting casino gambling in Ohio.

    But this initiative did much, much more than that. It only permitted casinos on four specific properties — properties controlled by the referendum backers — and thus granted them exclusive rights to open casinos. It exempted their casinos from zoning or most other types of local control, authorized them to operate 24 hours a day, and specified a very low license fee of only $50 million per casino to the state. It also permitted them not only to run any game currently allowed by any surrounding state, but also any game those states might approve in the future. It’s undoubtedly one of the most incredible constitutional amendments in the history of the United States.”

    Direct democracy works the best when there is deliberation and careful thought made by the people, but real life of course, is real life. When things become tough, and tough choices have to be made, that’s when things become interesting.

    I try myself by engaging people. I comment here and other blogs and provide links that I think are helpful for others. I’ve even commented on Zwei’s blog, of all things… 😉


    July 8, 2010 at 1:08 pm

  2. A very powerful post. Apathy is the bane of civic life and it seems to be worse now than before as too many average people have too many toys that take too much of their time and prevent them from looking outside their own daily wants.

    Both sides of my family were “red Christians” they HAD to help people anyway they could, not caring if it ruffled feathers in their community..
    Some where Protestants that helped the local Catholic priest feed and house the poorest of the village, the unwed teenage mother etc. Others were devout Catholics that were excommunicated (at the start of the 20th century) for being union organizers..I have some of their passions in the blood (my siblings and I were raised in both religions..but aren’t holy water frogs as they say in somecountries)

    Didn’t someone said that democracy is wasted on the average person?

    Developers wanting to open the one that convinced the B.C. government to spend $500 millions for a new B.C place roof??? that could have been better spent on the Evergreen line, schools etc. If Casinos are so great why couldn’t the developer fund the roof himself? isn’t taking wild chances what private enterprise is all about??

    I don’t blame the developer for trying to get free $$ I blame our provincial government and all the average Joes that said “great !! we really need another casino!”.
    I do have a jaundiced view of casinos after working with people with addictions. Gamblers are the elephant in the room that no one eve sees. The damage gambling can do to families and individuals is incredible.

    A gambler think nothing of cashing the RRSP that was going to be his and his wife retirement fund, or sell the house where the family is living for a small sum, and bet the whole thing in minutes and loose it all.
    Yet there are few resources to help gamblers, especially in B.C were neither the government nor the casinos monitor problem gamblers. A bar will refuse to serve someone that has too much to drink. Casinos don’t bar people that play day after day..and mostly loose.

    Red frog

    July 8, 2010 at 7:59 pm

  3. To a casino a “problem gambler” is an accomplished card counter who can beat the house playing blackjack.

    To society a “problem gambler” is the type Red Frog described. Unfortunately the casinos see them as their #1 customers and will ply them with free drinks, free food and even free accommodations if they lose enough at the tables.

    Bars only stopped serving drunks because they were being held liable for what the drunks did afterward. Casinos won’t stop serving their addicts until they’re faced with similar legislation.


    July 8, 2010 at 10:10 pm

  4. I’ve come to trust workshops and design charrettes as one of the most reasonable and democratic forms of public consultation in urban planning. Even the loudest radical protestor is put to the test when they are placed at a table with others with divergent but just as valid views, and challenged to actually shutup and start drawing or writing or building a concensus.

    Workshops and charrettes are not as common (cost is a factor — they take a lot of staff time) as open house meetings where you can fill out a questionnaire on a proposal, but not much else. Still, open houses are better and more rational than many public meetings I’ve attended where the loudest screamer “wins” the debate, or there’s one talking head at the front and hundreds of audience members with viable unexpressed opinions.

    It strikes me as perfectly reasonable that every large municipality should have an urban design department whose job includes extensive workshopping with the community — not unlike Vancouver’s City Plan and the visions each household was encouraged to record within each neighbourhood. It wasn’t perfect, but ‘visioning’ and a series of workshps would be viable fora to not only discover what a community wants, but to challege the community to seek consensus on big issues like managing growth in an agreable fashion, or negotiating the forms of influence large projects will have on neighbourhoods (e.g. rapid transit).

    A vision would translate into a legally binding plan or set of guidelines for development to follow, with definable limits for variance and appeal. Our current system of spot rezonings for large individual projects and sites has become rediculous because many of these developments run counter to the neighbourhood vision and neighbourhood context.

    Having said that, I note that Vancouver, the city most others tend to knock, is the only city that ever set out on a separate, in-depth consultation process for each neighbourhood. That needs to be built on because it’s being eroded as we speak with subsequent overlain policies like Ecodensity (which was forced to change a lot due to City Plan, but still however diluted it)

    Some people place dissent and protest very high on the democratic process agenda (see Mezzanine’s comments about government by referenda). These are in fact a means to an end, and should not be the end in themselves. They are reactionary, not proactionary. By all means, when there is injustice, then protest. But if you are a community group concerned about your changing neighbourhood, then the best forum is at a table with your neighbours and professional facilators armed with felt pens and paper and scaled plans to help the group define a future that is not just acceptable to the majority, but that produces delightful results too (e.g. detailed urban design plans).

    Jane Jacobs started as a protestor against Robert Moses who was bulldozing swaths of living New York neighbourhoods for freeways, but no one will ever see her in the modern context of black shirts filled with rage and immaturity smashing department store windows. She chose instead to put the placard down and write some of the most mature and insightful books on the planet about how our cities should evolve. She tore a strip off the planners of the day, as well as traffic engineers. However, I think she would have been right at home with the planners conducting extensive community workshops.

    Many planners are lost when it comes to actually designing something. They are by nature professional armchair critics and bylaw enforcement officials. There are very few that understand urban design, site planning and what it takes to actually build stuff. Many don’t follow up after they’re done overseeing the broad brushstroke planning work of communities and often have little knowledge of the ramifications of some of their decisions. And in any bureaucracy, public or private, there is deadwood.

    Moreover, I find the latest crop of Gen X urban planning graduates have an irritable tendency to express off-the-cuff opinions that demonstrate their lack of experience in the real world, and have an overblown sense of entitlement. I’ve seen a few young planners set back phsychologically with the reality check that they just aren’t gonna earn that $100+K assistant director’s job three years after graduation. I think this says as much about some Boomer’s parenting skills which are overly laden with high expectations that their little darlings are perfect prodogies. The attitude tends to rub off on the kid.

    But then it is delightful to work with planners who have the expertise to understand design and construction, and who really get it when prognosticators say we need to rebuild our cities very quickly to meet the urban challenges of worldwide oil depletion and climate change, and who seek the human scale in urbanism. Unfortunately, they aren’t in positions of power and wide influence … yet.


    July 9, 2010 at 1:33 pm

  5. “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.”

    Stephen, I feel your pain. Yet this seems like a kind of abdication. When the tools of planning have failed us, it is time for a critical review to understand from the ground up what is wrong with this picture, and make changes.

    Openness, transparency and consultation can only succeed if the professionals have a solid basis, or a grounded set of outcomes. We must be able to distinguish—at the drop of a phrase at an open microphone—perception from fact.


    July 9, 2010 at 11:55 pm

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