Rutherford Platt in Gazette: Avoid Overplanning

Rutherford Platt is Emeritus Professor of Geography at UMass Amherst. We have cited on several occasions his concept of The Humane Metropolis. In Saturday’s Gazette, Dr. Platt cautions about the hazards of overplanning a city:

The ‘humane micropolis’

…Urban adaptation cannot be imposed from above through preconceived plans. Instead, it depends upon the resourcefulness of local citizens and their leaders in responding to challenges and opportunities…

Regardless of neighborhood economic status, our side streets are graced with impromptu patches of wildflowers, sunflowers, tomatoes, blackberries and ferns, overshadowed by iconic oaks, maples, sycamore, white pine, and spruce trees…

…fortunately, the funky pre-zoning neighborhoods in Florence, Bay State, and near downtown have been little affected by zoning which typically ratifies the status quo rather than create nonconforming use problems. Post-zoning subdivisions like the Ryan Road area are more akin to standard suburbs across the country than to the older parts of Northampton.

Northampton has mercifully been spared top-down, macro plans in vogue from the Garden City era to Urban Renewal in the 1960s…

See also:

Today’s Urban Planning Debates Echoed in Northampton’s Near Past
Brinkley Thorne (speaking below) and Maisie Cox, architects and co-owners of Thornes Market, with their children (p.20)

town like Northampton should be careful. Now for the first time in a
long time, people want to build new buildings downtown. It could be
done badly. What really intrigues me is that the most sophisticated
thing is informality. That quality is so easily lost as things get more

Randall Diehl, painter (p.59)

“Northampton used to be
small-town America, now it seems to be trying to imitate New York,
which it can never be, and I don’t know why it would want to be… I
think it’s important to preserve the old buildings that give the town

Herbert and Robert Ross, owners of Ross Bros. (p.87)

sad because they’re renovating it and it’s too homogenized. In
Northampton, it’s been individualized–people grab a building, put
their own selves into it. In Holyoke, it’s people buying whole blocks
and fixing them up without having any tenants in mind for them. I worry
about that happening in Northampton now, I think that growth should be
looked at carefully. It looks like such a sparkling little jewel to
these outside investors, they just want to jump on it without any real
perception of what is going on…”

Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century
[James C. Scott] argues that centrally managed social plans derail when they
impose schematic visions that do violence to complex interdependencies
that are not–and cannot be–fully understood. Further, the success of
designs for social organization depends on the recognition that local,
practical knowledge is as important as formal, epistemic knowledge.

author builds a persuasive case against “development theory” and
imperialistic state planning that disregards the values, desires, and
objections of its subjects. And in discussing these planning disasters,
he identifies four conditions common to them all: the state’s attempt
to impost administrative order on nature and society; a high-modernist
ideology that believes scientific intervention can improve every aspect
of human life; a willingness to use authoritarian state power to effect
large-scale innovations; and a prostrate civil society that cannot
effectively resist such plans…

From time to time [Jane] Jacobs stands back from the infinite and changing
variety of American cities to express a certain awe and humility:
“Their intricate order–a manifestation of the freedom of countless
numbers of people to make and carry out countless plans–is in many
ways a great wonder. We ought not to be reluctant to make this living
collection of interdependent uses, this freedom, this life, more
understandable for what it is, nor so unaware that we do not know what
it is.” The magisterial assumption behind the doctrines of many urban
planners–that they know what people want and how people should spend
their time–seems to Jacobs shortsighted and arrogant… (p.140)

cities are the outcome…of innumerable small acts bearing no
discernable overall intention… [Jacobs praises the unplanned city,
saying,] “Cities have the capability of providing something for
everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by
everybody… The main responsibility of city planning and design should
be to develop, insofar as public policy and action can do so, cities
that are congenial places for this great range of unofficial plans,
ideas and opportunities to flourish.”

…A city that was extensively planned would inevitably diminish much
of the diversity that is the hallmark of great towns. The best a
planner can hope for is to modestly enhance rather than impede the
development of urban complexity. (p.142-143)

…Jacobs quotes
with approval Stanley Tankel… “We will have to admit that it is
beyond the scope of anyone’s imagination to create a community. We must
learn to cherish the communities we have, they are hard to come by.”

…[T]here is little doubt that [Jacobs] has put her finger on the
central flaws of hubris in high-modernist urban planning. The first
flaw is the presumption that planners can safely make most of the
predictions about the future that their schemes require… Second,
thanks in part to Jacobs, we now know more about what constitutes a
satisfactory neighborhood for the people who live in it, but we still
know precious little about how such communities can be fostered and
maintained. Working from formulas about density, green space, and
transportation may produce narrowly efficient outcomes, but it is
unlikely to result in a desirable place to live. Brasilia and
Chandigarh, at a minimum, demonstrate this. (p.144-145)

New York Times: “Report Says Public Outreach, Done Right, Aids Policymaking” (8/22/08)
…a growing body of evidence suggests that [public participation],
done correctly, can improve [environmental] policies and smooth their
implementation, according to a report [link] issued Friday by an expert panel
convened by the National Research Council.
Though critics often assert that members of the public are too ignorant
to weigh the science involved in environmental policies, “public
participation can help get the science right and get the right
science,” said Thomas Dietz, the director of the Environmental Science
and Policy Program at Michigan State University, who headed the panel.

“A lot of science has to be applied to a very local context,” he said in a telephone interview. “Local knowledge is essential.”

Wall Street Journal Opinion Column: “What Jane Jacobs Really Saw” (5/2/06)
urban planners’ almost universal reverence for Jacobs, it is ironic
that many have largely ignored or misinterpreted the central lesson of
“Death and Life”–that cities are vibrant living systems, not the
product of grand, utopian schemes concocted by overzealous planners…

many in the Smart Growth and New Urbanism movements cite Jacobs as the
inspiration for their efforts to combat so-called “urban sprawl” and
make over suburbia with dense, walkable downtowns, mixed-use
development, and varied building styles. While Jacobs identified these
as organic elements of successful cities, planners have eagerly tried
to impose them on cities in formulaic fashion…

Berkeley, California: Cautions on Infill
…propelled by their
simplistic “smart growth” philosophy, [the Planning Department] encourages developers to
build the largest possible projects over neighborhood objections…

Vancouver Sun: “Call it EcoDensity or EcoCity –either way it’s a hard sell”
Despite Yaletown, almost 70 per cent of the city is single-family
housing. Vancouver, essentially, remains an urban suburb. And there is
a reason for this.

People love it.

They love the city’s
garden-like nature. They love the stability and social cohesion of a
single-family neighbourhood. They like having neighbours they know…

group called Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver — which itself
has said it is in favour of densification, but only if properly planned
— has signed up almost 30 community organizations in every
neighbourhood in the city to oppose “the city’s plan to densify
neighbourhoods without plans to ensure adequate safeguards or

Portland Suburb Successfully Staves Off Densification
The problem is that people don’t want to live in high densities,
especially when there are planner-induced parking shortages. A state
regulation requires Portland to reduce its parking by 10 percent, so
new developments are often built with limited parking. Since developers
won’t build what they can’t sell, planners have to subsidize them to
get them to build high-density developments…

Portland, Oregon Voters Sour on Densification Over Time
The neighborhood densification that resulted from the transportation
planning rule alienated many urban residents who had previously
supported Oregon’s planning. It was one thing to downzone rural lands
to protect the scenery enjoyed by urban residents. It was another thing
to upzone urban neighborhoods, increasing congestion and often bringing
down residential values.

Halle-Neustadt: A Case Study in Compact, Transit-Oriented Development
There will always be a market, though probably a small one, for
high-density housing, whether in Radiant-City high rises or New-Urban
mid rises. The problems arise when planners ignore the market and try
to impose their ideology on people through prescriptive zoning codes,
regulations, and subsidies.

Cox: “METROPOLITAN DENVER AT RISK: How Densification Will Intensify
Traffic Congestion, Air Pollution and the Housing Affordability Crisis”

What is in vogue is not always correct…

and architects in the 1950s thought that 20-story public housing
projects were the answer — the same projects that are being imploded
around the country today…

Sustainable Northampton Plan
Infill Development
…Target: A minimum of 50% of all housing developed in Northampton (p.15)

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences
objective of the Plan is to “implement ideas for maximizing density on
small lots”. (p.16) It calls for the City to “consider amending zero
lot line single family home to eliminate 30′ side yard setback”. (p.69)
It suggests the zoning laws be changed to “encourage single family
homes in Urban Residential zoning districts by significantly reducing
minimum frontage/lot width, for projects meeting form-based coding”.
(p. 71)

These changes have the potential to reduce or eliminate
the yards that separate homes from each other and from streets. This
loss of greenspace may well entail a loss of privacy, attractiveness,
flood protection (through an increase in impervious surfaces), and an
increase in the heat island effect, noise and congestion. If fewer
trees are shading homes, cooling costs are likely to rise…

Photo Essay: 10 Reasons People Like Trees Around Them; Will the Sustainable Northampton Plan
Put Urban Trees at Risk?

Our urban centers need to become more attractive to help counter the
continuation of a sprawl pattern of development. If the appeal of low
density, widely scattered development is derived from the need to be
closer to nature, then making trees an integral part of the urban
habitat will help make our town and city centers more desirable places
to live and work. It is profoundly important to see this linkage
between making cities and towns more “liveable” and stemming the
continued spread of scattered development across the countryside.

CommonWealth Magazine: “Urban greenery can bring better health, more attractive neighborhoods, and even safer streets”
[A study in Baltimore by Morgan Grove of the US Forest Service]
found that neighborhoods with higher tree cover had stronger social
connections, and residents had a significantly lower desire to move
away, presumably because trees increase the attractiveness of the area.

Video: Best Practices Forum Studies Evolution of Meadows Plan
The purpose of this event is to record the story of what many consider
a difficult but largely successful public process told by the people
who made it happen.