Anarchy 83/Planners and protesters

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  As with housing, so with town planning. The ordinary citizen has hardly any control over the urban environment, and is not expected to want any. It is a matter for the authorities, working in secrecy and presenting the citizens with a fait accompli. The problem, and the possibility of action were discussed in anarchy 41 by Robert Swann in a remarkable article “Direct Action and the Urban Environment”. Here David Gurin examines it, again in an American context.

Planners and protesters


Professional city planning is in demand as a remedy for American urban problems. Its chief sponsor is the Federal government, which in the past twenty years has made Federal-local grants-in-aid contingent on evidence (at east on paper) of cities’ and towns’ “comprehensive community planning”. City planning has also become an eager recipient of grants from major foundations, a crusading theme for television and the press, and a panacea prescribed by state, county and municipal propaganda.

  This extensive official acceptance and mass media support is based on the urban establishment’s experience with professional city planners. They have turned out to be scarcely a reformist challenge, much less a revolutionary threat, to local power structures; and their impact has been still slighter on national corporate power, the force ultimately determining the shape of our cities. The planners have rarely been known simply to improve urban aesthetics (street tree planting or billboard removal are “unsophisticated solutions” in their professional jargon), let alone try to remold community values. But the real designers of the city use the fashionable ethos of city planning as window dressing for their own profitable strategies—from major urban renewal and highway projects to local street widenings. Among the important urban designers are real estate owners, builders and construction contractors, automobile manufacturers and related industries, and the private banks and institutions which dominate “public” authorities by holding their bonds.

  Some of these forces once feared any kind of public planning as socialistic, but now they appreciate city planners as compliant municipal functionaries. For example, the final outcome of the planners’ conception of a slum and what to do about it can yield windfall profits. Rather than dealing with slums in terms of the economic and social conditions that create them, the planners have usually characterized slums as chunks of urban geography marked primarily by the dilapidation of housing. That dilapidation is often caused by bankers who have blacklisted the area (generally because Negroes live there and as property-owners or tenants they are considered poor risks), effectively cutting off mortgage money for repairs; the same bankers may then become civic-minded backers of slum clearance, for which city planners have a profitable formula called urban renewal.

  When a cleared site is finally rebuilt, high-rent apartment towers may have replaced tenement homes of the poor (Kips Bay in Manhattan and the West End in Boston typify many such wholesale evictions), or shops of small businessmen may have been levelled into parking lots desired by adjacent large enterprises (as in Manchester, N.H., or Syracuse, N.Y., where the land in certain downtown projects was “renewed” entirely into pavement for parking). A frequent variation on that theme is the important hospital or university with expansion plans (Columbia and Chicago Universities and Bellevue Hospital are examples) and with an irredentist passion to absorb the surrounding (usually predominantly Negro or Puerto Rican) city blocks. In each case colorful maps and brochures are produced by the professional planning staff of the municipality, and for what amount to a land-grab a “scientific” city planning rationale is provided—“the proposal is a challenging concept for revitalizing a seriously deteriorated and blighted section … physical amenities, social and economic needs have been taken into account … a variety of government aids will be utilized”.

  The professional planner serves entrepreneurial power not just on a neighborhood scale but in entire metropolitan regions. Land speculators with holdings on the fringes of cities benefited from the Federal Housing Administration’s post-war encouragement of suburban building (while F.H.A. policies tightened mortgage money for rebuilding within cities). The automobile industry joined the speculators in encouraging the city planners’ chief scheme for travel to and from the new suburban developments—freeway systems. Six-lane highways and cloverleafs were constructed around every city to accommodate the products of an economy dominated by the manufacture and sales of cars and accessories. (One business in six in the U.S. is automotive.) This automobile-serving process might have continued until most of the central areas of old cities were converted to replicas of suburban shopping centers. But the process has been slowed and in some cases stopped because intense (and profitable) downtown activity also has powerful partisans—department stores, office building owners, city governments fearful of losing their property tax base. Under their influence “Save the Central Business District” became a major city planning goal. To achieve it, the planners urged pedestrian malls, commercial and industrial renewal, and improvements in the bus and subway systems which are indispensable to a thriving downtown.

  The professional planners seem to suffer no ideological agony in frequent changes in position like their shift from highway to mass transportation advocacy. City planners obey the dictates of power and their rewards are conventions at the best hotels, the finest offices in City Hall and high salaries—often paid to them as “consultants” to avoid civil service jealousies. Washington is liberal with funds through planning assistance programs (and will soon be even more generous if Johnson’s $2.3 billion “Demonstration Cities Program” is enacted). Today’s city planners have lots of equipment—but few values.

  Their stock-in-trade is abstract planning technique, theoretically applicable in any city (justifying the trek from city to city in search of higher pay and prestige) but of proven usefulness in none. According to a leader in the profession, Prof. Lloyd Rodwin of M.I.T., in a pamphlet, The Roles of the City Planner in the Community, “The city planner is the professional advisor and diagnostician on the physical environment of the city—especially on the problems and on the methods of making and of establishing a framework for public and private decisions affecting the physical environment.”

  Turgid as this may seem, it is a comparatively straightforward statement from a group obsessed with defining itself professionally. But what sort of special education and skills (other than those of lawyers, architects, economists—who Rodwin assures us city planners definitely are not) are required for this “professional advisor”? The planning fraternity’s criteria, although displayed as profoundly technical, are actually equal to general education and general skills, accompanied by a willingness to accept jargon in place of meaning and to spend tedious days using an adding machine or coloring maps. The graduate curriculum in city planning is a miscellany of economics, sociology, architecture and map-making, in too many instances taught at freshman level. Two years of it plus some familiarity with the latest gadgetry of computerdom may crush any idealistic notions a student has about planning cities, but it will get him a Master of City Planning (M.C.P.) degree. The academic requirements and the output of the graduates of courses in city and regional planning (the full title preferred in graduate schools) suggest that planning is a pseudo-profession, without specialized skills or a unique discipline.

  Richard May, Jr., a member of the Board of Governors of the American Institute of Planners (A.I.P.), told a public meeting in January 1966 that “we at the A.I.P. are trying to decide what it is that planners do, and what we do that others don’t”. (They have been trying since the A.I.P. was founded in 1917.) May was dismayed that “our profession has failed to give to the press and to the public at large the idea that we have a way of analyzing and dealing with the problems of the city”. The failure, however, is not in press or public relations, but in the fantasy of a planners’ special “way”.

  A wasteful and misleading fantasy. Planners’ reports hide harsh specifics in dulcet generalization. A notable specimen is New York City’s Renewal Strategy/1965, issued last December. Prepared for the New York City Planning Commission’s Renewal Program (a joint Federal-city undertaking) over four years at a cost of $3.25 million by private consultants, it tells nothing more than what everybody already knew about the city’s slums—“Stair treads grow hollow with the passage of countless feet. … Pipes leak and rust through long cycles of use … many of our structures deteriorate and frequently threaten human life.”

  When the report received a bad press, a professional planners’ organization sponsored a critical meeting to probe the reasons. Donald Monson, an expert with long experience in Detroit and associated with the New York Planning Commission in the early stages of its Community Renewal Program, ruefully described the multi-million dollar Strategy as “a preamble for a plan for a strategy for a non-strategy for New York” and “absolutely of no use to anyone”.

  Richard Bernstein, Executive Director of the City Planning Commission (at $22,500 yearly), defended the Strategy in a jumble of sociology and political clubhouse chauvinism. He compared the document to the Federal government’s Moynihan Report in its concern for the Negro poor. As for those who have fled the city—“New York will be a great city whether the middle-income groups want to remain in the suburbs or return”. In reply to Monson’s allegation that the report failed to consider the integrity of separate communities within the city (a mandate to the Commission in the City Charter) he invoked “the interest of the city as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts”—a city planner’s catechism muttered to scare away local opposition whenever the Cossacks of highway building or urban renewal charge into a neighborhood.

  Neighborhoods are apparently of only microscopic concern to professionals intrigued by “inter­action­al con­se­quences of mega­pol­itan re­gion­al­ism”, and for whom problems are always complicated by a “multiplicity of overlaps and interdependencies between sub-systems”. In planning reports, to house the poor is “to supply minimum environmental standards for immobile residents”. “Process” and “flow” are vogue words and to produce “sophisticated” and “holistic” analyses is the goal of the hip practitioner, who speaks not of city planning but of “urban systems planning”. The quality of streets, parks and subways plays second-fiddle to data processing or to the simulation of urban patterns in elaborate models, flow charts, and “games” that would make the Parker Brothers envious.

  This kind of bombast is the specialty of the planners’ professional quarterly, the A.I.P. Journal. Representative is an article by Prof. Melvin Webber (City Planning faculty, University of California, Berkeley), “The Roles of Intelligence Systems in Urban Systems Planning”, in the November 1965 issue. Webber predicts “a new injection of scientific morality” into urban affairs when computerized “data banks” or “intelligence centers” are set up. In his wonderful world “academic types find themselves shuttling back and forth, with increasing frequency, between classroom and White House, state house, city hall, and corporation executive suite. Once admitted to these high councils, it is unavoidable that they identify to new sets of peers. …” Penetrate Webber’s gibberish (e.g. “increased understanding of urban processes is depreciating product-perception of cityness”) and find steadfast acceptance of the myth of easy-going pluralism in existing local government and a roseate view of the future—if only we allow a “saturation of scientific talent into urban affairs”.

  Another article in the same A.I.P. Journal is “Urban Policy in the Rationalized Society” by Donald Michael. He foresees (and seems to favor) government by “top-flight professionals and managers” rather than any increase in participatory democracy as the fruit of automation. Planners seem to approve of the old spoils system, so long as professionals are the new victors; they look forward with Michael to “fewer jobs for the untrained and unskilled political appointees as their jobs are eliminated through rationalization and as remaining jobs become increasingly meshed with apolitical special purpose agencies and authorities”. But some of the most skilled men in government today are political appointees. And agencies and authorities, as well as city planning boards and commissions, are never apolitical; their politics, unfortunately, are hidden by the complications of revenue bond financing and by the decisions of “eminent citizens”, rather than open to public debate and legislative action.

  Once power is abdicated to these agencies they fight its return to popularly elected officials as fiercely as police departments resist civilian review boards. Mayor Lindsay is discovering this in New York in his efforts to merge Robert MosesTriborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority with the New York City Transit Authority into a single Transportation Administration in which the Mayor would be influential. The semi-autonomous New York City Planning Commission, as yet unable to produce the master plan assigned to it in 1938, would also benefit from Mayoral domination. Elected mayors and city councils of any city would not be infallible as city planners of their constituencies, but are preferable to an aristocracy of professionals like the one anticipated in Michael’s planned new world where: “the top-level decision-making professional will have to seek intensively for wisdom all his life”; but elsewhere “apathy will be a typical response, and so will large and small protest actions based on and appealing to the emotions”. With this kind of Big-Brother-Knows-Best vision (endemic among planners) it is no wonder that in Michael’s cool calculus of the acceptable future “Viet-Nam type wars likely will be a continuing drain on resources”.

  But just as some ordinary citizens have found aspects of foreign policy, although managed by professionals, to be odious, so others have objected to professionally drawn plans and have battled against their imposition by city governments. The objectors have defeated highways planned to bisect the Panhandle of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park. They have fought to prevent excavations (for underground garages) in old parks with tall trees, losing in Detroit’s Grand Circus Park and in the Boston Common, but saving Madison Square Park in New York. In Mount Vernon, N.Y., housewives checked highway expansion plans of the East Hudson Parkway Authority. When a similar free-wheeling agency, the Massachusetts District Commission, proposed to destroy a stand of sycamores while altering Memorial Drive in Cambridge, residents and undergraduates protested, but the distinguished city planning faculties of Harvard and M.I.T. were silent.

  Protesters have stopped urban renewal projects or have forced changes in projects where they conflicted with the needs of residents in several cities. In New York the most constructive plans for the design of apartment houses and parks, and even for the routing of buses, have come from voluntary local groups with pitifully small resources in comparison to those of the Planning Commission and its urban renewal arm, the Housing and Redevelopment Board (with a combined staff of 800). Instead of trying to squash this local talent, cities could encourage it by hiring planners to work in architect-client relationships with communities, the communities retaining private clients’ rights.

  Prof. Staughton Lynd, Yale historian, civil rights and peace leader, was a student in the Harvard city planning program in the ’fifties; but he dropped out to work at the University Settlement on New York’s Lower East Side, where he became one of the inspirers of the Cooper Square urban renewal protest. In Cooper Square (as in the Woodlawn section of Chicago and in other districts within big cities) residents discovered that they could make surveys with more insight into housing conditions, playgrounds and shopping facilities than the professional planners who claimed special expertise in these matters. Block meetings on summer evenings stimulated the drawing up of plans which, unlike the Planning Commission’s, would not require the eviction of families unable to pay higher rents after government-assisted rehabilitation. The residents’ attempt at the “strenuous citizen participation” which the City officially encourages was caught in a spider-web of self-protective talk spun by the planners—“Cooper Square must follow the formula, the Housing and Redevelopment Board cannot make a plan until the City Planning Commission, as a result of Community Renewal Program studies, recommend designation for urban renewal”. The articulate local people responsible for An Alternate Plan for Cooper Square, a persuasive document, were contemptuously dismissed by the Planning Commission as the folk of “Kookie Square”.

  The Planning Commission also favored the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which was opposed by the Local Planning Boards (officially appointed, but with only advisory powers) in Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, the two communities through which the overhead route would have cast a permanent shadow. (Mayors vacillated for twenty years, but Wagner finally approved the route. Now Lindsay has reversed that decision.) Although opposition to the route aroused not only passion in Lower Manhattan but reasoned argument against highway uber alles transportation policy, no professional staff member working for the Planning Commission ever resigned or spoke publicly against the Expressway.

  That silence and that contempt for Cooper Square’s local efforts are rooted in professionalism and in centralized power. Both are the enemy of the city planning radical, the local protester; but both are the friend of the city planning liberal, who finds solutions in more “professional training” and in the creation of higher levels of authority, like the new Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the proposed Department of Transportation. These new departments may hand out grants more rationally. A department concerned with all modes of transportation, for example, will have to compare $1.5 million spent for one mile of new highway or a single interchange with the same amount spent for projects with measurably greater public benefit, like track connections and electrical equipment for subways and commuter railways. But only at its political peril would a Transportation Department ignore that famous equation of the interests of General Motors and the nation attributed to Charles Wilson. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development cannot be expected to recommend that urban renewal projects and zoning and subdivision regulations (the core of city planning in most localities) be replaced by communal land ownership. (Although the city most admired by American planners, Stockholm, attributes its success, according to Scientific American, “to one all important factor: public ownership of the land”.)

  The planning radicals, the local opposition groups, also occasionally turn to Federal agencies such as the Urban Renewal Administration or the Bureau of Public Roads, in search of an ally in their fight against a particular municipal project. But this is at best only a delaying tactic, because the Federal agencies are as pressured as the municipalities by, for example, the automotive realpolitik that assigns most transportation grants-in-aid to highways rather than rails.

  The protest groups are the first to run counter to the growth (for the past fifty years in the U.S.) of city planning as a professional category rather than a social movement. A descendant of turn-of-the-century City Beautiful and Good Government leagues, the city planning idea, although it always has dealt with intensely political variables, never has had any kind of mass political support—until the local protest groups began to organize. Their storefront offices and home-made surveys and plans represent a new consciousness of environment in a wide range of communities—slums, middle class neighborhoods, and suburbs.

  People who once were resigned to the deterioration of a neighborhood as an inevitable part of its aging, or who were easily convinced that an improvement for automobile traffic at whatever toll in homes, historic structures or entire districts was “progress”, are now less fatalistic about their physical surroundings. Many now have the notion, once prevalent only in the country club suburbs where the City Beautiful movement flourished, that they can have a role in planning and reshaping the city.

  These aroused groups and the general urban citizenry deserve skilled help from professionals who, while expert, are still human, and who understand and practise their specialties in terms of overall community aspirations. A traffic engineer, for instance, whose goal is moving not a maximum umber of cars but a maximum number of people by all modes of transportation, and who includes sidewalk aesthetics, pedestrian safety and clean air as variables in his calculations, can play an effective city planning role. Other kinds of engineers, along with architects, landscape architects and economists under enlightened political leadership, are also essential to planning cities. But the necessity for that hybrid—the professional city planner—is questionable. The professional planners have reduced too much of contemporary city planning to vulgarized cybernetics in the service of what amounts to municipal market research. Ironically, it is not the professional’s official plans, but the pockets of opposition to them—as yet mostly isolated but with some signs of coalescing into a movement—that offer our best hope of achieving the city planning ideal of rational community growth in a beautiful environment.