The Future of Municipal Planning: Is John Nolen rolling over in his grave?

This is not the planning profession John Nolen built. A century later, our great recession has sparked a full re-evaluation of what a city’s urban planning department should be ‘doing’ for its citizens. As witnessed in Los Angeles and San Diego, the planning profession is being measured by its eternal conundrum between Forward Planning Departments that plan for future development projects and Current Planning Services that process today’s development applications.

And, it appears that a few radical devolutions are taking place.



First, PlaceShakers has referenced both Chuck Marohn and Joe Minicozzi’s renegade work often. Both have seen a meteoric rise in national prominence by refocussing city planning on making rational fiscal decisions based on a long-term return-on-investment. The profession must guide planning back towards the fiscal bottom-line influence it was first responsible for protecting. Having been regulated to stakeholder status in a city’s Economic Development prioritization, planners must reclaim their place at the city’s Capital Improvement Planning table.

City Planning is an efficient means of avoiding duplication and waste in public improvements.” – John Nolen, 1927

Second, as usual, it was Andrés Duany who praised Peter Calthorpe and changed how I viewed what I thought was a mundane presentation of data from his latest book, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change. Andrés excitedly pointed out how planners are the rightful generators of research data on city making in the information age. Today, a few non-profit, research-oriented groups, such as Reconnecting America, Center for Neighborhood Technology and Project for Public Spaces, are filling this need. Shouldn’t city planning departments, which are non-profit planning research centers, be responsible for generating valuable research data for their specific locales to educate decision-makers and citizens too?

Source: Peter Calthorpe.

Source: Peter Calthorpe.

In addition, these same planners must reclaim their ability to articulate a future vision generated by public consensus in real graphic terms. While it may seem to be a given, few city planning departments are able to articulate a specific vision graphically. Too often planners rely upon complex GIS databases or simple color coded zoning and land use maps to communicate their town values and planned adjustments as they move into the 21st century.

What city planning departments once did for cities. Click for larger view.

What city planning departments once did for cities. Click for larger view.

“City Planning is an aid to the man in the street to visualize his city properly planned.” – John Nolen, 1927

Third, public planning has been relegated to making policy and regulations solely for private development. Other fully staffed departments, in charge of public Transportation, Economic Development, Environmental Impact Assessments, public Parks and Recreation, and public General Services, have successfully usurped the power of comprehensive city planning. Today, planning’s descent into irrelevancy has been so profound that Tea Party Agenda 21 watchdogs view its historically low profile as proof of the profession’s quiet march towards one-world government!

The man himself.

The man himself.

“City Planning is an a practical, sensible way of providing a place for everything with everything in its place.” – John Nolen, 1927

My assessment of the planning profession reflects a panel I was fortunate to sit on with American Planning Association President, Bill Anderson, last month. We were asked to discuss our approach to repurposing San Diego’s planning department. Our city is typical in dealing with the politically polarizing attempt to figure out how to balance the actual municipal value between the shorter-term, private development-focussed, regulatory-driven, fee generating ‘Planning Services’ versus its longer-term, civic building focussed, policy-driven, subsidized ‘Comprehensive Planning.’ An off-the-shelf, conventional approach probably won’t suffice.

As a New Urbanist, I have long implored municipalities to ‘redesign’ their planning processes through place-based, human-scaled, neighborhood-centric visioning, coding and implementation tools. But, it was urban theorist Teddy Cruz who first implored me to ‘redesign’ the planning organization. Too often, I would recommend simply adding a Design Review Committee. Teddy reframes the role of Non-Government Organizations in planning at the neighborhood scale. NGOs mediate between owners, planners, bankers and designers to implement (build) in less affluent places and his Casa Familiar is an innovative, human-scaled model to be explored.

Bill Anderson also explored our nation’s history of planning organization models. Bill found that they vary from place to place and recommends, “You design the model that fits your context and what you want to achieve as a citizenry, a city, your vision, your priorities, and also your political structure.” He says to localize the planning structure as too often we lazily copy approaches from other cities we wish to emulate.

These perspectives are indicative of the reformation the planning profession is experiencing and provide reasons for hope. To remain relevant, planning organizations must break from their conventional, private-development oriented, urban renewal scaled, master planned development approach and be calibrated locally. Opportunities will be found in cultural shifts towards healthier lifestyles; local economic generation; aging in place; long-term resilience and durability; and social equity. Decision-makers and their constituents need to know they have the opportunity to craft a more locally calibrated structure that reflects the 21st century needs of cities to provide basic health, welfare and safety to humans at the neighborhood-scale.

Simple designing-in-context rules are: first, accentuate positive attributes; second, leave what is working well-enough alone; and third, change what isn’t working. If you have a great GIS department, use it to your advantage to produce useful online data. And if your zoning isn’t generating expected results, don’t reshape your administration procedures. Consider changing your zoning approach.

That’s what Austin, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati are all doing. And it’s a great start towards a renewed Nolen Legacy.

“City Planning is an instrument for uniting the citizens to work for the city’s future.” – John Nolen, 1927

Howard Blackson

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  1. There is only one context for planning around the world. The creation of cyber-communities that are car free with enough density to enable viable local economies and replacement of the auto industry by industries for creating high-tech surfaces and matrixes for the world we should be creating.

  2. Gil White says

    A bit surprising that a bottoms up appraoch such as Lighter Quicker Cheaper wasn’t given more mention. The top down is necessary yet hardly complete.

    • Gil, thank you (and to everyone) for reading and taking the time to write. You are correct, and I hope that the link to how Teddy Cruz re-envisions the NGO role as providing a more bottom up neighborhood-scaled planning approach is further discussed. However, I have to be careful of my Steve Mouzon-filter as this missive went way beyond his 500 word expectation and I expect a chiding here soon…..

  3. Nice on-point treatise.

    I would add that the gulf between long range planning and oxymoric ‘current planning’ functions is broad by design. Politically powerful building industry players and organizations have hindered planning initiatives deemed to slow or direct growth, including capital Improvement (infrastructure) planning.

    Claims that the “free market” is best at determining where to sprawl next have undermined sensible planning efforts and marginalized departments within city bureaucracies. This undoubtedly increased the burden many cities and their taxpayers will bear for underutilized utility extensions to half-built cul-de-sac hells in the wake of building busts.

    • I am waiting for media to start exposing the construction industry. I honestly do not think much can be done without having entrepreneurs brave enough to start from scratch.

  4. I have the good fortune to work for an organization that is the exception to the rule so vividly pointed out by this article. The City of Punta Gorda provides through its Urban Design Division many of the services Blackson’s article says municipal planners should be providing. From being the primary force behind the City’s Capital Improvements Program to sitting down with property owners and developers and illustrating-with real live sketching-concepts that meet the needs of the private sector and the Land Development Regulations.
    It is extremely rewarding on a personal and professional level to receive positive feedback from property owners, developers, and design professionals regarding our design studio process. Design studio is an informal meeting held twice a month where interested parties can sit down with long-range planners and zoning staff to discuss development ideas. Staff discusses particular issues and properties with the interested parties directly. These meetings are designed specifically to assist interested party understanding the rules and the processes required for doing what they want to do with their land. Staff tackles each of these meetings with a “how do we get to yes” attitude. While we frequently tell people that no they cannot do exactly what they want how they want to do it, we generally give them a range of options that they could legally do. Sometimes this process is quite collaborative and involves many separate appointments in Design Studio all prior to any formal application process.
    The daily business of the Urban Design Division is built on a foundation of ideas and concepts generated through occasional general public outreach meetings where the future vision of the City is discussed often through the filter of specific major programs or community components. While the City of Punta Gorda’s processes and planning products may be far from the pie-in-the-sky idea of perfect planning, they do represent a much better model than what is normative in Southwest Florida and more generally across the State.

  5. Nolen planned many cities and company towns in Michigan, including Flint. My grandparents lived in one of his company towns, built by Pontac Motors (Oakland Motors at the time).

    The neighbohood had curved streets, a large wooded park, where we gathered for outings and a organized housing structure. The labor-factory line workers lived in shingle and stucco homes and the shop management lived in brick homes on the block corners. A wonderful place to live and visit.

  6. Ron Thrower says

    In order to tackle the balance of politically polarizing paths of short-term and long-term planning, a municipality must have the decision making leadership for a shared vision to support a “change to something” other than what is on the ground today. Some cities cannot even get to that point of decision making due to a third fork in the road which is for a “no change” planning approach typically brought on by entrenched single-family only residential neighborhoods that abut commercial properties along commercial corridors. While no planning is planning, this third fork must be appropriately eliminated with vision in order to dismantle the culture, both inside city departments and outside amongst the voters, that has precipitated for many decades.

    Thanks, Howard, for this article. It sheds light on directions a city must go in order to be a part of the 21st century.

  7. Rosemary Wachira says

    The question at hand is how to get the long term planning the basis for all short term decision making.The issue is how do we as planners ensure that long term planning is synchronized to all factors that influence our cities development and growth. Unless our approach to long term planning can adequately be able to capture such factors as prioritization of infrastructural investments, land markets,private entrepreneurship and investments among others planning will continue to remain a side issue rather than the core issue.
    Central to this topic is how long term planning evolves and develops its future vision. How do the planners harness future players of urban development in setting the vision for the cities’ future development?. How do we get the city managers to be committed to this vision and hold them accountable for its achievements.
    May be the planners needs to go back to drawing table and ask themselves the hard question and which might require the hard answer.

  8. Chimeme Egbutah says

    I think planners still have a huge role to play potentially as radical as social engineering! In the UK I believe there is opportunity to bring communities and other professions together, at least for debate on a planning/development control issue. And of course, localism offers the perfect platform to start the bottom up approach you speak of.


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