Planning, how dismal thou art: A reflection on 10 months of study

Economics has been labeled the “dismal science”, for several reasons, one that it was a difficult one to learn, and two, because often its science forecast dismal pictures for the future. Much has changed in economics since, but I am not sure much has changed in planning in the past century.

To be fair to planning, it has never claimed to be a science. However, it is interdisciplinary, and some disciplines are of the sciences, planning itself uses (more or less) scientific methods and statistics; moreover, planning is decision making, and while there may be an art to it, there is a science to it as well (or should be).

A challenge for planning, and transportation planning, has always been to find a balance between all the competing actors, among all the competing groups, across all the many places, into the foreseeable future, and the built environment today reflects the decisions made in the past. No one asked what the future residents wanted, but they will live in the built environment someday. We call this a representative democracy in the US, or we talk of the “public interest”, which sounds deceivingly singular despite its pluralistic nature. However not all interests carry equal weight.

Since at least Plato in classical western political philosophy, a sense of justice about what governments “ought” or “should” do, and for whom, has been a time honored tradition of contention in western political philosophy. Only recently in the past 100 years or so, do we ask what can or could government do.

Was Plato right? Would we be best served by “Kings with a heart of gold”? Would a benevolent dictator or a centralized form of government be better? These governments do exist to day. The folks I meet from other countries, Taiwan, China, Germany, Japan, Korea- all have less involvement in local representation of their interests in the planning process, and anecdotally they seem possibly happier than I, and yet I have choice and American democracy, hmmm… something does not add up.

Psychologists seem to think happiness is relative. Are they on to something? Other researchers have said more choice makes you less happy. Cases in points, Charleston and Savannah both developed without the aid of planners, and by new urbanist standards, liveability and walkability rank high in these cities, these cities are models for new urbanism. Grid pattern development and public parks were chosen without consulting planners, without consulting the public, and without the benefit of scientific research. And what came of it? We are now trying to replicate today through so called “new urbanism” an approach in planning that models the result of forgoing science and the public interest! Maybe a dictator who imagines where they might like to live is enough? Maybe we do not need political process and science to plan? Or maybe the local power elites do this already?

A few political ruminations:

Marx’s argument that the proletariat “should” govern themselves rather than the bourgeois class was rebuked by Bakunin. Bakunin had argued that everyone “ought” to be self governed and act collectively, and to reject authority that they did not accept willingly. This was anarchism,though they seldom reach consensus. Marx is quoted as saying, “if this is Marxism? Then I am not a Marxist”! Even the leaders of revolutions can not agree with what to do!

Around this time Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was making the rounds in the home’s of elites at cocktail parties, and it was Herbert Spencer who coined the term “survival of the fittest”, a justification of the position of the ruling class and wealthy by the “social Darwinists” that Spencer had inadvertently spawned. Spencer was an early libertarian. Again, not unlike Bakunin’s anarchist ethos that one “ought” to be allowed to self govern, and so government should be minimal to maximize personal liberty. Libertarianism is still alive and well in the US, but in very small numbers of those who vote libertarian, although some research suggests a strata of libertarian leanings among Americans.

But maybe it’s all illusory. Maybe we think we have a voice in the process, and that’s all that matters. If people can adjust to the loss of a limb or loved one, why not a new mall, or tollway, or TOD, maybe it just does not matter at the end of the day.

In conclusion:

This brief, incomplete, and cherry picked rehash of western political philosophy is meant to illustrate the problem of, who governs, and who is governed as a persistent problem. At least two millennia later and counting, we are no closer to resolving this issue. The quest for knowledge has culminated in science in modern times. The extent to which that we have scientific knowledge may not matter in the policy making/planning process.

What seems to have mattered most historically, was not science but politics. Whose right, who has scientific evidence, which scientific evidence, it just does not matter! It only matters who won, or achieved their desired political outcome. And science and reason have little to do with it- chant, “it just doesn’t matter”, Bill Murray from the movie “Meatballs”.


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