The Power of Urban Planning

People act like urban design is just something that happens, a fact of nature that unfolds as passively as wind patterns and desire paths. Developers develop parcels, drivers drive roads, commuters take buses, and it all happens piecemeal, one step at a time, all of them disconnected from the others and together forming a city as an accidental, organic, wild thing.

That just isn’t how this works.

An enormous multiplicity of rules govern everything from street widths to allowable frontage materials to whether home businesses are allowed, decided upon by various bureaucracies that, often, have limited communication with one another. This is all further complicated by “grandfathering” rules that often leave plots, neighborhoods, or buildings exempt from new rules if they were already in place before the rules take effect. Urban fabrics are anything but organic: they are carefully, if sometimes chaotically, choreographed dances of numerous authorities, operating at national and developer levels and everything in between. There are people deciding every one of those details and thousands upon thousands more, and the sum of that reality is that urban design is social engineering.

The people who decide how wide the street is and where the highways are and where the rail lines will be and what kinds of businesses are allowed on a specific lot and what the lot sizes are and how many pedestrian deaths are “acceptable” versus how many call for some sort of intervention are creating the literal and figurative landscape of those forces. Those people are, in no uncertain terms, designing the incentives that ordinary people will weigh and to which they’ll respond when making their everyday decisions. The causality is the other way around. Those people are a mix of democratically elected, appointed by other government officials, and moneyed into existence in the capitalist economy, and their decisions literally shape the reality that the rest of us merely inhabit. And they have the data to do it very, very well.

The optimal courses have already been determined. The planners determined them. Individual people might be fiendishly unpredictable, but masses? Masses are trivial to understand. The planners know what most people will do when presented with a given set of options and incentives. They are choosing a world in which that response is what most people will do. Letting existing transit systems fall into disrepair, cutting schedules, preventing reliability improvements, not building new lines but always having the budget for one more highway lane, building a rail extension in a highway median because there is no plan to build transit-oriented development anywhere near it and thus reduce car dependency in the area, these are all decisions. Ordinary people have no choice but to respond to those decisions once they are made and implemented. Your optimal course has already been determined, and it was not you who determined it.

An image of a
Someone made the decision that this road would look like this. That person has a name.

Urban design is not a passive process. It is an active decision that the urban fabric will look a certain way and favor certain actions, and ordinary people act within that system. The fact that in Miami the least unpleasant option for getting from one place to another is always “drive your car” and in Amsterdam it’s usually not were both choices. Planners decided that that’s what the landscape of incentives would favor and people responded accordingly.

Anyone who talks about urban design like it’s a passive response to people’s behavior has it entirely backwards. Urban design is the active process of creating the incentives that will determine most people’s decisions. Induced demand is the result in every direction at once. Building transit projects, zoning codes, and more as if they can only ever respond to what people are already doing prevents them from ever being different. Urban planning takes vision, defiance, and an understanding that this role is power in its most literal sense: deciding what reality will be and what the population will have to acknowledge in its everyday decision-making. As the saying goes, you don’t build a bridge based on how many people are swimming across the river.

This can be hard to see, for people living under the tyranny of car-centric urban planning their entire lives, but that was a decision, and it was not you who made it.

Great transit cities are not built passively. That’s ridiculous neoliberal market-based thinking that effectively takes as a premise that whatever individual solution an individual person can hack together in an uncaring world is automatically the Only Way and the system’s role is to facilitate that individual solution no matter what it costs society at large. Great transit systems are active investments that create the incentives that make them retroactively obvious just as the railways of old became the retroactive justifications of entire towns. Great transit systems don’t respond to incentives, they create them. You do not build a bus rapid-transit corridor or a passenger rail line because a lot of people are already traveling on a certain path, you build it because you want to incentivize use of public transit on that path.

So, when I hear “there just isn’t demand for transit in my area,” my only response is “And?”

Urban design is not an accident, or an emergent property, or a fact of nature. It is raw, unadulterated power, and it is high time that people who care about how their cities work acknowledged this reality and thought about who is exerting that power and who is denied it.

The Power of Urban Planning