Dana French’s Aug. 20 letter is unconvincing in its apologetics for “vision” plans. The whole notion of a city of many tens of thousands of diverse and independent-minded people having a single “vision” for the future is absurd except at the level of trite generality. We can share a “vision” I’m sure of being healthier, more prosperous, more tolerant, more mobile, more secure, better educated, greener, and such like. And we can encourage the engaged citizens — maybe a thousand or so out of 75,000 — to flesh this out with their wish lists of programs and projects they think would be nice to have someone else pay for.
But the notion that this procedure provides the basis for good planning, as Mr. French implies, is fanciful. First with a tiny and biased citizen participation it is unrepresentative. Second the vast majority of the decisions that shape the city’s future are — fortunately — beyond the control of city government anyway. Housing development is driven by the housing people buy or rent — primarily determined by people’s incomes, their preferences, and trade-offs between housing and other uses for their time and money. How people get around is also mostly a matter of private preference. Every strategic plan in living memory has called for getting people out of their cars and into transit, and at the end of every plan transit usage has declined, and king car is even more dominant.
The jobs created here are mainly the result of investors and independent nonprofit decisions to create, expand or contract businesses. And their decisions are based on their assessment of the changing market, the skills they see here and the costs they face, all compared with alternative opportunities elsewhere.
The notion of strategic city planning avoids the reality that a city is something that evolves from the bottom up as a result of millions of individual decisions and accommodations made in a market economy day by day, month by month, and year by year. It is inherently unplannable.
City government can, up to a point, constrain what happens. It can tax. It can stop things. Even in a free society, people can exert political pressure on city government to change its constraints by rezoning, and otherwise changing city policies. Hopefully the competition of representative elected government will year by year bear on city spending and taxing. City politics itself plays out with little regard for what gets written into long-term plans.
Contrary to Mr. French it was a veteran city planner and NYU professor, Alain Bertaud, not me, who described these 10-year city plans as a useless “fossil” left over from an era of enchantment with top-down governance. Like “branding” and new logos, I submit that strategic planning is a distraction from city government doing a better job of what it has to do — which is efficiently managing and planning our roads, water, sewage and drainage, and our parks, good policing and collecting the trash. Vision or strategic plans so-called for 2030 or 2040 are an escapist fantasy and a distraction from city government attending to immediate needs in the limited area under its control.