Friday, September 18, 2015

“The Trouble with City Planning”: Half-Buried Insights

My knowledge of the book publishing business is theoretical only.  A few friends, mostly of the delusional sort, have suggested that a book can be found somewhere within my four years of blog posts.  Thus far, I’ve ignored their siren call, flattered by their words, but unconvinced that 1,000-word blog posts, often with only tangential relationships, can translate into a 100,000 word manuscript.

Despite my lack of real world experience, I finished “The Trouble with City Planning” by Kristina Ford feeling as if I’d been present during the birthing of a book that had been led astray by editorial and publishing revisions.  The suspected revisions didn’t destroy the book, but they left valuable insights semi-buried in superfluity.

So, with full acknowledgment that I have no source of information other than my own dubiously-educated observations and guesses, this is how I suspect the book was written.

Fresh from a long stint as the Planning Director for the City of New Orleans, Ford embarked on a book project, setting forth her thoughts, as refined during her time in the Big Easy, on the interaction between planning, the citizenry, and development.

Among other points, she notes how developers sometimes co-opt the planning process through early lobbying of politicians, leaving planning departments playing catch-up, how the public doesn’t understand the relationship between a city-wide plan and the development that actually occurs, how much of the public only looks at a plan when gearing up to oppose an proposal, and how planning goals needn’t represent a consolidated, coherent vision, but can present a range of desirable outcomes among which the planners must sort.  (The last is the point on which I discoursed in my prior post.)

It would have been an insightful book, one that gave shape to many of the observations that I’d been sensing about the planning process, but hadn’t found a way to put into words.

But when it reached a publisher’s desk, I suspect that concerns arose.  Perhaps the publisher had been raised in a household where the parental message was not to offer criticism unless it was be constructive criticism and now found that Ford, with her mostly downbeat albeit valid insights about planning, failed the test for constructiveness.

So, in my imagination, Ford was asked to rework the manuscript to end on a more helpful note.  She complied, appending several chapters suggesting an alternative format for written city plans, a format that she calls Good City Plans.  The direction she proposes, which is to make plans more focused on people, their lives, their hopes, and their dreams, is compelling, but ultimately deficient.  Indeed, I find the Good City Plan concept Pollyannaish.

For one, you’d need to hide currency between the pages before citizens, not motivated by a specific project, would peruse a city plan, no matter how readable.

Also, to implement the concept as Ford envisions it, you’d need planners with the rare talent of writing to a compelling narrative thread.  I’ve read enough planning documents to know that few planners have that skill.

(Not that I’m singling out planners.  Through 35 years as a consulting engineer and cartons of red pens, I know that most engineers are even worse than planners at organizing good prose.)

And yet, even with the more upbeat ending, my imagined publisher still hesitated, wondering whether there was an adequate market for a book about writing better city plans.

Then Katrina made landfall, wreaking havoc upon New Orleans.  To his delight, the publisher had on his desk a draft book written by someone who had first-hand knowledge of how New Orleans came to be particularly vulnerable to hurricane damage.

So the book went back to Ford once more, this time to add in particular insights about the history of planning in New Orleans.  By now wearying of the task, Ford did as she was asked, but her lack of enthusiasm was becoming evident.

Much of the first forty pages explain why New Orleans came to be particularly vulnerable to flooding, with reasons proffered that are both geographical and hubris-based.  A little further in, the troubling planning history for post-Katrina reconstruction was offered, with the unfortunate conclusion that the planning process eventually became more about satisfying the federal bureaucracy than about meeting the needs of the city.  And still further in, anecdotes from Ford’s tenure in New Orleans are scattered through the book.

But overall, the New Orleans connection seems undeveloped.  It may have been a fine marketing angle.  I purchased the book specifically I had plans to visit New Orleans this past summer.  But I suspect that any major city could have provided examples that would have met the narrative needs of the book nearly as well.  Ultimately, the book is about city planning, not New Orleans.

So what we have is a 40-page preamble that unconvincingly ties the “The Problem with City Planning” to New Orleans, a 30-page saccharin afterword that doesn’t provide helpful direction in the real world, and 160 insightful and illuminating pages in between about how planning really works in the trenches.  Luckily for the reader, the 160 pages are good enough that they overcome the weakness at either end.  Good enough that I intend to read the book a second time, with appropriate skimming.

The editorial blunders that I’ve imagined above may have been unfortunate, but I’ve read many books on planning that I’ve found less useful and thoughtful.  I recommend “The Trouble with City Planning.”  I also recommend reading with more attentiveness in the middle than at either end.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at Ford’s position on public involvement.  While I acknowledge her years of experience, I don’t completely accept her perspective.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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