Why Are American City Planners Not Calling for Changes?

By Dom Nozzi

I agree that improving transportation and community design in America has been painfully slow and much of the change that has occurred has actually made things worse.

Why are city planners not showing leadership by recommending effective change?

Speaking as a 20-year city planner, I would say that part of the problem is that nearly all “planners” have a strong vested interest in continuing the ruinous, century-long effort of enabling extreme motor vehicle dependence in our society (and all that entails).

Living in a motor vehicle-dependent world, nearly all “planners” are motorists first and “planners” second (after all, nearly all “planners” must be motorists in their personal lives outside of work). That means such “planners” must favor policies that promote (or at least not hinder) drivable lifestyles. If “planners” did not do that, they would be endangering their own lifestyles. In other words, nearly all of them are obligated by their lifestyles to strenuously maintain the status quo — which means the “planning” profession has become a failed profession where professionals work hard to keep our society in its downward spiral of designing for motor vehicles rather than people.

I must point out, however, that even if “planners” did not have a vested interest in the status quo and actually wanted to be change agents for a better world — a world where we return to timeless traditions — city “planners” in the US have almost no power to be change agents.

Up to about 100 years ago, planners of American cities did not tend to have advanced academic degrees. But they DID tend to be visionaries who were well-versed in timeless town design principles, and many of them could sketch out buildings and neighborhood plans. Sadly, at about the time that the motor vehicle emerged in cities a century ago, “planners” (like architects) began to lose or set aside the timeless knowledge and skills handed down from the past. “Planners” stopped making plans (which is why, in these comments, I put quotes around the word “planners”). They lost the ability to draw. They no longer were urban designers, in other words. Instead, “planners” increasingly became mindless, bureaucratic, low-level, bean-counting issuers of permits.

A “planner” today could not prepare an urban design plan, or draw a building or neighborhood to save his or her life.

Today, by the way, nearly all of the permits that “planners” issue are those that certify that a proposed development will provide “adequate” parking for cars (indeed, nearly all of what “planners” and city regulations seek to achieve is a city that accommodates car travel — be it setbacks, parking dimensions, zoning, density, or building heights). Tellingly, requiring new developments to provide “adequate” parking is perhaps the most detrimental thing a city can do, because parking requirements end up destroying community quality of life, community affordability, community public safety, community travel choice, and community environmental sustainability. That explains why a growing number of more enlightened communities are finally eliminating required parking rules in recent years.

There are a small handful of planners who do want to move our society in a better direction, but for the past century they have not been given any political power to enact any of that sort of change.

The few who promote beneficial change (ie, urging a return to the timeless tradition of designing for people rather than cars) will sometimes find the courage to write recommendations or give presentations that call for such change, but they do so knowing that nearly everything they recommend will be ignored or opposed.

This is because the only recommendations, by default, that are acceptable to citizens and elected officials are those that promote — or do not hinder — motor vehicle travel. This is completely understandable, as citizens and elected officials in the motor vehicle-dependent world we live in do not want their drivable lifestyles endangered.

Not only that.

“Planners” must make such beneficial recommendations (designing for people rather than cars) knowing full well that doing so will threaten their jobs. Or at a minimum, will marginalize them at the office. For example, they will in the future only be assigned safe, trivial, entry-level-planner tasks.

These, then, are the reasons American city planners are not leading the charge for a better world.

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