The Art (and Science?) of Designing Urban Planning Processes

In June I published an op-ed in the Detroit News describing my research on urban renewal in Detroit in the 1940s. I concluded with the observation:

The voices of citizens affected by renewal must be heard. Dramatic, large-scale projects can have harmful and unexpected consequences. The history of urban planning has shown success occurs through a careful process of building consensus, detailed analysis and cooperative action.

In response Marja Winters, the city’s deputy director of planning and development, wrote an editorial arguing the process has been highly participatory, involving 28 city-wide meetings and 10,000 citizens, and large numbers of participants said they agreed they had had the opportunity to share ideas and opinions.

(As an aside: She objected to a line which read “The plan calls for closing neighborhoods, cutting services and cultivating new industries.” I agree with her criticism: the words aren’t mine, but those of a Detroit News editor. The manuscript I submitted read: “The Detroit Works Project — Mayor Bing’s roadmap for the city’s future — has proposed dramatic solutions: closing neighborhoods, cutting services, and cultivating new industries.”)

I have not attended the Detroit Works public meetings or examined the process, so I cannot critique it in detail. The first major policy initiative coming out of the process was announced in July, but amounted to the selection of some priority areas for city services. The proposal left some puzzled. Where was the grand vision, or bold proposals? Perhaps there is no need for “planning” at all, just better urban management? (See “Questions dog Detroit Works plan: Advocates want to see long-term strategy“)

This situation and Winters’ article raises interesting questions: is all participation alike? Can the design of the process affect the outcome? What models exist for planning for “shrinking cities”?

It is common for major urban plans or policies to be developed through quite elaborate processes. For example, I collected this diagram that was circulated in the early stages of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan:

Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan

In general, their design is left up to professionals who draw upon professional experience. Most process designs characterize several aspects: problem definition, deliberation and participation, analysis, policy design, and decision-making. Under each of these, details include:
– The number, type, mission, membership and missions of committees
– What expertise and analysis is required, and how they are involved
– The timing, nature, and purpose of broader participation such as meetings, surveys, and online engagement
– How decisions will be made.

One of the cleares descriptions of how processes are designed for local contexts comes from Barbara Faga’s book Designing Public Consensus. After several case studies, the book presents the following public process plan as a starting point:

Design Process + Public Process

This way of thinking is not unique to urban planning. As the field of risk assessment has become embroiled in value-laden controversies, experts have had to re-assess their approached. In 1996, leaders in the field proposed an analytic-deliberative model that seeks to tightly link the needed analysis with involvement from affected parties.

Analytic-Deliberative Process

Perhaps the most common process theory for large-scale planning is scenario planning (PDF), adopted from methodologies invented by the private sector for corporate planning. Although providing guidance for how thoughtful “scenarios” can be used to consider options for the future, scenario planning’s participatory logic is underdeveloped.

The crowning achievement of process thinking in public policy may be the consensus building approach (CBA), a method for resolving dilemmas often associated with Larry Susskind, a MIT professor of urban studies and planning. This negotiation methodology has strict requirements for the nature of the problems where it can be applied, how stakeholders are identified and included, and how negotiation should move forward. However it’s not clear how this approach — designed to intervene in acrimonious public debates about clear problems or decisions — applies to the problem of urban planning.

If there is an art to process design, can there be a science? It is rarely studied for a variety of reasons. First is the argument that process doesn’t matter. It could be that the outcome is the same regardless of what is done, or the real decisions that matter are being made elsewhere — by powerful elected officials or market actors. Second, from a social science perspective, studying them is maddeningly difficult. There are too many confounding variables and no clear to measure. What would you measure, and how? For this reason there are many descriptive case studies that steer clear of specific details. Lastly, analyzing processes requires a different form of knowledge than found in most research. Instead of theory that describes reality, we need a theory of what would happen given a certain sequence of events or actions.

Theory aside, how do you plan for Detroit? A good process would focus first on the goal. What is the “problem” in Detroit, anyway? It could be too much land, too few jobs, high crime, or a lack of revenue for government services. Although they are related, tackling any one means clarifying what the priorities are.

The most direct case for Detroit is the Youngstown 2010 project in Youngstown, Ohio. This process involved large-scale participation and a vision and plan adopted by the city council which anticipates significant changes to accommodate a permanently reduced population. Here is the process diagram from Faga’s book:

Youngstown 2010

Where Detroit Works — or any other large-scale planning in Detroit — should go depends on what the local stakeholders seek to accomplish. Although any process must be locally tailored, the process designers aren’t starting from scratch. The models described above can be used to design a process that reflects both values and practical needs to involve the public, detailed analysis, and come to agreement on a solution to public problems.

Author: Rob Goodspeed