Planning Is a Bigger Job Than Planning Can Do

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There is a team of people who do nothing but paint the Golden Gate Bridge. It is such a big job that by the time they finish painting it, they already need to start over.

Urban planning is supposed to work a bit like this. Local governments write plans for each community, and they are supposed to come back and adjust them every five or 10 years. Ideally, planners could update all their plans in a ten-year cycle, so they could keep them all reasonably up to date, just as painters keep the Golden Gate Bridge orange. 

Unfortunately, I’m unaware of a single city that updates all its plans on schedule.

My city, Halifax, Nova Scotia, just finished a new plan for its urban center after 11 years of starting and stopping. At least it has a new plan. A nearby suburb, Spryfield, is stuck with a plan from 1978. The Business Commission there is desperate for more housing and retail space, but they are hemmed in by ancient regulations. 

Halifax has a half-dozen other inner suburbs that need plan overhauls. The city is also supposed to write a few dozen “Secondary Plans” for its rural Growth Centres. Then there’s the Active Transportation Plan, Integrated Mobility Plan, Green Network Plan, Regional Plan, and more. 

The amount of regulations the city needs to keep up to date is growing faster than our population.

The problem is worse in some places. Halifax at least has a bureaucracy large enough to update some of its plans. Many small towns only have one or two planners on staff, and the day-to-day work of processing applications consumes most of their time. 

If the Golden Gate Bridge worked like planning, rust patches would grow to consume the grand old monument, leaving only tiny patches of orange where painters could direct their limited time.

None of this makes sense. Municipal planners complain they lack the money and staff to catch up with the backlog, but this is not the root cause. The problem is that planners have created a job bigger than they can do. 

Even if we could update plans every ten years, that would be far too slow. Cities are dynamic, complex systems. Their needs change day to day, not decade to decade (as Strong Towns has emphasized elsewhere). 

Today’s zoning codes are too rigid the day they are written, let alone when they are decades out of date.

An Alternative to Planning

14th-century Tunis offers a different approach. It was a beautiful city that met the needs of residents as it grew. It did not have zones for particular neighborhoods. It did not select growth nodes. No one wrote a vision or goals for each neighborhood. Residents did not even need to apply for permits to expand their homes or open shops.

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