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How Urban Planning Works


Criticisms of Urban Planning
At the Planning and Exhibition Hall in Beijing, a pair of visitors examines a scale model of the city.
At the Planning and Exhibition Hall in Beijing, a pair of visitors examines a scale model of the city.
Frederic J.Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Some early opponents of urban planning blamed its practitioners for focusing only on aesthetics with no regard for human welfare. But today, such criticisms are largely unfounded because urban planners take a much more holistic approach to community development. They look far beyond aesthetics to consider the environmental, economic and social health issues that affect a community as it grows and changes.

Unfortunately, as the complexity of urban planning has increased, so have the length of time and costs required to complete the process. The time-intensive nature and high costs of planning are two of the biggest criticisms. If the planning process takes too long, the solutions it proposes may be obsolete before they're fully implemented -- a serious concern in emerging cities where change occurs more rapidly.

Some people object to the fact that urban planning gives the government too much power over individuals. And still others say urban planners put too much emphasis on the future of cities and towns and not enough on present problems. This discontent with urban planning pushes the field forward and forces it to evolve.

One of the most influential critiques of modern urban planning came in 1961 by Jane Jacobs. Her book, "Death and Life of Great American Cities," blasted 20th century urban planning and proposed radically new principles for rebuilding cities:

  • Cities as ecosystems: Jacobs compared cities to living things that change over time as they interact with their environment. If the city is the organism, then the sidewalks, parks, streets and neighborhoods are the various systems, each with a different function but tightly and seamlessly integrated. By viewing cities in this way, planners can better understand their structure and make more efficacious recommendations.
  • Mixed-use development: Jacobs saw diversity as an absolute requirement for healthy, vibrant urban communities. Diversity didn't just refer to populations. Jacobs also felt that buildings should vary in age, condition, use and rentals. In such an environment, people of different ages and backgrounds use different parts of the city at different times of the day, making the city vital and healthy around the clock, not just during business hours.
  • Bottom-up community planning: Jacobs felt that planners didn't rely enough on local expertise. How could an outsider, she argued, know the real-life needs of a neighborhood better than the people who actually lived there? In the Jacobian planning model, residents are highly involved in the entire development process.
  • The case for higher density: While conventional wisdom suggested that densely populated neighborhoods led to crime and squalor, Jacobs called for even more density. She believed that diverse and highly concentrated populations of people, including residents, promote visible city life and help to combat the homogeneity that ultimately leads to dullness.
  • Local economies: Jacobs developed a model of local economic development based on revitalizing old businesses, promoting small businesses and supporting entrepreneurs, as opposed to replacing smaller, less-profitable businesses with large, stable corporations. In fact, her approach to economic development is just another way a city can maintain diversity. Having a variety of businesses forms the base for diversity in a specific district and has a cross-effect on the diversity of other localities by providing affluent residents and patrons needed for mutual support.

Although controversial, Jane Jacobs' ideas shook the industry and heavily influenced a new generation of planners and architects. Her theories and principles will, no doubt, continue to affect the design of cities for years to come.

So what's in the years to come? On the next page, we'll take a look.