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Why a New American Planning?

Urban planning is a fascinating field, except when you have to deal with it at the local level.

But it's not even the planners that are the problem, it's the code. You want to build a shed in the backyard? Sorry, setbacks apply. Your grandma wants to convert her garage into an accessory dwelling unit? Unfortunately that will violate the minimum parking requirements. Your neighborhood wants a bike lane? Not our jurisdiction, ask someone else. You want to build decently-priced apartments with a coffee shop on the first floor? Whoops, zoning prohibits it. Anyone who has ever gone through any of these land use processes at the local zoning office knows it’s a constant negotiation between the written code, what your costs are, and what everyone thinks they can reasonably get away with. But there must be a good reason for all those rules, right?

Well, no, not usually. And revealing why is partially the purpose of this site: the reasons for most planning rules, and the justifications provided for why municipalities can't move forward are generally worse than you thought. Setbacks over 5’ are completely arbitrary, the minimum parking requirements are based on junk science (or guesses), the bike lane won’t get built because DOTs don’t consider them valuable, and zoning is based on presumption and half-witted speculation. If you go deep enough down, basically none of it has a better explanation for existence than "that's what we thought at the time" or "it just seemed right". Millions of dollars spent every day for compliance with planning rules that not only aren't fair, but usually aren't even that effective. A lot of the biggest problems are in zoning, but similar poorly-justified procedures reign throughout the planning system in subdivision, street management, and even property assessment.

If more regular people were aware of this, perhaps we might have a better built environment—or at least we would know why our built environment looks the way it is, and have some better ideas of how to fix it. So, our project is to tell the stories from inside the machine that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to share. We are most interested in challenging some of contemporary planning’s most pernicious assumptions: that homeownership is an unassailable good, that land uses "generate" motor vehicle trips, that housing can be both “affordable” and a tool for wealth-building, and that zoning is about “public health”, welfare, and safety. These conventions are all almost entirely backwards, but unfortunately even many planners spend their whole careers promulgating them without a second thought. Planning is a values-based system that pretends to be objective, and values should always be up for discussion and reinterpretation. And, we have to challenge the stated (or unstated) values behind our planning systems if we are ever going to move somewhere and see some positive change. Public discourse would be greatly served if more people were aware that planning systems are not objective and they are negotiable, and their genesis is usually a small group of people looking to protect material interests or impose moral ideas. Wealthy incumbents who have ridden decades of property value appreciation and opposed new development at every opportunity should not be setting the terms of discussion when it comes to planning for our communities' futures.

Finally, we use American in the continental sense, since by now neoliberal planning (and international finance) has infected most of the western hemisphere, and many of the problems we see in the US have become problems everywhere else as well. Comments and criticisms are welcome, and of course, nothing written here represents any of our employers.

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