“The good you can’t think of”



“The good you can’t think of” advances an existential and contingent view of the city; one which is a more accurate description of the messiness of urban dynamics than static plans, regulations, and rigid standards. As a result prescriptive planning is perceived and experienced as an often irrelevant brake on individual initiative and changing needs so elegantly summed up by Kevin Lynch: 

            Not only is the city an object which is perceived and perhaps enjoyed by millions of people of widely diverse clan and character, but it is the product of many builders who are constantly modifying the structures for reasons of their own. While it may be stable in general outlines for some time it is ever changing in detail. Only partial control can be exercised over its growth and form. There is no formal result, only a succession of plans. (Lynch 1960, p.2) 

If the last 50 years has taught anything it is the difficulty, if not the possibility, of current planning practice to recognize and be responsive to the “good you can’t think of.” The simple fact that we could not anticipate the loft-dwelling, new and emerging forms of households, the implications of the digital revolution on work and urban form; or new models of retailing and manipulation require us to rethink how planning and land-use is conceptualized, what the extent of public interest is in the use of private property, the degree of intrusiveness of that interest, and the 19th and 20th century modernist notion of “universal truth” leading to a one-size“fits all” approach. Moreover, it is the often simplistic view of the city which contributes to the tension between the messiness of everyday experience and the abstractions and rigidities of land-use planning and the failure of the land-use regulations which implement the plans to anticipate and be responsive to continuing structural changes and growing uncertainty in the larger society, resulting from both local conditions and globalization.

Emerging planning, urban design, and regulatory approaches that are decidedly more 21st century approaches to city planning and design, and regulations that are dynamic, that embrace change and the complexity/messiness of the city, and which deal with flows of information rather than static information (e.g. comparison between film (flow) and a picture (static)) through iterative feedback loops – with feedback happening in real time – make possible a fundamental rethinking of planning and regulation.

The state of the contemporary city argues for a method of planning, design, and regulation that is “just-in-time,” rather than “not-in-time” or “just-in-case,” while arguing that some elements are more stable (e.g. Infrastructure, and historic pattern of streets, blocks, and parcels) than others (e.g. Such as buildings and public spaces and how they are used). The planning, design and regulatory paradigm described here takes advantage of the accelerating feedback loops provided by information technology and the increasing accessibility of information to and by the public, fostering the potential for more informed and democratic decision-making. As Donald Appelyard has observed:

[T]echnical planning and environmental decisions are not only value based…but identity based…[P]hysical planning decisions can, and frequently do, threaten the identity and status of certain groups while enlarging the powers of others” (Appelyard, 1979) 

Digital planning tools (Geographic Information Systems – GIS and Planning Design and Decision-making Systems – PDDS) enable communities to collectively, explore alternative futures, evaluate their performance against agreed upon measures and indicators and come to consensus on the community’s values and sense of identity. This is critical to a democratic planning process in which the agenda is set by the community, all have equal access to information, and have equal powers of decision-making. In addition to planning becoming more democratic, a significant outcome of democratic inclusiveness is the creation of social capital and an enhanced civil society – “The good you can’t think of.”

Unlike static systems, this new planning, design, and regulatory paradigm “learns” from experience, often resulting in a “good” which could not have been anticipated in a top down system of decision-making. An example would be the process in which moribund 19th and early 20th century loft buildings in Manhattan’s industrial zoning districts were illegally converted to live/work accommodations by artists and others, experimenting with ways to adapt industrial lofts to the needs of working and living. This “group learning” ultimately led to the emergence of a new housing type, the repositioning of residential districts and lofts in the public mind, and ultimately, and after the “fact,” their legalization in the city’s zoning regulations. 

Imagine a city planning design, and regulatory approach which encourages creativity and experimentation – “the good you can’t think of” – by framing the problem to be solved, rather than prescribing the pre-mediated solution embodied in plans and regulation, leading to the application of performance and scenario planning rather pre-mediated solutions to city planning, and design, and regulations. The other significant characteristic of a performance approach is that there are always multiple “right” answers because there is always more than one way to respond to a problem or program. In a performance paradigm, time plays a role. For example, a “good” one day might be a “bad” thing the next day and vice versa. An example of the role time plays in shaping our perceptions could be the Eiffel Tower. Originally panned by Paris’ artistic and intellectual community, the Eiffel Tower ultimately becomes the structure most revered by Parisians and an icon of the city. 

Finally the potential to devolve control made possible by information technology helps to loosen the tight reins of over-determined systems of control and exclusion into a number of under-determined systems of democratic inclusion that harnesses responsible individual action and creativity, and sustains the creation of social capital and democratic value.