Unplanned Planning

A recent article in the Houston Chronicle robbed Houston's Montrose neighborhood of a recent accolade given by the American Planning Association (APA) as one of its “10 Great Neighborhoods” for 2009. I have never been to the Montrose neighborhood, so I can not speak to the validity of that particular selection. But, what I can speak to is the uneducated judgments passed by the author because Montrose was not “planned.” I have traveled throughout the country and throughout the world as an urban planning academic, professional and observer. I have been a member of the APA for a decade, but recently dropped my membership due to what I believe is ineffective education and outreach to those outside of the planning world and, instead, seemingly bowing to the whole cause of NIMBYism and, instead, indirectly implicating developers for any shortcomings of the built world (to be fair, I have not read every report or article published by the APA, but that is the general sense that I feel). So, although I am not a strong advocate of the APA, they are to be credited, not chastised, for such a selection.

Planning does not only entail laying out restrictive building codes or onerous public processes. Planning at its best enables that which works best – flexibility to adjust to changing market conditions and realities. The article credits the “gays, lesbians, artists and students” that were attracted to Montrose’s cheap rents for making it a “wild” and “exciting” place. How were they able to do this? Most likely through a series of adaptive re-use projects, approved by planners, that nurtured an urban revival. And, to say that the neighborhood “arose in spite of [planning]” is to completely disavow the notion that flexibility in planning codes, perhaps perceived as absence of action, does, in fact, represent action.

In the end, I applaud the APA for doing exactly what I often identify as a shortcoming of their agenda – recognizing that sometimes “good” planning comes from a more hands-off approach; and, that developers are quite capable of creating great places and desirable neighborhoods without excessive public meddling. After all, planning is not only public policy. It is also (or should be) rooted in market dynamics, because even the “best” planned neighborhoods fail if no one wants to be there.

Maybe I’ll have to rethink letting that APA membership lapse.