Danielle Kurtzleben

Portland and Houston are two examples of well-planned cities

Economics, public safety, transportation, utilities, and green spaces are just a few of the many diverse factors that shape modern urban life. W. Paul Farmer, chief executive officer of the American Planning Association and American Institute of Certified Planners, says that it is how all of these different aspects fit together that makes a city livable. Drawing on his decades of planning experience in cities including Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, Farmer spoke to U.S. News about what makes a successful city. Excerpts:

What do urban planners do?

Planners are involved in about anything and everything that has a spatial dimension. On the private side, planners would be involved in laying out subdivisions, although there's not that much of that activity going on right now. [And] institutions -- whether it's a university or hospital -- you typically find that planners would be part of a team of people that would be looking at expansion opportunities.

On the public side, in local government, planners will typically be involved in preparing plans, helping to establish a vision for where a community might be going, and then involved in how you implement that. The visionary side is equally as important as the pragmatic side, and the number one implementation device is where you spend your money -- the capital budget.

It sounds like a planner's job is to look at projects from a macro, holistic level.

There's a comprehensive viewpoint that planners bring. They're not looking primarily at just the housing sector or transportation sector. I've always said that one of the primary functions of a planner in local government is to serve the intelligence function. The police chief has got his or her hands full on certain issues, [and] public works is dealing with streets and potholes. It's the planner who had better be there looking at the future of the community.

What makes a well-planned city?

One of the things that the great cities of the world share is that there's a legacy of wise decisions that have been made. If you look at Minneapolis and its Chain of Lakes -- 150 years or more ago, some very wise people said the land around these are always going to be forever public. And that is a singular accomplishment of Minneapolis. You look around most of the country and the world, you know, in the suburbs -- the lakes are all privatized. They're backyards. The areas of the country that are less successful are those that grew around the interstate highway and the sewer pipe, as opposed to the natural features that they began with.

And there are other cities where [they made] collective business decisions. Dallas fought hard to get the federal reserve. Getting that kind of banking center was incredibly important.

That's another way in which planning today is essential: it helps sort out among the many decisions that could be made within a community those that are going to be mutually reinforcing and often the ones that give you the best chance of greater success.

What are some examples of well-planned U.S. cities?

Certainly one that is a posterchild is Portland, Oregon.

They recognized in Portland probably about 40 years ago that they were not really taking advantage of the assets that they had. So they did a lot of work to start reclaiming rivers and to have parkland along rivers. They were one of the first cities of that size to really focus on the issue of walkability -- not just driving from your bed to your desk. Civilizations, I like to say, throughout history have advanced in cities. There's no evidence that they've ever advanced in suburbs, because you don't get the same kind of intense exchange of information and ideas and sometimes even clashes of values from which innovations emerge.

Houston is another interesting one.

It's again one where some city leaders a long time ago, after hurricane after hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, realized that if they widened the bayou that they could have an inland port. That was one of the first things that led to Houston's growth was to build it off of a port, Buffalo Bayou.

Are there any common problems or good features that many U.S. cities have in common?

People want different things out of their cities. [When I worked in Pittsburgh,] it was very critical that you, back in those days, had two newspapers. For some people it's important to have culture. For other people, it's important that you have hunting and fishing nearby. But you want local people who want to fight over the issues in the right kind of way. The last thing you want are people who are uncaring and disinterested; that's when you get true neighborhood decline.

How have you seen the planning field change in the years you've been in it?

I think that there are several things [that have changed]: the 1950s and into the 1960s were a period that looked at how you manage and guide suburban development. There's no doubt that what drove a lot people to the planning profession in the later 1960s [and] early 1970s was social equity [and] the civil rights movement. Moving beyond that, more recently, what has been driving people to planning in the '90s and 2000s, without a doubt, has been environmental issues. The current watchword, of course, has been "sustainability." It's looking at that issue of "What is this world that we're all going to be handing to our children, grandchildren, and generations beyond?"


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