Urban Development: The Logic Of Making Plans

Urban Development: The Logic Of Making Plans

by Lewis D. Hopkins

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With increased awareness of the role of plans in shaping urban and suburban landscapes has come increased criticism of planners and the planning profession. Developers, politicians, and citizens alike blame "poor planning" for a host of community ills. But what are plans really supposed to do? How do they work? What problems can they successfully address, and what is


With increased awareness of the role of plans in shaping urban and suburban landscapes has come increased criticism of planners and the planning profession. Developers, politicians, and citizens alike blame "poor planning" for a host of community ills. But what are plans really supposed to do? How do they work? What problems can they successfully address, and what is beyond their scope? In Urban Development, leading planning scholar Lewis Hopkins tackles these thorny issues as he explains the logic of plans for urban development and justifies prescriptions about when and how to make them. He explores the concepts behind plans, some that are widely accepted but seldom examined, and others that modify conventional wisdom about the use and usefulness of plans. The book: places the role of plans and planners within the complex system of urban development offers examples from the history of plans and planning discusses when plans should be made (and when they should not be made) gives a realistic idea of what can be expected from plans examines ways of gauging the success or failure of plansThe author supports his explanations with graphics, case examples, and hypothetical illustrations that enliven, clarify, and make concrete the discussions of how decisions about plans are and should be made.Urban Development will give all those involved with planning human settlements a more thorough understanding of why and how plans are made, enabling them to make better choices about using and making plans. It is an important contribution that will be essential for students and faculty in planning theory, land use planning, and planning project courses.

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Urban Development

The Logic of Making Plans

By Lewis D. Hopkins


Copyright © 2001 Lewis D. Hopkins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-345-4


Plans for Urban Development: Why and How?

Making most development decisions one by one—with the focus on process, without benefit of something called a plan—is to forget why the field exists. —Allan B. Jacobs (2000), "Notes on Planning Practice and Education"

To the northwest of Champaign, Illinois, Interstate 74 leads to the small town of Mahomet ten miles away. The city of Champaign, the village of Mahomet, Champaign County, and private landowners recognize opportunities for urban development in this corridor. Each knows that the results of the decisions it makes will depend on what others do and when. A private landowner wants to develop a parcel as low-density residential halfway between Champaign and Mahomet now, but this would preclude a future interstate highway interchange and the industrial and commercial uses that could be associated with it. If Mahomet zones for industrial along its end of the corridor and Champaign zones for residential, the results may not be what either intended. If developers can bargain to annex either to Champaign or to Mahomet, the municipalities will have less leverage than if they agreed to annexation boundaries so that a developer can bargain with only one municipality.

All these actors were making plans and trying to learn about each other's plans. The city of Champaign, the village of Mahomet, and the county jointly hired a planning consultant (Chicago Associates Architects and Planners) to work with the three governments, the current residents of the corridor, and some developers in the area. The focus of this plan was on general patterns of expected land use, potential for major infrastructure such as a new interstate interchange, and agreement on which areas would be annexed eventually to which municipality. Is such joint planning in these circumstances, by these parties, for these aspects of urban development typical or surprising? Should it have been done differently?

The purpose of this book is to present a coherent set of explanations that make sense of the planning we observe and justifications for prescriptions about when and how to make plans. Under what circumstances should plans be made, by whom, and about what aspects of urban development? How should such plans be made? These fundamental questions are answered implicitly every day in the practice of planning.

Why was the Mahomet Corridor Plan made by these participants in this situation? Three public jurisdictions formed a voluntary group to make a plan that was useful to them jointly. Resistance to and costs of forming such groups can be overcome if one of the members is significantly larger than the others and able to cover a large share of the costs of the joint activity. The city of Champaign played this "leader" role. This leader-follower behavior is one explanation that makes sense of when such groups are likely to form. The members of the group agreed on a joint planning effort, but each still had distinct interests and goals and each retained authority over its own decisions. They could share professional planning services because much of what each wanted to know was based on the same information, and each benefited from this information without decreasing its value to the others.

Why did this plan address just the Mahomet Corridor as its geographic scope? The plan addressed one chunk of potential urban development, a corridor along an interstate highway connecting two communities that were gradually growing together. Rather than addressing all of any one jurisdiction, all of the growth areas of the three jurisdictions, or all of one function such as transportation or water supply, it addressed one geographic area in which several interdependent decisions were about to be made that would have strategic consequences for later decisions. Plans are likely to be made and likely to be worth making when the first of a set of interdependent decisions is about to be made, especially if these are major decisions, such as an interchange location, and will be hard to reverse later. In this case the key interdependent decisions were all in the Mahomet Corridor and were especially important to these three actors. This scope for this plan makes sense not only because it encompasses these interdependent decisions, but also because each of these actors had already made and was continuing to make other plans of other scopes for other sets of interdependent decisions involving other key actors.

How was the Mahomet Corridor Plan developed? Planners considered land capabilities for agriculture and urban development, feasibility of transportation and sewer infrastructure, current residential patterns, financial implications for the various communities, available regulatory authority, scenarios of infrastructure expansion, and questions of timing and sequence of development. Advisory groups of professionals and citizens participated. Formal decisions, based on the corridor plan, were made by the respective governments. Much of the effort focused on the eventual pattern of land use and on achieving a boundary agreement about which areas should be annexed into which municipality.

None of this is surprising. People have limited attention and they focus on aspects immediately pertinent to the decisions at hand. Processes for accomplishing tasks rely on established routines. The plan presents arguments sufficient for decision makers with authority to make choices and for their constituencies to consent to these choices. Most plans for urban development focus on regulations and on investments in infrastructure and buildings. The annexation agreement was perhaps the most available and immediate action that could be taken now in light of the future actions that had been considered. Strategically, it determined who would have regulatory jurisdiction and who would provide infrastructure. To yield benefits, plans should help make decisions about such current actions that are interdependent with other actions, which may be taken elsewhere, in the future, and by others.

Ideas About Plans

The Mahomet Corridor Plan is in many ways typical of everyday practice. It makes sense in terms of the explanations developed in this book about why and how plans are made. It is not typical, however, of conventional ideas about plans. The planning literature either describes ideal plans and processes that seldom happen and seldom affect decisions, or uses the infeasibility of these ideal plans and processes to argue that plans are never useful in real urban development situations. Citizens tend to think of plans as all-controlling, comprehensive solutions or all-controlling disruptions of individual decision making. Real plans are big and little, support private and public decisions, and affect decisions through information, not directly through authority. Explanations of how plans work are, therefore, tremendously important because they help planners and citizens understand when plans are worth making.

The most persistent image of a plan for urban development is a comprehensive plan—comprehensive spatially by encompassing an entire community or an entire metropolitan area, comprehensive functionally in addressing all aspects of government activity, and comprehensive in time by focusing on a long time period. The Mahomet Corridor Plan focused on one area that was not currently part of any one municipality. A voluntary group hired the planning services, not one jurisdiction alone and not a metropolitan government or formal organization. The plan largely ignored questions of social services, school locations, and relationships to alternative areas of growth available to any of the participating governments. Private developers were simultaneously making other plans for their actions. To explain such observed plans, we cannot rely on ideal reference points of a comprehensive plan or no plans. These reference points do not explain why plans are made but are not comprehensive. To explain what we see, we need a more explicit logic of what plans are, how they work, what they can do in what situations, and how they can be made. Such logic ought to make sense of the Mahomet Corridor Plan as well as plans apparently closer to the comprehensive ideal, such as the Portland 2040 Plan by the metropolitan regional government in Oregon (Metro 2000).

Much of the recent planning literature focuses on processes of interaction, implying that plans are too simple and rigid to be useful in the interactive processes of figuring out what to do amid the complexities of democratic governance and urban development. In the Mahomet Corridor case, however, there was a plan, albeit a "little" plan among many other plans by the same and other parties about the same and related areas, functions, and time horizons. It was a "big" plan, however, relative to the particular set of interdependent decisions of concern because it fulfilled the circumstances for which it was made. We cannot focus only on process to the exclusion of plans because a plan is what relates decisions to other decisions. Interactive processes incorporate plans of scopes that include two decisions by one actor or hundreds of decisions by hundreds of actors and plans that consider actions over which one actor has complete control or over which many actors have only partial control. The "ideal" that interactive processes do not include embedded plans is no more useful for explaining what we observe than is the ideal of a comprehensive plan. Again, we need a more explicit logic that can make sense of all the plans of widely varying scopes that are and should be made in the everyday practice of planning. Explanations of plans ought to make sense of a mayor who "strategizes"—refines plans as decisions are made—so rapidly that plans do not stand still long enough to be captured in fancy documents. These explanations also ought to make sense of the Chicago Plan of 1909, which was published as an elegant book and affected decisions for many years.

When I am asked what I do and respond that I am a planner, people say, "Well, we can certainly use you around here. There is no planning here." Or, "Planning is not working here." I have heard this kind of response in many places including Kathmandu, Nepal, and Seattle, Washington, for both of which there are and have been many plans. Citizens have very high expectations of what plans can accomplish and very vague notions of what a plan is or how it actually works. If they can imagine a better living environment in their locality, there must not have been a plan. If they think that government or private developers ought to have behaved differently, there must not have been a plan. To infer that the lack of planning is the explanation of all problems of human settlements, implies that plans could solve all problems of urban development. Plans, however, can do only certain things and they work imperfectly even in these situations.

Successful human settlements require much more than planning. Some of the outcomes that people often expect of plans are more likely to be achieved by democratic governance or regulation, each of which also can accomplish only certain things and works imperfectly. In simplest terms, plans provide information about interdependent decisions, governance makes collective choices, and regulations set rights. Understanding these distinctions will give people reasonable expectations with which to use all three to improve human settlements.

Questions About Plans

What is a plan? A plan identifies a decision that should be made in light of other concurrent or future decisions. Plans are useful if these decisions are (1) interdependent, (2) indivisible, (3) irreversible, and (4) face imperfect foresight. In other words, we can gain by making a plan if (1) the value of the results of a decision now depends on other decisions, (2) the decision cannot be made in infinitesimally small steps, (3) the decision cannot be reversed later without cost, and (4) we lack complete knowledge of the future. This narrow definition identifies what is most fundamental about a plan and is elaborated in chapter 2.

Note that this definition makes no reference to government, the public sector, regulations, or breadth of authority or control. Actors make plans in the private sector, voluntary sector, and public sector as individuals or organizations with partial authority over one decision or complete authority over many decisions. Plans are not inherently about government, collective choice, or centralized control. These other phenomena are part of the complex system within which plans for urban development are made and thus affect what plans accomplish and how they are made.

What is the relationship between a plan and a complex system? Complex systems do not defeat the potential of plans. They enable it. The effects of plans and the situations in which plans can be made depend on the nature of these systems. Two interpretations of "natural" systems—evolution and market economies—are frequently analyzed as contrasts to plans. Complex systems characterized by interdependence, indivisibility, irreversibility, and imperfect foresight create opportunities for plans to improve on outcomes from natural systems. The crucial argument is that when these four conditions are present, the dynamics of change through time defeat the claims that natural and market systems are likely to achieve predictable and good outcomes. The potential for improvement, however, rests on the assumption that intentions are at least partially predictable. Beliefs, attitudes, values, or preferences must be predictable or it makes no sense to consider current decisions in light of future decisions and future outcomes. Making useful plans requires thinking carefully about the dynamic behavior of systems, available actions, predictable intentions, and the potential effects of plans. Chapter 2 considers how plans work in natural systems.

What can plans do? Plans can work as agendas, policies, visions, designs, and strategies. Each of these modes affects systems in different ways and thus fits different specific circumstances. Any one plan may work in all these ways, but distinguishing among them analytically is useful in explaining the circumstances in which plans can work. Strategies are the most fundamental aspect of plans for urban development because strategies directly account for actions, outcomes, intentions, and uncertainty. Strategies address most completely the difficulties created by interdependence, indivisibility, irreversibility, and imperfect foresight. Designs focus primarily on outcomes. Visions, agendas, and policies are often joint effects of plans that also work as strategies or designs. Visions, agendas, and policies also occur in situations that do not meet the strict definition of plans. That is, visions, agendas, and policies are aspects of how plans work, but they are also phenomena that can exist separately from plans.

Expansion of a sewage treatment plant, for example, is a question of strategy. The expansion decision is interdependent with decisions about locations and capacities of roads. Capacity will be added in a large increment to take advantage of economies of scale in construction and operation. The decision is not reversible once built because the plant is a large physical facility with fixed location and an associated network of pipes. The decision faces imperfect foresight because it must be built long before demand for much of its capacity will be realized. A plan for a treatment plant should thus consider other interdependent actions in order to increase the likelihood that the treatment plant and these other actions will in combination yield desirable outcomes from the perspective of the people making the plan.

Such a plan is most completely interpreted as strategy but also has other aspects. It may have contingent timing rules to construct links in the sewer network just in time to serve realized demand in particular areas. These rules are a policy aspect of the plan. The expected final network can be interpreted as a design aspect of the plan. The capital costs of constructing the plant may appear on a Capital Improvements Program as an agenda aspect of the plan. The capacity chosen for the plant may serve as a vision that affects expectations for rapid growth or slow growth of the community, a vision aspect of the plan. Plans for urban development usually focus on investments in physical capital and on regulations because these types of actions are likely to have the attributes of interdependence, indivisibility, irreversibility, and imperfect foresight. Chapter 3 explains how plans work.

Do plans work? These explanations of how plans work frame criteria for assessing the effectiveness of plans. Did the plan for the Mahomet Corridor have any effect on urban development in the corridor? Did this plan yield a better outcome than would have occurred without the plan? From whose perspective was it better?


Excerpted from Urban Development by Lewis D. Hopkins. Copyright © 2001 Lewis D. Hopkins. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Lewis Hopkins, AICP, is professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and chair of the Planning Accreditation Board. He was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Nepal and editor of the Journal of Planning Education and Research.

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