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Editorial> The Death and Life of Planning
Now that planners no longer have a say in physical planning, architects go it alone.
Brooklyn Bridge Park by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.
Adam Fagen / Flickr

The abdication of physical planning by the profession of city and regional planning has left urban dwellers without skilled advocates to represent them in negotiating change and development. Though planning evolved in part out of architectural initiatives—like the Garden City, housing reform, and controlling urban growth—it increasingly became suspicious of the potential for physical form and architectural approaches to solve problems, and as a result it moved towards solutions rooted in public policy. But this shift created opportunities and challenges for other design professionals when they engaged with large-scale urban development. For example, in the absence of city planning techniques, positions, and thinking about the future of the city, the profession of urban design emerged in large architecture offices and schools of architecture in the 1960s as a way to think about large-scale urban renewal. This new profession, it is safe to say, had limited success. It in no way claimed to represent the body politic, as planning had done, nor was it able to translate its focus into convincing, relevant physical form. Though many design schools still have departments of urban design, administrators treat the discipline simply as large-scale architecture, without its own pedagogy or skills of urban reformation. The failure of urban design to create a convincing alternative to social planning meant that architects were left to their own devices when called in to “plan” large sections of the city, particularly on large outdated brown field sites and the industrial edges of large cities.

On the other hand, landscape architects—who are trained to think about large unused building sites and the nature of public use—began to “plan” important projects all over the country. The creation of Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governor’s Island in New York, The Great Park in Orange County, California, and Tulsa, Oklahoma’s new Central Park are important landmarks in this recent design approach to public infrastructure planning. Tulsa’s new park—designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (with valuable support by George Kaiser Family Foundation)—is an example of a design that attempts to be both top down in terms of design and bottom up in its approach to programming. The landscape architect brought to the project his knowledge of how to unify the unbuilt site into a single space, yet provide a variety of experiences. The city and county of Tulsa and various residents’ groups had valuable input into translating the site’s history, integrating it into the surrounding neighborhoods, and providing needed commercial uses. The result of this collaborative process will create a public space that is unique but also a product of Tulsa’s needs and history.

This brings us to “Emergent Master Planning,” the feature story in this special AIA issue of AN, and how architects are attempting to re-envision the city and create a more sustainable and equitable urban environment for the future, as planners did almost a hundred years ago when Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was asked to rethink New Haven, Connecticut, and the Regional Plan Association of America did when it created Sunnyside Gardens, Radburn, New Jersey, and the Appalachian Trail. Now that planners no longer have a say in physical planning, architects have to go it alone. Have a look at our feature and tell us how you think the profession is handling the job of master planning our cities.

William Menking