In his inaugural article on this website, “What’s the Matter with ‘Good’ Planning?”, Peter Marcuse has once again provided readers with both a potent critique of contemporary planning practice and a set of thoughtful guidelines for a better urban future. He rightfully skewers mainstream urban planners for accepting “the process of urbanization as it now takes place” and obscuring the powerful people and forces that actually shape urban life. His program for action—from strengthening rent controls and experimenting with non-speculative housing to democratizing planning and re-centering gender equity—is a breath of fresh air in these stale, conservative times.
Marcuse argues that mainstream urban planners provide some good ideas about how to make cities prettier, friendlier and somewhat less destructive, but they fail to make cities fairer, healthier or more democratic. By ignoring both the biggest problems with US cities today—intense economic and racial inequalities, mass incarceration and violent policing, climate change and environmental racism, and rampant land speculation and displacement—so-called “good planning” fails to make the “transformative” changes that “progressive planning” promises.
I cannot disagree with his critique of “good planning.” Nor would I offer a substantively different vision for an alternative planning program. Where Marcuse and I depart, however, is in his analysis of the relationship between actually existing “good planning” and “progressive planning’s” promise.
“Progressive planning,” Marcuse writes, “would not be a rejection of Good Planning, but would rather go beyond conventional practice such as that celebrated by the Times. Progressive Planners question some aspects of conventional practice, and accept and build on others through actively embedding critical values and goals into practice.” It builds on the best of the mainstream, while adding “transformative” elements.
But is “good planning” a sturdy base on which to build?
Is it not “good planning” that is gentrifying our cities, and expelling working class people from the neighborhoods they maintained during decades of disinvestment? Is it not “good planning” that brings us broken windows policing, which utilizes big data, GIS mapping and behavioral “science” to uphold a regime of death, disruption and dislocation on people of color in cities across the country? Is it not “good planning” that offers us public-private partnerships, tax increment financing, business improvement districts and other technocratic tools of neoliberalism? Just how much more “good planning” can we endure?
Marcuse argues that engaging with “good planning” is the pragmatic thing to do, given that it is “good planners” who hold the power over our urban futures, and who control the parameters of current discussion. If we reject their positions outright, we risk relegation to obscurity. But what do we risk by refusing to reject it? Arguably the results could be worse.
Take Marcuse’s dissection of “good” and “progressive” approaches to housing and land use. He argues that “good planners’” belief in “housing policies including standards for decent, safe, and sanitary housing, zoning bonuses that enable the profitable provision of affordable housing, and public subsidies to prevent homelessness and incentivize private development of limited affordable housing” provides an opening towards luxury housing taxes and curbs on speculation. In addition, “good planners’” agreement that “all decisions affecting the uses of land are appropriately matters of public interest” opens the door to a demand for the full socialization of land. Marcuse suggests that “progressive planners” should exploit these areas of agreement, and use them to gain leverage.
I am not so sure that there is much overlap between the “good” and “progressive” approaches to housing that Marcuse outlines. The reason “good planners” support building codes and zoning standards is not out of an enlightened position on the universal right to housing, but rather an imperative to protect property values and segregate unwanted land uses. They support some limited affordable housing measures to ensure the stability of a low-wage workforce and to get their bosses reelected. And they support public land use procedures that put a patina of democracy on a process of dispossession.
"'Good planning' is bad planning for the majority of the population. It’s not an underdeveloped platform for change, it’s a way of ensuring that the status can remain quo. It provides quality of life to some while exposing others to extreme harm."
Seen in this light, “good planning” is not just something to go beyond, but something to refuse outright. “Good planning” is bad planning for the majority of the population. It’s not an underdeveloped platform for change, it’s a way of ensuring that the status can remain quo. It provides quality of life to some while exposing others to extreme harm.
Perhaps there is a use in distinguishing between models that build on the best of “good planning” and those that reject it outright. The former is “progressive planning,” which seeks to push liberals a little further to the left without scaring them away. The latter is “radical planning,” which seeks a clear break with the practices that dominate the profession and posits a set of actions in direct contradiction to the norms and values that rule the day.
What, then, would “radical planning” look like? Arguably the goals would be more or less the same as those Marcuse lays out: public control of land, housing for all, a transformation of the wage relation and a truly democratic process for planning. But the difference would lie in its ideas about power and its understanding of mainstream planning practice. From the radical perspective, “good planning” does not need to be pushed further to the left, it needs to be pushed off a ledge. It is a set of tools created to reinforce power inequalities and make capitalist urbanity more resilient. If we want to create a better world, we cannot do so by improving on the methods “good planners” have provided, but rather by enacting an entirely new set of political demands.
"From the radical perspective, 'good planning' does not need to be pushed further to the left, it needs to be pushed off a ledge. It is a set of tools created to reinforce power inequalities and make capitalist urbanity more resilient."
This therefore cannot be a strategy for planners alone, but rather for planners in alignment with social movements. The “Vision for Black Lives”, for example, is an excellent example of radical—not progressive—planning. Rather that starting with the “good plans” of mainstream police reformers and pushing them leftward, the Movement for Black Lives sets a path towards transformative change that sidesteps the mainstream reformist approaches (such as body cameras or so-called “community policing”) and instead calls for divestment from policing, prisons and warfare and investment in housing, health and education. As Robin D. G. Kelley argues, it is “less a political platform than a plan for ending structural racism, saving the planet and transforming the entire nation—not just black lives.”
In order to achieve the quite-worthy goals of “progressive planning,” we need to break with the tarnished tradition of mainstream or “good planning.” The Progressive era, we should recall, gave us not just tenement reforms but also Jim Crow. A progressive approach to planning will never bring an end to the structural conditions that underlie contemporary inequalities. For that, we will need something much more radical.