The Best-Laid Plans: O'Toole's Scheme at Generalizing Planning

The Best-Laid Plans by Randal O’Toole argues that the planning field in America is inefficient and ineffective: O’Toole tells us it’s simply not necessary.

His first focus is on something he knows well: Forest Planning. He spends the first 50 pages detailing how forestry planning does not work, and makes some great points: how can one predict tree growth, lumber prices, and demand in the years to come? How can one predict forest fires?  Being unfamiliar with the lumber industry, I took this chapter with more than a grain of salt.

Now I’m reading the second chapter, which is focused on urban planning. He rails against urban planners for over-simplifying and generalizing neighborhoods and uses and for having personal agendas without concern to the complex needs of the community; and he also accuses planners of fabricating and misusing statistics to get what they want.

One of his biggest examples was his claim that planners have stated that obesity is caused by sprawl. He writes that obesity has a correlation, not a causation, with sprawl, and that low income is a much larger and proven factor in obesity rates. I would never argue this. You have seen my many posts on walkability and fitness and how my own city living has caused my weightloss. But I would never claim that urban sprawl CAUSED obesity. I don’t think any planner with half a brain would claim this.

In effect, O’Toole is generalizing urban planners and making rash claims about them, while he argues that they generalize and make rash claims.

Another argument of his that bothered me was about community. He mocks Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, for taking the fall of bowling leagues and steady rate of actual bowling to mean a decrease in community among Americans.  “It never occured to him  that people might be bowling with families and friends,” O’Toole writes. Wam, bam. Sticking the knife in Putnam’s argument. He ignores the fact that Putnam has followed up Bowling Alone with Better Together, a book full of stories of how communities have pulled together and started successful programs to solve their community’s specific problems.

He also fails to realize that of course families and friends hang out and go bowling, all the time, especially in suburbs, because suburbs were meant to isolate and idolize the nuclear family.

I whole-heartedly agree with O’Toole that community can happen in a strong way in suburbs, and he’s right that large cities have no neighborly relations (living in the Gold Coast for three months is my proof, you may be able to poke a hole in this).  He says public transit isn’t right for every area, that the strict New Urbanist guidelines put on development will be destructive in the long run. Again, truth to that. But shouldn’t Americans have a choice? I think we’d both ask this question. Shouldn’t a person be able to choose the bus over the car? Shouldn’t someone be able to walk to a store, or a church, or anything? If a planner sees people walking on the side of busy streets that have no sidewalks, why wouldn’t the planner just put sidewalks there?

I am not being clear if I totally agree or disagree with O’Toole. It’s because he has some good arguments, and a good new perspective on planning. I think he’s right: too much money and time go into failed governmental plans. It’s wasting our tax dollars. I’ve always been okay with raising taxes if it meant bettering the life of those who have no means to, but I never considered in detail how the government may be ill-spending tax money. It’s an important issue. It’s still not about getting the lowest taxes possible–it’s more about how little we know about how little planners know what they’re doing with the widespread, federal plans for a diverse, complex nation.

I just got a little bit more supportive of small government. Shouldn’t be a surprise with my LiveLittle motto, I guess!


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