How much do planning and design matter?

I have long been bothered by the question of how much planning and design matter. What makes a great neighborhood? What makes a great city? How do we make a spot on the map a place rather than just something on the way to b from a? My colleagues who are planners furrow their brow and look at me like I’m an idiot when I suggest that, sometimes, all you need is lots of people and the rest will take care of itself.

My conclusion (and I am trying to be provocative here) is that it doesn’t matter all that much. If you take lots of people and put them together, place will happen. I’m going to use an example close to home which was written about just recently in the Seattle Times, Summit Avenue on Capitol Hill.

Here’s a fact. The little stretch of Summit profiled in the Times piece is already a place, it’s a node, it’s whatever you want to call it. People go there, they stay there, they take up space, they live and love on that little stretch. It’s got compression, to use an automotive term. There is a there there. But why? Was it planning and design?

Nine years ago, Klebeck opened the now famed Top Pot. He saw this sleepy block with cheap rent and “vintage 1930s style architecture” and likened it to traveling in Europe, “where you go to some alley and find a place that becomes your secret location.”

How did the sleepy little block get to a bustling, thriving, happy little block? It certainly wasn’t a zoning change. And it’s hard to argue it was planning since what was there then is basically there now, arranged just as it was.

What makes this block work is people. Think about it for a minute. What makes this block work is demand. People want certain things. They want coffee and donuts. But more importantly, they want community and a sense of quiet, public connection with other people. Someone is meeting that demand and charging for it.

What’s easy to forget is the planning principles came from observations of facts (what works and what doesn’t) which, when generalized, can arguably be effectively applied in certain circumstances to create a desired effect. That is, planning works. But it works because it derives from lessons about what people do in the world when left to their own devices. Put people in a planning desert and they’ll create place. Planning is about learning how to make that happen on purpose.

I would love it if my planning and design friends would jump into this. One argument is that lots of planning and design is latent on Summit Avenue, this block is the flowering of planning and design seeds planted at some point in the past. Perhaps the flowering of Summit is even attributable to the code and at least, maybe, the code contributes to Summit’s success. But I’d say it’s just lots of people providing demand for which somebody is profitably creating supply.

Maybe it’s a pointless chicken and egg question, which came first, place or planning? But maybe place is not “build it and they will come,” but rather “let the people come, and they will make a place.” Why does it matter? We spend a lot of time in our land use code trying to out smart ourselves. What if we just opened the door and let the people in? Are we getting in the way with too many rules? Is lots of people in ugly buildings better than less people in highly designed buildings? Is population density enough, on it’s own to create a sense of place?

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10 Responses to How much do planning and design matter?

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