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Perhaps a much shorter article could be written if the subject is about how urban planning succeeds. However, urban planning successes in my region are rare enough to be considered outliers. I don’t have enough personal experience to properly inform the reader on the subject of how planning succeeds. I do endeavour with each issue I bring up to make recommendations that would improve the planning based on my experience and what I have gleaned from years of research, but I have to admit I have had limited access to successful planning. If I do get helpful comments from people with more positive experiences perhaps I can write a second article about how urban planning can succeed.

This article is based on observations that I have made over the last almost 50 years. I started with a notion that maybe we could do urban planning better, but now I am at a point where I have only a little hope that we could just stop making things worse.

I know this sounds simple, but planning fails because the people involved in planning don’t know what planning is for, don’t know how to do it and/or they don’t really want to do it. This includes local politicians, concerned citizens and city planners. There are some other external forces at play, but mostly planning fails from a little bit of indifference mixed with a massive amount of incompetence.



The most useful definition I’ve come across is that it is an argument for improving the economy of land use. Those of us seriously involved in planning would want urban lands to be better used by more people. The net result should be a city that is safer and healthier to live in while retaining and increasing the wealth that is produced there. There are some other definitions of urban planning, but none of them speak as well to the proper purpose and function of planning.

We can think of planning as a distinct part of the science of economics. If science is an endeavour to separate what is real from what isn’t and economics is a long term study of human behaviour then the primary interest of planning is to study real human behaviour within a specific part of the Earth. Someone just observing human behaviour in a given area would be functioning as a scientist, but when that person makes an argument for accommodating safer, healthier and more productive human behaviours or an argument for discouraging unsafe, unhealthy and destructive human behaviours as an effort to improve a local economy that person is functioning as a planner.

To succeed, planning has to be based on observed human behaviours in a given area and recommending development that would encourage or increase the positive or productive behaviours while discouraging negative or unproductive behaviours.



Aside from not having a very clear idea of what planning is and why we do it; planning can also fail by being influenced by political ideologies that contradict the realities of the local economy.


Soviet planning was often flummoxed by a reliance on Marxist ideology while ignoring the economic reality. As well, Libertarianism, Anarchy, Neo-conservatism all impose an ideology on a reality that would otherwise allow people to achieve wealth, improve productivity and care for one another in a way that makes life joyful and meaningful.

Also liars, grifters and fascists can, with abundant propaganda, limit the ability of planners to meet important standards of professionalism. The introduction of corruption, incompetence and racism, which are always an existential threat to an economy, can overwhelm even the most determined planner voicing a need for a reasoned reality check that would improve an urban environment so that it would encourage us to be more creative, productive, generous and caring; and discourage us from being destructive, unproductive, miserly and mean.

In the interest of full disclosure, and in case you haven’t already noticed, I lean left and I strongly support improving institutions that endeavour to protect and insure individuals who cannot protect themselves or cannot insure themselves and the environment. I don’t consider myself an ideologue. I don’t believe we can improve human behaviour through moralising or ethical arguments, but I do believe we can improve the human condition through better planning and design.


Ideology would impose upon us a behaviour without regard for the productivity of that behaviour and without an appreciation for forms which would improve productivity. It makes effective planning very difficult.

Also, there are economic models that work in the sense that they represent an understanding of how people behave, but they are designed to extract wealth from the local economy. If a planner is charged with protecting and improving the wealth of a local economy by increasing the efficiencies associated with land use, neoconservative economic models (neoliberalism) would thwart those efforts. Using instruments such as national banks, big box distribution centres, corporations large enough to acquire control over local competition and local production, televised and national distribution of advertising and propaganda, neoconservatives can undermine the best efforts of local planners. And when the greatest portion of urban land is acquired by national corporations, virtually all the instruments to retain wealth in a local community will be gone, along with the point of having urban planners working for the city.

This isn’t intended as an anti-capitalist screed. I am making a simple observation; the more dependent we become on large corporations delivering what we need to live the more vulnerable we become to market forces and the more dependent we become on social institutions that would protect us. As we lose control of local production and the means of distribution to national or international interests, local control over land use might be all that is left to protect and increase the wealth in our community.


Another point of failure with respect to planning efforts stems from a fallacy that is taught in planning schools. This is the idea that one cannot generate a planning argument that is outside of a “cultural framework.”

My first exposure to the term ‘cultural framework’ was in planning school. The head of the planning department for the City of Calgary stated something widely inconsistent as part of a community plan. When I asked my instructor about it I was told that I have to accept the fact that planners work within a “cultural framework.” I understood from this that the term is kind of a catch-all; as in, whenever a planner screws up we explain it away by saying,’that’s just his or her cultural framework.’

Some of my fellow students saw it differently. For them “cultural framework” was a very generalised view of the cumulative effects of all cultural activities. It suggests something normative, established, generally accepted, and sacrosanct. If we consider culture as defining who we are, a cultural framework is a construct that includes all the activities that would define a general identity. For example; if we work in a city with a considerable amount of car dependency we are to reframe that as ‘car culture’ and do our best to accommodate that culture despite the harmful economic effects of car dependency.

Before I went to planning school I went to art school. I learned a lot about culture in art school. I studied the history of art, the philosophy of aesthetics and the mutual influence of art and society, but nobody ever talked about cultural frameworks. For my fellow planning students a cultural framework was some vague boundary that could not be transgressed or questioned from some outside perspective. This can lead to a very conservative view of culture; as if it is only tradition (actually only a rich white person’s tradition), and the job of the planner is to protect it. Of course, this is wrong.

Anyone who has left their country of origin and returned a few years later will comment on cultural changes that have taken place while they were gone. Even in the most conservative regimes cultural shifts happen. I moved away from my hometown to another part of my own country and when I returned for a visit ten years later I observed a lot of change. Culture is very malleable, but it changes in response to changes in the environment. Add a building, design a street differently, reorganise a park, and our traditions, our identity slowly adapts. Culture follows form. So when the car was introduced to cities our culture changed. When the radio was introduced our culture changed. Same with the TV, the mobile phone and the gas powered lawn mower. These things changed who we are; our identity; but they also changed how we behave. While understanding who we are might be a problem suitable for an artist, understanding how we behave is a problem suitable for an economist and a planner. In as much as urban planning effects urban form culture will be affected. But this is not the concern of the planner. A planner’s concern is where urban form changes our behaviour. If a planner thinks they are only guardians of culture, and their jobs are to accommodate normative behaviours, they are essentially useless as planners.


The effects of planning are determined over time. For this reason it is difficult to detect the success or failure of any planning effort. There are some red flags that may indicate that planning in your city is not working for the benefit of the local economy:

  1. The city has some sort of “economic development committee.” Generally, if a planning department is focused on the economics of land use the people who would be on this committee are already incorporated into the planning process as stakeholders, participants in focus groups, and other kinds of public engagement. If the planning process is credible the influence of these people would be far greater as part of the planning process than as a special committee. In communities where planning is failing an economic development committee is often formed to distract from or hide the source of the problem, even though anybody on the committee does not have the power or skill related to solving the problem.

  2. Plans take too long to finish and not enough time to complete. The time it takes to complete a plan should depend on the size of the subject area and the number of people in that area. In my city the plan for the entire city took a little over two years to finish. This was about the same amount of time it took to finish a transportation plan which only dealt with about 60% of the city’s land area. The plan for one local park which was a tiny fraction of the the percentage of the total land area also took about two years to finish. Notice that I said that these plans were finished, but none of them were complete for various reasons I will go into later. If you were to read these plans you would find yourself in a long winded maze of pointless explanations, without any real solutions to real urban development. One of the criticisms I levelled at this city’s transportation plan was that it was twice as thick as it needed to be and only half done. Our overall community plan is over 300 pages long while our neighbouring city which had a population and area several times larger than ours finished their plan about the same time and it is only 150 pages long.

  3. Planning regulations restrict development without actually improving the local economy. For example minimum parking requirements limit the size of development on a given property and the cost of providing parking can limit the productivity of the site. In my city a local development was required to build about two thirds more parking than it was likely to use. The cost of providing this unusable parking space could have reduced rent and/or allowed rooftop gardens, and/or solar panels. If your city has a lot of sites where the building size is limited by the amount of parking that will fit on the site, you have a planning problem.

  4. Planning regulations are intended to achieve an appearance of conformity at the expense of productive land use. If you are travelling through a part of the city where the only architecture supports low density housing you probably have a planning problem.

  5. If your city has a lot of low density residential development, a high proportion of public space dedicated to cars, a lot of car-oriented development, a city centre where more people drive through it then actually use it, and scattered work destinations that are only accessible by car you have a planning problem or two. These all represent very inefficient uses of land, which imposes a very significant drag on your local economy.

  6. Finally, If you find yourself asking, ‘why are my taxes going up and why can’t we afford to get nice things,’ you have a planning problem and you have probably had it for a very long time.

I suppose it’s too simple to say that planning usually fails because the wrong people are doing it.

Recently, our city acquired a property in the centre of the commercial portion of our downtown. It’s what’s called a keystone property in that developing the property to make it more productive would have benefits for the entire downtown commercial sector. The person put in charge of redeveloping this very critical site was a traffic engineer. For those who don’t know, traffic engineers have a particular skill set. Compared to a planner or an urban designer it is a very small skill set and only a tiny portion of that skill set can be applied to urban planning. I can’t really fault the traffic engineer for a poor planning effort, because he didn’t have the proper training, except perhaps his willingness to take on such a task represented more ambition than common sense. However, any city manager that would consider this an appropriate use of human resources, reveals a serious lack of understanding of everything associated with the task of planning and urban design. The incompetence revealed by that decision is difficult to overstate.

The site needed a real planner doing real planning. Subsequent decisions by council based on misinformation provided by the planning department will probably render this site undeveloped for at least another 20 years. This means a loss of opportunity, as well as a loss of tax revenue, represents a cost we all pay for.

Real planning requires meaningful engagement of stakeholders and the general public to identify all the issues and opportunities that would make that property as productive as it possibly could be. A complete understanding of how to generate an attractive and productive site in that particular neighbourhood. As well, intelligent recommendations based on studies of what has succeeded in other cities. There might be some general cost/benefit analysis, risk assessment and budget considerations and all of this would be presented to council. If council decides to proceed, that plan would be given over to an urban designer; an architect, landscape architect or an urban designer. That plan would have just enough information to begin the design process. The designer would seek input from experts such as structural engineers, civil engineers and maybe even traffic engineers in order to produce a design to present to council. Council would determine if the design effectively responded to the planning brief and might then approve proceeding with the development. From then on the designer oversees the construction on the site.

This is a tried and true method that allows proper oversight, and skilled people doing what they know how to do. The challenge of course is to find skilled planners and skilled urban designers, and that becomes an impossible task when you don’t know what planners and designers are supposed to do.

A common mistake is thinking that anyone can be a planner. Some people even think that two years of planning school will make you a planner. In fact, it takes about 10 years after planning school of focused study to give you enough skill to be effective as a planner. The only effective planner that I have found working for this city didn’t actually do any planning for the first twenty years of his career. His weakness was that he didn’t have enough practice up to that point, but he was hampered by an administration that had no knowledge of or sensitivity to the job he was doing. To understand the relationship between human behaviour and land use, to effectively engage with stakeholders and the public, and to weave through the entanglements of local politics and the interests of private developers is a particular skill set that is not easy to acquire or apply.

Another common mistake is to think designers can be planners, and planners can be designers. Generally, designers are too autocratic to be planners and planners do not have the intellectual capacity to be designers. The skill sets might be complimentary but they are not mutual. It is critical to understand and maintain the distinction between planners and designers. It is virtually impossible to have a good result when planning and design are combined efforts. Planning must be done first so that it can inform the design process as to the economic circumstances of the site in question. Also, a completed plan represents a critical decision point. A council or a board would have enough information to determine whether or not to proceed to the design stage of development based on a completed plan. From a management point of view, having skilled urban planners doing urban planning and skilled urban designers doing urban designing represents a much better distribution of human resources than having a traffic engineer in charge of both tasks.

I maintain, based on what I have observed, that is very important to keep the planning process and the design process distinct. In our city we often don’t often make the distinction between the two disciplines and we get one person to do both. These activities are almost always lumped together revealing a persistent misunderstanding or lack of appreciation for both disciplines. As I said before, planning is an attempt to address an economic problem. But design is an effort to solve an ergonomic problem. Design is an effort to enhance our ability to interface with the environment. A good hammer design will be comfortable to grip will allow us to hit a lot of nails without injury to ourselves. A well designed map of the New York subway will be easy and clear to read and allow us to navigate our way under New York. A bad map of the New York subway will be confusing, making it difficult to find the information we need. A good urban design improves the way we interact with the built environment and makes it easier for us to communicate with each other so that we can exchange goods, services and ideas. While planning is focused on our behaviours, design gives more weight to our capabilities; good design expands our capabilities by shaping the tools we use or shaping the space we live in. Planning relies more on observation to make determinations with the engagement process used to extend the range of that observation, while design relies more on information provided by experts. Planners and designers have very different skill sets and their activities should not overlap; hire a good planner to do planning, and hire a good designer to do urban design, and your city economy will improve. I have never seen success when we conflate the two disciplines.

Many years ago our council decided to proceed with planning for one of our inner-city parks. The person placed in charge of the planning was a city employee from the Parks and Recreation Department who had demonstrated some design skill creating flower displays on road islands. A committee of volunteers including two councillors, several members of the public and chaired by the head of the Parks and Recreation department was formed to oversee the efforts of this intrepid employee. None of these people had a lot of experience planning or designing an urban park yet they were willing to do both tasks at the same time. I guess you could say this was a bit of “killing two birds with one stone” kind of thinking.

The park was very well used, and it supported a lot of different activities. It had a tidal lagoon for swimming, a beach, a floating pier which is popular for crab fishing, a washroom, a children’s play area, a basketball court, a bandstand, and a very popular ocean side walk. This park is large enough to accommodate all kinds of activity with very minor points of occasional conflict.

The biggest issue I have observed over the years stems from a lack of infrastructure to support summer weekend festivals. Almost every weekend from the middle of May to the end of August a different volunteer group will organise a different event in the park. We have events such as the Silly Boat Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Bathtub Race, a dance festival, a pride festival, a jazz festival and a blues festival. Every festival is organised by volunteers and largely funded with private donations and city money. The band stand is inadequate as a performance stage and its location interferes with the location of all the amenities associated with a festival event. Every organisation has to rent a stage, a sound system, fencing, chairs, tables, tents, port-a-potties and whatever else to be squeezed into awkward leftover spaces of the park. Before every weekend the equipment has to be delivered, and set up. Then after every weekend the equipment has to be broken down and removed. If the park had supporting infrastructure such as a performance stage, with a back stage, and a secure storage facility a good deal of money, energy and time could be saved. Money that now goes to renting equipment, set-up and take-down could go towards hiring more entertainers or increasing the value of awards for competitions.

Another issue is related to pedestrian access to the park. All the pedestrian entrances were underdeveloped awkward choke points that presented a poor introduction to the park.

The parking was and is sprawled and disorganised, taking up far too much space for the amount of cars that can park there.

The washrooms were and still are decrepit, and inadequate.

There is no indoor space to use on days where the weather is inclement.

I assumed that to address these issues the planning process was initiated. I was wrong. The planning process started off well with a lot of public engagement. For me, who visited the park twice weekly, and worked as a volunteer for some of the events, the public engagement seemed excessive considering the obviousness of the issues related to the park and the likely budget

the city had to make changes to the park. However, giving the public an opportunity to participate in a planning process is usually a good thing. Public response was very high and it seemed to be very positive. One of the participation events located in the park involved asking people to write comments or suggestions on little flags strung together and hung on the railing of the bridge between the harbour and the lagoon. I took the time to read all of them. Most of the comments brought up issues that I was already aware of, some comments were wishful thinking, such as, “why can we have dolphins in the lagoon?” But one comment really stuck with me. It was from a mother of three children who said that when she takes her children to the play area, inevitably one of them has to use the washroom. This means she has to gather up all her children, and walk all of them to the washroom, which is some distance away. Usually, so much energy is spent getting one child to the washroom that she is too tired to go back to the playground. She asked why couldn’t a washroom be built in the play area so that she could monitor all the children while one was in the washroom. I thought that was a particularly good suggestion and doable. These flag comments were only a fraction of the responses received, but they were all that I had exposure to.

When the plan was in draft form it was released for review and I got a copy. It was clear that none of the issues and opportunities associated with that park were identified. It was as if the two years of public engagement didn't happen. None of the issues I identified and clearly none of the issues identified by other responders were mentioned or addressed. A couple of problems that didn’t exist were advanced by the plan, and design solutions were offered, but clearly solving issues that don’t exist solves nothing. This is a common feature of most plans; convince enough people that a problem exists when it doesn’t, do anything that you might want to do, then a few months later say, ‘see we don’t have that problem.’ I met with the planner a few days after the release of the draft plan, and asked her about the materials produced during the public engagement. She said they were still in boxes in the corner of her office. All the data she received from survey’s she couldn’t analyse and any of the comments she had she couldn’t determine which were useful and which weren’t so she just ignored all of them. This isn’t unusual by the way. I told her that wasn’t the way to do planning and I told her what I thought of her plan, and she got upset. After that I went to the oversight committee and told the committee what I thought of the plan. They got upset. They told me I didn’t know what I was talking about. It was a two year effort, money was spent, volunteer time was spent, public engagement was done, designs where produced and payed for, information panels where made, publishing the draft plan was done and publishings the final plan without any changes to the draft plan was about to be done and I was telling them that all that effort was to be wasted. Less than a month later the plan was shelved. That was almost fifteen years ago, and in the meantime nothing has been done to that park, including addressing the issues that still exist there.

I will speak to the wrongs of public engagement in greater detail later, but before I leave this I want to say that I can understand how a planner could be overwhelmed by the amount of data that can be returned from a public engagement. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you need from the public, the engagement process is useless. Asking for more information than is possible to analyse is a waste of time for both the planner and the public. Asking for opinions about a list of possibilities is a waste of time. Asking the public to prioritise a list of possibilities, issues and opportunities is a waste of time. Asking the public to illuminate their individual behaviours and then ask them if they have ideas that might better accommodate those behaviours will yield responses that matter and are useful. In other words, ask the public questions they know the answers to, and stop doing meaningless, useless and wasteful public engagement.


I’m sure most of you have heard someone say that there is no such thing as a dumb question, but I’ve been involved in enough planning questionnaires and surveys to know that isn’t true.

In my city planning questionnaires and surveys are mostly composed of questions where the answer can’t possibly contribute to the plan. Sometimes these questions will be preceded with a statement like there are no right or wrong answers here. Which will be true, because all the answers will be trashed. The only thing that matters to planners who don’t know what they are doing is how many people responded to the question.

The other kind of question is what I call a ‘validation’ question. This is a question meant to validate some preconception the planner has. These things are usually preceded by a preamble which can lead a person well into the wonky weeds of planning concerns, and well away from real issues and real concerns. The questions that follow might test your ability to read and understand the preamble and then direct you to answers which confirm the planner’s opinions or prejudices. Again, your answer won’t contribute to the development of the plan, the plan has already been done. An answer that doesn’t validate a poor planner’s prejudices will simply be ignored.

There is no real way to point out that the questions are irrelevant and the answers require no consideration except in the comment section. I usually fill the comment section with encouraging words. I try to encourage the authors of these surveys to cram their fake surveys into a dark uncomfortable place and leave this city and never come back. I know that sounds mean, but I also know nobody reads the comment section either. Yes, I am old, I’m crotchety and sometimes I just need to vent.

We have to think of any public engagement effort as tools to extend the observational ability of a planner. The point is to identify issues and opportunities associated with the site. There are uses associated with that site we would like to accommodate or encourage, because they are safe, healthy and productive; and there are uses we would like to discourage because they are dangerous, unhealthy and destructive. A planner might be able to do without public engagement if he or she visited the site in question every day for a year or two. Quietly observing how people use the site at different times of the day. Maybe interviewing a few people from time to time. There have been a couple of studies in New York City that involved filming people using public spaces all day over several weeks that gave us some insights into how people tend to use these spaces which gave us insight into what behaviours we need to accommodate. However, seldom does anybody have the time or money to do this amount of observation. Instead the planner can release a survey that asks people how often they visit the site, why they usually visit the site, how far they travel to visit the site, and how they travel to the site. At the very end of the survey you would ask them, is there anything that can be done to the site in question that would make you visit the site more often, or would make your visits more pleasant. If the planner gets, say, 250 responses to such a survey that roughly translates into 250 days the planner doesn’t have to be at the site. People responding to these types of surveys could identify issues and opportunities the planner might have missed.


For the most part we want information on how, when and why people use a particular area of the city. You want to understand their behaviours. From this we can deduce issues and opportunities, points of conflict and develop programs that would allow more people to use the site better. If the respondents return with more of one behaviour and less of another similar behaviour you get a very good idea of how to prioritise which behaviours need to be accommodated. If you ask people to prioritise which behaviour needs to be accommodated you are not going to get as reliable an indicator. Several years ago a city survey asked people what segment of an oceanside walk and bike way would they prefer to develop. The city gave five choices; different parts of the walkway that are undeveloped and fragment the whole shoreline walking and cycling experience. The overwhelming response from the public was in favour of developing the section that was the most expensive and the most technically challenging. To this day the city still doesn’t have the skill set or the money to build this part of the walkway, but they are committed to getting this part of the larger project done first, because they asked a stupid question. So the parts of the walkway for which there is enough money and skill to complete remain undeveloped and the opportunities developing those missing sections remain lost. Even if that larger more difficult section was built there would not be enough money left to fill the other gaps.

One of the difficulties of a survey or other forms of public engagement is they don’t work very well for sites that are not used or are under-used. Naturally a planner would like to see every part of the city used to its fullest potential by a lot of people, but if a site is not used or underused you can’t really ask people why they don’t use it and get a reliable answer. It’s easier to answer an affirmative question. Many years ago the city developed a public space to cover a parkade just off our primary high street. For the most part this space remains empty. We could ask people why they don’t visit this site, but the answers would range from, ‘there are not enough trees’ to, ‘I prefer to spend more time at the city dump.’ Typically, you won’t get very useful answers. But if you ask, why do you visit that street (a neighbouring public space) you will get answers like, ‘I go there to meet my friends, have a coffee or lunch and go shopping.’ In other words you will get a list of behaviours that the street accommodates but the empty space doesn’t and that might give you a clue as to why the space remains empty.

The most prevalent failure of surveys and questionnaires involves asking people questions for which they won’t know the answers too. One of my favourite quotes is from Henry Ford who said something like, ‘If you asked people at the turn of the century (1900) what kind of transportation mode they would prefer the overwhelming response would have been a faster horse.’ If you are asking someone to provide an answer that requires some speculation, if you are asking a question that requires reading a long preamble to the question then you are probably asking a stupid question. Asking people what they would like or prefer isn’t going to give you an answer that you need. Ask instead questions that are likely to illuminate what people know, something about their own experiences and behaviours. It doesn’t hurt to probe, to find out what people might know and then ask questions related to their specific set of experiences, but that is something more for one on one conversations.


These days I only respond to planning questionnaires to get an early indication of how useless the plan will be. Directed questions tell me all I need to know about what has already been decided and whether or not those decisions will actually contribute to the development of the city in the future.

If a survey asks a lot of preamble and a lot of multiple choice questions where the choices are limited and there seems to be a “right” answer you have a plan that will not address issues and opportunities that actually exist. Sometimes planners would like us to believe that an issue needs to be addressed when it doesn’t exist. These non-existent issues are easy to fix. Directed questions can manufacture a problem or they can make a problem disappear: as in, our survey indicated no support for addressing this issue. In these instances, planning becomes a political tool and will not contribute to economic growth.

Recently, our city finished a planning document meant to cover the entire city within a twenty-year time frame. These types of plans are commonly referred to as overall community plans. The good ones will identify issues related to housing, transportation, public health and safety, protecting the environment, public amenities and opportunities related to economic development. Then they will present an ordered array of steps meant to directly address these issues and opportunities over time. A poor overall community plan will have a lot of aspirational messaging to hide a lack of interest in the issues the community needs to address followed by a tepid array of recommendations that usually involve someone else doing something. For example; a good plan would identify ‘car dependency’ as an issue. Car dependency is a condition where it is not possible to do anything without first using a car. We can point out all the issues related to cars, such as, they have a tendency to kill or maim people, they pollute and contribute to global warming, they are inefficient and they require huge subsidies to use; but cars are not a problem planners can address. A better car is a Henry Ford or an Elon Musk kind of problem. The problem of dependency is a planning problem because it forces a behaviour that is unsafe, unhealthy and unproductive. The solution then is to develop attractive alternatives to driving that are safer, healthier and more productive. So the transportation component of a good plan would advocate for ‘walkable neighbourhoods’ and recommend programs that would achieve that. And it would advocate for a complete network of cycle paths to connect neighbourhoods, recommend programs to complete the network as soon as possible and perhaps recommend a standardization of cycle paths as they relate to public health and safety. It would advocate for a transit system that is convenient and attractive enough to encourage people to leave their cars in their garages. Also, a good plan would recommend reducing the amount of public space that is made available to cars by eliminating parking requirements, reducing travel lane widths and making intersections smaller. This is how we develop urban forms to encourage productive behaviours and discourage unproductive behaviour. A bad urban plan, such as the one we have now, would have an introduction trending affirmative urban planning terms without recommending any sort of actions that would achieve these ‘lofty goals. Our plan calls for transitioning to a “doughnut economy.” I kid you not. It’s described in as much detail as is typical of a Tim Horton’s recipe, and you are led to believe that adopting more doughnutty economic policies will solve all our problems. You know a planning document is bad when good old-fashioned Marxist economic theory is starting to look good to you.

So to support the development of our community plan the city released a series of questionnaires that involved very long-winded and very wonky preambles to questions that, at best, could be used to test your ability to read and understand to preamble and, at worst, couldn’t possible return an answer that would contribute to a relevant plan. Because I have OCD tendencies and maybe I am a glutton for punishment I did all the questionnaires at once. It took me almost 8 hours. Mind you, I spent a lot of time writing comments which started out as pointing out how useless the questions were, which evolved into comments about how useless the questionnaire was, which devolved into abusing the authors of the survey for wasting my time. The only thing I got out of the experience was an early indication of just how bad the overall community plan would be. Yea, the plan turned out to be really bad. Another dust catcher that continues the practice of producing meaningless useless planning in this city.

A good survey would have asked questions that allow the planners to know something about your behaviour, Questions like “how do you get to work?” and “how often do you go shopping for food, or for clothing and how do you get there?” and “Are there places in your neighbourhood that you like to walk too?” Without being too invasive you are asking people how and where they behave in public spaces. Then you can ask them if there is anything that can be done to make these spaces better. This type of questioning will yield answers that can actually contribute to a plan by extending a planner's understanding of what is needed to increase the local economy.


If a stakeholder or public engagement effort returns so many responses that they can’t be analyzed, then both the planner’s efforts and the responder’s efforts are wasted. Having a lot of responders can be worse than having not enough responders and asking too many questions can be as bad as asking not enough questions (but still not as bad as asking the wrong questions).

A larger part of the problem is that planners have traditionally relied on architects to advise them on engagement techniques. Architects developed their own engagement techniques mostly because they thought planners were not giving them the kind of information they needed to develop urban designs. This was true, partly because planners don’t know what information architects and urban designers need and partly because architects and urban designers don’t know what they need from planners.

Properly, planners need only provide their observations of human behaviour and some general information on how to accommodate or discourage human behaviours. For example: the planner might note a need to provide a stage to accommodate festival events, other uses for the stage when not being used for festivals and the best location for the stage based on the location of related facilities. All of this would be based on observations related to site use. There are other considerations as well, such as budget and a deadline for completion. That’s the information the architect needs from the planner to start the design process. More often than not a planner will not give the designer the information he or she needs or the planner will bury the information needed in a bunch of junk the designer does not need. Often a designer will waste a lot of time going through plans only to find a few nuggets that place arbitrary limits on what they can design or, worse, tell the designer how to design. For these situations designers have developed their own techniques for public engagement and promote them as suitable for planners.

Unfortunately, these techniques are not suitable for planners. The techniques are best applied in focus groups, design charrettes, or weekend workshops. A group of people, usually between 30 and 60 people, are gathered together for a day or two and given a few tasks related to a design project. These tasks are meant to generate discussion, drawings, ideas and lists of topics. The better ones have a kind of party atmosphere so much so that some people have been promoting these techniques as party icebreakers. These events tend to be fun and invigorating. They also generate a great deal of information in a very short period of time. While that information can be valuable to a designer who has the skills and temperament to process it, it is overwhelming to the ordinary planner. Also, it's the wrong information, because it doesn’t return enough observation of the behaviour of people related to a given site. In fact, it will seldom return anything about even the most obvious behaviours. So the planner doesn’t get the information they need to properly advise the designer and the planning information that would help the designer is either not there or buried in a mountain of data. The information gleaned by the designer can help the development of a design, but the information the designer needs to start the design process is either missing or lost. If the planner is not supplying the information the designer needs, the chances of a successful design are very remote.

My best advice is to keep the planning and design process as distinct as possible. Planning engagement might best take the form of observation, questionnaires and one on one interviews and a few stakeholder meetings. These might not be fun and flashy events but you will be relying on what people have experienced and know, and less on their values, thoughts and opinions. This is the best way to ensure designers get the information they need. Remember, if designers want more than that, they have the techniques to go get it themselves.


When evaluating responses from questionnaires, meetings or interviews a planner needs to establish four piles. If a response describes a behaviour related to the site in question the behaviour can be highlighted and put in the ‘useful’ pile. Sometimes these comments can be quoted in the planning document to reinforce an argument the planner is trying to make. If a comment mentions a behaviour and suggests a form that would accommodate or discourage that behaviour, that can be put in the ‘very useful’ pile. That could send the planner down a path of very productive research. If a comment suggests a behaviour that the respondent would like to see on the site in question that could probably be put on the ‘less useful’ pile. Unless accommodating a novel behaviour can be accommodated by urban form designed to accommodate a needed and actual behaviour don’t spend a lot of time on these comments. Only sometimes you can argue that a form to accommodate a set or pattern of behaviours can also support this new behaviour. The fourth pile would be reserved for responses that don’t involve behaviours that exist on the site, cost too much to support and don’t address a real need can simply be described as “wishful thinking.” Those comments can safely be trashed.

Simply put, a planner wants to use public engagement to extend their view of what happens on the site in question and is open to suggestions that would encourage safe, healthy and productive behaviours and discourage unsafe, unhealthy and destructive behaviours.


Based on my observations, I would say planning fails when we hire the wrong people to do it. In our city it has been proven difficult to hire planners who understand why they are doing what they are doing. With that understanding they would be able to figure out how to do what they were hired to do; engage the public in a meaningful way, and suggest policy and direction that is relevant and doable. By my estimation, this city needs three competent planners, one senior and two juniors. This is less than the current number of planners the city employs, however, good effective, intelligent planning is a lot easier to do than the planning we do now.

This city also needs to retain a senior designer and a design assistant. There would also be a budget to contract out different design projects, but only as the senior designer sees fit. If this puts a strain on the city budget then consider the possibility that we might have too many traffic engineers.

Plans should be able to advise council in a verifiable way on issues and opportunities related to land use and they would provide sufficient information to initiate the design process.

Urban planning involves creating an argument for a more efficient way of doing something. Its objectives include making the city safer, healthier and more productive, and less wasteful. A planner trying to do something other than that or trying to do more than that is just wasting everybody’s time and money.

Some would say that I haven’t considered the “political will” of the city and its politicians. To that I say, that effective planning in other cities has influenced political will. Successful planning initiatives in other cities have given the public confidence in the planning process and the advice of planners. Why is this not happening here?

One of the more salient bits of wisdom I have received from the Strong Towns movement is that progressive shifts in urban development can come from three groups of citizens; a determined and enlightened public, an engaged civil service and a properly informed council. And change requires the alignment of at least two of those three groups. However, in my experience, it is very hard to get an alignment of an enlightened public and informed politicians when a disengaged and incompetent public sector stands between them. Also, it’s fairly easy for a disengaged civil service sector and misinformed politicians to form an alliance to resist a well-meaning and enlightened public initiative or override public response to useless proposals from city staff. While it’s very hard for a concerned public to find a supportive civic sector when the city staff involved in planning are incompetent and disengaged. Planning can easily become a political instrument meant to distribute propaganda or present an illusion that the city is interested in the prospect of improving life in this city. This is fake planning which starts with pretend public engagement and ends with irrelevant or harmful proposals.

I have lived in this city for over 28 years and every year I meet new arrivals who are excited by the potential this city has and are eager to pitch in to help realize that potential. And then I sadly watch that enthusiasm fade as these people get exposed to the unnecessary regulations, irrelevant arguments and ignorant excuses that emanate from our city planners and managers.

I know this sounds like I’m a cranky old codger, and I am, but I’ve just watched the city develop an overall community plan at taxpayer expense that will add nothing to the value of living in the city, and will do nothing to realize the potential of this place. Today our city is about to move a downtown transit exchange for the fourth or fifth time since I moved here. The move will cost several million dollars and will do nothing to improve transit in our city. Also, we are about to spend $160 million dollars to upgrade a public works yard. Both projects have had no significant input from planners or designers and way too much input from the Public Works department. I think our city deserves to realize at least some of our potential and I think we deserve better from our city managers and planners. Also, I know I don’t stand alone in this view.

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