Should City Planners Let People Kill Themselves?

This question is implied or encroached upon in nearly every modern planning conversation, but is not as often discussed directly. I think we should acknowledge it and talk about it openly. I will discuss this question in the context of the model city planners refer to as “bottom-up” city planning, give an example and then briefly end with the additional questions it raises about the role of planners in the planning process.

Most city planners were told this tale at bedtime every night of their childhood; for everyone else, let’s get on equal footing with a story:

Top-down” city planning is a planning model famously utilized by Robert Moses (among others) in the early half of the 20th Century. Generally, in top-down city planning, city planners have the authority to implement their vision for the city as they see fit and residents have little input in the process unless they form a resistance to fight city hall (and win). Not surprisingly, putting control of the city’s future largely in the hands of one person (who has been popularly criticized as having racist tendencies, among other alleged nefarious traits) had some significant negative impacts. In 1961, our story’s hero Jane Jacobs publishes a scathing criticism of top-down city planning titled The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In her book, she recounts the negative effects of top-down city planning and from her ideas a new model of city planning emerges, now referred to as “bottom-up” city planning. Generally, in bottom-up city planning, residents and community members have influence throughout the planning process and can help guide its resulting recommendations. Jacobs ideas are (with time) largely embraced by the planning community and she is now celebrated by many (myself included) as one of the greatest minds in the field of professional planning (I’m taking phenomenal liberties here, for brevity). That is about the time the city planner’s parent gives them a kiss on the forehead and turns out the light. If you want a better treatment of this story by someone who is more knowledgeable on the subject, may I humbly suggest Jeanette Sadik-Kahn’s book Streetfight ( review here).

To be sure, I personally believe that bottom-up planning is one of the great revolutions in the profession of city planning. That said, the field of city planning is ever-evolving and there is no reason to believe the bottom-up model cannot continue to be refined, modified or improved upon. To illustrate why modifying or improving upon the bottom-up model could be beneficial for both planners and communities, let’s consider a scenario that I’ve witnessed (personally and from afar) again and again:

In a community, needed roadway improvements are a chance to engage the community and make decisions about what the newly rebuilt roadway should look like. A full road reconstruction is a unique opportunity to redesign the roadway based on historical data and scientific research (with infrastructure funding being what it is, it may be another 10 or more years before any major changes can again be made to the roadway). Let’s consider an example roadway where traffic fatalities have occurred due to conflicts between motorized and non-motorized traffic. A new roadway design is proposed containing elements that have been scientifically shown to reduce serious injuries and fatalities caused by conflicts between motorized and non-motorized traffic. A low-cost, temporary project featuring the new design element may even be utilized on the roadway and show a reduction in traffic conflicts during the time it is operational. To determine the final design of the roadway, the bottom-up planning process (where the entire community is engaged in the planning process and a consensus is reached of how to proceed) is utilized. The resulting community consensus is to reject the proposed new safety elements and rebuild the roadway in the exact same manner as before the rebuild. Thus, preventable traffic deaths will invariably continue to occur on this roadway until changes are made to reduce them. In this case, community members have made a decision that will result in their death or the deaths of other community members.

In this example, the bottom-up planning model was successfully utilized and the community ultimately made a decision that will invariably result in preventable serious injuries or deaths (or both) of their community members. Some community members may have voted (and fought) for safety improvements, lost, and end up being killed as a result. Other community members may end up causing their own death by voting against the very improvement that may have saved their life or the life of a loved one. This frustrating result arises from the ideology of the bottom-up planning model.

That is not to say that the bottom-up planning model isn’t superior to the top-down model in this instance. Even though the community ultimately chose to support less safe infrastructure, there were likely many factors involved and the perceived safety benefits were presumably outweighed by other factors. And for the planning profession, this is helpful from a PR standpoint. The new roadway will facilitate unnecessary deaths, but the community made that decision for themselves. Should city planners be satisfied with letting people make the decision to kill themselves because it is better than when they made it for them? What role should planners have in stopping the killing?

There are separate and additional challenges that arise during the implementation of the process that only compound matters. In an unfortunate but common instance of this process, influential local businesses use their political power to advance their opinion that the loss of street parking for biking or walking infrastructure will hurt their business economically, even though it has been shown that in addition to saving lives, walking and bicycling investments result in increased property values and economic development. This is a case where one of the common challenges of bottom-up planning implementation (political power) has allowed an unfounded opinion to prioritize money over human life, in which money and human life are both lost as a result. Any planning process that allows unfounded opinions about money to outweigh scientifically proven costs of human life has left some room for improvement.

A full treatment of the strategies that businesses and planners can (and do) use to compromise the integrity of the purely bottom-up planning process are outside of the scope of this article, as are proposed solutions to modify or improve upon the bottom-up planning process (although I will discuss these both in future posts). I will, however, conclude with some questions that arise while discussing both of those subjects:

  • Should city planners let communities make decisions that research has shown will invariably result in their deaths?
  • Do planners have some professional responsibility to prevent death or serious injury?
  • Does the current planning process successfully engage and genuinely consider the input of all stakeholders?
  • If not, how do we ensure that residential community members are given equal influence in the planning process as local businesses that significantly contribute to the local economy?
  • Should the safety engineering planning process be separate or different from other planning processes?
  • Should there be some baseline biking or walking infrastructure required on roadways?
  • How should facts and opinions be weighed?
  • How should safety considerations and economic considerations be weighed?
  • How should the planning process proceed if critical stakeholders are not engaged in the process?
  • How much of the planning process should focus on educating the community?
  • What role should the planner’s professional understanding play in the process?