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?

9 thoughts on “Should City Planners Let People Kill Themselves?

  1. Dana DeMasterDana DeMaster

    I think there is a balance between these two approaches. They do not need to be in conflict. I am a researcher and program evaluator in human services programs. After 15 years in the field and a Masters degree I like to think I have some knowledge about my subject area, perhaps I am even a technocrat. I imagine traffic engineers feel the same way. So, planning and input from people like me is pretty important.

    That doesn’t mean I know everything. It’s been more than 30 years since I received food stamps and I was a child. Now I am evaluating and planning food stamps services. While I have experience with the program most of it is not relevant today. Someone receiving services now has knowledge and experience that is equally as valid as my professional experience and should have a voice in how services are provided. Other people who live in the community, grocery store owners, food shelf organizers all have important experiences related to food stamps, but maybe not as pressing or as important as that of the recipient.

    As a road user who bikes, drives, takes transit, and walks, I also have important experiences and knowledge. My perspective is important to planning and I may see things a professional engineer misses. However, I am not a transportation planner so I lack that expertise and experience. I also have limited knowledge of things like budgets, priorities within the agency, and laws that may impact the project.

    A good planning process listens (and acts on!) information from community members, while using the expertise of the technocrats. Personally, I think some community members’ experiences should be prioritized over others, specifically those most vulnerable or those most impacted. The food stamp recipient’s experiences are more important than those of a general community member. A person with mobility limitations or a bicyclist (more vulnerable) should be prioritized over a driver who passes through the area.

    Too often I’ve attended meetings and never found out if or how my input was used. Part of reconciling these two approaches is clear communication of how or why input was or was not used. Maybe my great idea can’t be done because of a federal regulation. Maybe my great idea isn’t possible due to budget. If I know those things I can better target my advocacy work and feel respected in the process.

    1. Jason BrissonJason Brisson Post author

      Thanks for your input (as well as your great follow-up article) Dana. I think your suggestion of balance is getting at the heart of the issue. It would be great if we could strike a good balance between top-down and bottom-up in a way that makes sense for the planning project and everyone touched by it. The question then becomes: who is the ultimate judge of the balance? I think when you take things on a case-by-case basis or are more fluid with the process, you introduce an opportunity for bias to creep in. Planners could potentially use a fluid/less-defined process to discount/bury input they don’t agree with and highlight the input they need for support.

      I think it also hurts the city planner profession when there is not a well-defined process people can understand. If people know their opinion will be considered, they see the value in showing up and giving input. If people know their opinion won’t be considered, they will instead use their energy to build opposition to the plan. If they aren’t sure, they don’t know how to proceed. And even worse for people who move geographically. Where does their new planning staff land on this curriculum? This is where I think planning as a profession could benefit from a more structured approach that everyone can agree on and understand.

      Food for thought as I continue to wrestle with this challenging topic.

  2. Monte Castleman

    This is an interesting take on something that’s constantly discussed here- the disconnect in the planning process. Obviously if you invite people that are non-engineers to show up at meetings you at least want to listen to them, however those that show up tend to be grumpy rich people with plenty of time on their hands.

    The Bloomington River Bottoms trails is the key point, right now the community seems overwhelmingly against it, but I suspect it’s only the rich people on $1000 mountain bikes or the people that have time to go down and spend hours watching birds and would be offended at seeing a few feet of pavement that are showing up. Not the people that just want a place to be able to take their family and are probably at work or cooking dinner for the kids during the meetings.

    The Portland meetings were interesting too. Listening to the grumps that complained that a road diet would cause a traffic nightmare (at 3800 AADT) and make it harder to get out of their house, and no one bicycles in Bloomington anyway was hard. But at the same time they had a point when they asked “why did you bother to call this meeting if you’re going to do this anyway without listening to us. Often there’s a disconnect with people with the knowledge vs people with a stake in the community.

    1. Dana DeMasterDana DeMaster

      But, if we did better meetings there wouldn’t just be old, grumpy rich (or at least middle class) people. Just like current traffic isn’t necessarily a good predictor of what could be (no one bikes there so we don’t need bike lanes!), the people who show up to meetings now aren’t a reason to dismiss the input process.

      We need to take meetings to where people actually are, at times when they are there, make spaces family-friendly, have translators at the door greeting people and all materials translated, oh….I could go on. Wait – I have a draft post on this very subject! Maybe I should finish it.

    2. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      I believe when these meetings happen city staff should be very upfront about what they want feedback about.

      Many residents show up with cognitive dissonance “Make this street safer but change nothing about the street and don’t tax me more because gas tax paid it already.”

      I think many of these meetings would work better if there was far more “This is happening, it’s cheaper than rebuilding exactly as it is currently laid out, we want your eyes to catch if we missed any details.”

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    The role of expertise is a double edged sword, but at a certain point, basic safety should trump other concerns (especially congestion). We’re seeing that these days on the arterial county road debates in Saint Paul

  4. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Jason, excellent article.

    I’m not sure how often it’s a case of planners and engineers letting people vote to kill themselves vs planners and engineers needles being moved ever so slightly towards better and safer streets by community participants.

    Traffic engineering in the U.S. is a failed profession. U.S. traffic engineers have produced the most dangerous road system of all developed countries. While there are certainly instances of communities voting for less safe streets I think that overall and overwhelmingly bottom-up has thus far led to much safer streets.

  5. David MarkleDavid Markle

    And then there’s the analogous question of whether the regional government should let local governments lead them by the nose. For example, should the Met Council permit Woodbury et al. to lead us to spend half a billion dollars of our transit funds on a questionable dedicated route busway–the Gold Line–for the purpose of promoting local development rather than improving regional transit.

  6. Andrew Andrusko

    Urban planning as a profession has different perspectives and practices in different geographic areas. Some like Frank Othengrafen call this ‘planning cultures’. The approach to professional planning practice is not a dichotomy of bottom-up or top-down. Participatory vs Centralized. There are a lot of models out there, and, in general questions of professional ethics are a topic of debate. If we asked the same series of questions to members of the AICP, RTPI, CIP (professional institutes in different countries) you would likely receive different answers. The American Institute of Certified Planners has a code of ethics which includes a primary criterion that professional planners (e.g. certified members) should be concerned with the public health, well-being and safety. Historically these are the reasons why civil engineers are licensed and why the government allows for the police power to plan, zone and restrict land uses. What those terms mean to people can be very different and that is the crux of this discussion.

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