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A Natural Approach to Land Use Planning

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Scott Lazenby
October 21, 2019 

We typically approach urban planning the same way an architect designs a building. Like a blueprint for a structure, the urban form is defined by a comprehensive plan map that shows natural features, land uses, roads and parks and different kinds of boundaries. The map is fairly detailed, often to the level of existing lots.

There are some problems with this. Forecasts of demand for various types of housing turn out to be wrong. The changing economy yields business activities that were never imagined in the plan. Intersections become congested in spite of efforts to get people out of cars. And worst of all, when people see a comp plan map that shows their property targeted with a park, school or arterial road, they take up arms against government’s taking of their property.

But overall, it is a rational, logical approach to creating the kind of future we want to see for our communities.

And it is completely unnatural.

We may refer to DNA as the blueprint of life, but this is wrong. Nature has no blueprints whatsoever. The marvelous complexity and beauty we see in nature—from a finely carved river gorge to the symmetry of a sequoia—is the result of a handful of simple rules.

Take the colors of a calico cat. A planner would assume that the cat’s DNA specifies the color of the fur at each point in the cat’s body. But this isn’t how nature does it. During the cat’s embryonic state, a chemical is released that washes over the body, and it is the chaotic (but not random) pattern of this wash that sets the pigment colors. The same process works for other animals, from cheetahs to zebras.

As a fir tree grows, built-in mechanisms for seeking light and remaining balanced against gravity are some of the simple rules that produce the seemingly random pattern of needles and branches.

Think of some of the human-built places that are vibrant and inviting. The Latin Quarter of Paris or the marketplace in downtown Athens. The sheep-trails-turned-streets of Boston and Brisbane. How do we achieve this feeling of vitality in a planning process? We can try to replicate it through detailed designs that specify everything from streetscape to building materials. But not only is this exhausting and time-consuming and nearly impossible to do; Well, it tends to produce sterility.

And we can’t create livable communities by not planning at all. There are plenty of barren downtowns and lifeless suburbs that happened without much thought, and infrastructure that is woefully inadequate from day one. This isn’t natural either: nature may be chaotic and seemingly random, but nature does have rules and those rules are absolutely critical. To sustain life, a countless number of systems must work, and work well.

Is it possible to apply these principles to city planning? In the abstract, the answer is certainly yes. It isn’t a new idea: a half century ago Lewis Mumford suggested the metaphor of a planner as a gardener, “Selecting the seed, planting in the right soil, with the right exposure, weeding and mulching around the plant; providing it with nutriment the soil may lack; in short, cooperating with nature while seeking to improve its wild forms for human consumption—not looking for perfection in a mechanical substitute, arbitrarily measured and shaped.”

The real challenge is a practical one. Is it possible to identify a small number of simple rules that will result in a pattern of human development that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing? I believe it is; a model comprehensive plan for an entire city, based on simple rules, can fit on less than two pages. What is critical is what this model plan lacks: a map. As in nature, there are an infinite number of ways in which growth and development can unfold. (If you’re interested in a copy of this model plan, contact me at the email address below).

A major benefit of a natural approach to city planning is the unpredictability of it. If variety is the spice of life, allowing variety and surprise in the way our built environment evolves can spice up the life of a society.

A second major benefit is a pragmatic one. We simply aren’t smart enough to optimize the built environment through brute force command-and-control planning. Over and over I’ve seen people react to something they don’t like (an ugly house, a favorite tree cut down or the arrival of a competing business) by slapping on a new complex set of code requirements. And the result is often a disaster, where the medicine causes more harm than the disease.

Development is driven by many forces: economics, demographics, changes in technology and changes in climate or other aspects of the natural environment. A natural, organic approach to guiding development based on a small set of simple rules takes a systems approach to the problem, allowing the pattern of development to seek its own equilibrium, working with rather than against those forces.

Author: Scott Lazenby, PhD, has had a four-decade career in city management, and teaches at the Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University. He is the author of the novels “Playing With Fire” and “State of the City” and the nonfiction “Human Side of Budgeting.” Email [email protected]

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