All things related to Philadelphia2035, our city's Comprehensive Plan

Top Down, Bottom Up…or something in between?

Those who have some understanding of (or personal experience with) the history of urban planning in this country from the last 50 or so years know that we’ve seen the paradigm shift from one of “expert-driven” or “top-down” planning – most often personified by Robert Moses, the New York City change agent who thought nothing of ripping neighborhoods apart for the sake of transformative infrastructure projects. In response to this came Jane Jacobs, a Greenwich Village Denizen whose treatise on cities, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” became something of a bible for folks who recognized the need for a less heavy-handed approach to urban revitalization. Her writings helped articulate many of the planning principles that practitioners still preach today – eyes on the street, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods – and ushered in an era wherein the next Robert Moses could not so easily decide to bulldoze a city landscape without consulting the public.

Note: this picture did not actually happen. Note 2: Jane is the one on the left.

Note: this picture did not actually happen. Note 2: Jane is the one on the left.

To talk about planning as a simple question of Moses v Jacobs is a dangerous proposition. If an overarching goal of planning is to guide decision-making to produce healthy, accessible, functional, successful cities that serve the needs of their residents, then it’s obvious that neither way of thinking has led to total success. Granted, physical planning is not the sole solution to endemic problems of poverty, crime, segregation, disinvestment, and education, but it is a piece of the puzzle, and thus far, one cannot say that the Moses or Jacobs approach has produced the ideal outcome that we’d like to think we collectively share. One could, of course, debate the relative merits of top down and bottom up for a very long time, but we’re not here to do that.

We’re here to say that you should read this piece from the Place Makers website that brings up an important point so often forgotten: a 180-degree shift in the way we approach an entire field/practice/civic exercise is not the way to go. To say that “experts” got it wrong and they should move aside and let communities manage their own destinies, regardless of what data, knowledge, or powers they may or may not possess is no more likely to build the cities we want than when we entrusted all of the decision-making power to lone individuals or autonomous agencies. What we all need to succeed is something in the middle. In case you don’t have time, here’s the best part:

“Expertise is just a tool to be leveraged… And if your community wants safer streets for walking and cycling, or a new park, or some walkable businesses nearby, or aging-in-place solutions embedded in the neighborhood, it’s equally key to seek out whatever expertise you lack — those skilled in transportation or landscape design, commercial development, neighborhood planning or zoning reform — necessary to empower the effort. Not at the expense of citizens but in partnership with them. Not exclusively top-down or bottom up, but both. Such an approach is not disempowering. It’s liberating, because it allows communities to focus on their own expertise — their wants, needs and concerns — while still leveraging the tools necessary for meaningful implementation. Those who believed that top-down planning would save us were wrong. But doing an about-face exclusively in favor of bottom-up — in effect, another 180-degree course correction — is no better.It’s just deja vu all over again.” 

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